Friday, January 31, 2014

Worship notes: humility, hospitality and hope part one...

NOTE: Throughout February and March, our congregation will be preparing to celebrate our 250th anniversary. I will be reflecting on our history in the light of three contemporary commitments to humility, hospitality and hope.  This is the first in a series and takes place before we meet for our annual meeting on February 2, 2014.
Today we gather to celebrate a unique way of being Christ’s faithful servants together.  More than a mere business assembly or bureaucratic necessity, the occasion of our annual meeting is actually a time to return thanks to God and renew our sacred vows in a manner not unlike that once advocated by the prophet Micah.  For 250 years, this congregation has wrestled with the call of the ancient prophet who once asked Israel:  What does the Lord require of you? And like our spiritual forbearers, generation after generation finds us returning to the prophetic reply: the Lord calls us to do justice, to love mercy and to walk in humility with our God.

·   You see, in the Congregational Way we are a pilgrim people of prayer dedicated to loving God and caring for one another with compassion because we have discerned that doing one without the other is dangerous. Without a commitment to a love and power greater than ourselves, we know that human beings can become cruel and mean-spirited; yet without an allegiance to one another in community, we’ve seen our religions descend into self-absorbed navel gazing, superstition and scape-goating.

·   That is why our tradition keeps returning to the paradoxical promise of the prophet who taught us that what the Lord requires in every generation is to do justice in the real world, love and practice mercy and compassion in the midst of imperfect people who are just as beautiful and wounded as ourselves and walk in the way of the Lord with humility. President Obama, who comes out of our own Congregational tradition, put it like this in his recent interview in The New Yorker when asked about how he frames making decisions that will impact millions of lives:

I have strengths and weaknesses, like every President and every person… I am comfortable with complexity and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am the product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent and that there’s going to tragedy out there, too… I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past, but we also inherit the beauty and the joy and the goodness of our forebears, too.

In other words, as people of faith we live and move and act in this world – doing justice and loving compassion – but always through the lens of humility.  And that’s what I want to call your attention to this morning as we prepare for our annual meeting:  humility. 

·   It is the foundation upon which the best of our tradition is constructed. It is the essential spiritual commitment for anyone engaged in the work of social justice. And it is God’s gift to people like you and me that serves as sacred safeguard against becoming windbags and bullies. As the ancient masters used to say: Humility is a teacher – it is learned by practice – and if you cannot practice it, you cannot learn it.

Some of you know that last week I took an unplanned week of vacation to visit a friend who is moving closer to death back in Tucson, AZ.  Given the arctic air that engulfed most of America it was an excellent time to be away in the sunny Southwest. But before we could escape the cold – or even return to it again – we had to endure flight cancellations, delays, frozen water pipes on the planes and all the rest.  And the only reason I mention this is that it gave me a lot of time to think – and pray – about today and our upcoming year in ministry.

·  We have some important work to do together this year:  work that involves building bridges with new allies throughout this community – work that asks us to serve as partners rather than leaders – work that helps repair some of the wounds of racism and bigotry that we ourselves once brought to birth hundreds of years ago when our ancestors acted more like plantation owners than servants of the Lord – work that will stretch and challenge us beyond our wildest imagination.

·   And the only way we will be able to rise to the occasion is if we are saturated in humility.  I’ve come to think that over the next few years our work might best be described as a journey into humility, hospitality and hope.  And while I’ll be talking about each of these commitments over the next few weeks as we prepare for our 250th anniversary celebration, I am more and more convinced that our works of justice and compassion will fail unless we revisit and renew our dedication to what it means to walk with the Lord in humility.

Let’s be honest: humility is NOT a virtue in popular culture.  “The ancient, favorable sense of the word – connoting mildness, modesty, patience of spirit and the willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe – has been eroded in the modern era by unfavorable interpretations in which “lowly” calls to mind servility and self-abasement, “meek” is equated with cowardly submissiveness and “mildness” is interpreted as blandness – plain vanilla ice cream in a freezer crowded with Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and Swiss Almond Pralines.” (Ernest Kurtz, Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 186)

But here’s the truth about humility –etymologically and biblically – humility is all about being earthy, real and balanced.  Did you know that the words humility, humor and human all have the same root?  They come “from the Indo-European ghom that is best translated into English as… humus.”

·   And who knows what humus is?  According to the dictionary, “humus is a brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant and animal matter.” It is the garbage that makes our soil fertile and the junk that enriches our lives.  It is what we throw away and often overlook but is mixed-up into the very source of life.

·  To practice authentic humility, you see, is to be fully human; filled with a sense of humor about ourselves and a sense of balance about our own goodness and sin.

That’s what Jesus was telling us in the first Beatitude. Traditionally we read it as Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And while that is correct, it isn’t earthy enough. I prefer Peterson’s reworking: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope because with less of you there is more of God and his rule.”  Humility is about trusting God more than self – it is about getting rid of some of our junk so there’s more space for grace – and most of us don’t come by such trust automatically.  
And the reason why we don’t make space for grace is because we think we are special... We might be special losers or special winners – we might believe our pain is unique and nobody understands us – or we might believe that we really do have a monopoly upon wisdom and no one else is as smart, beautiful, handsome, thrifty, brave, clean or reverent as we ourselves.  But the fact of the matter is we are NOT special, not really.  We are all just a funky combination of wisdom and ignorance, hope and despair, wounds and gifts, sinner and saint.

·   And most of us learn this only by being knocked down a peg or two, right?  It could be an addiction, it could be a divorce. Sometimes it takes being fired or waking up to discover ourselves alone and unloved.

·   All too often, you see, there is a strange and even mystical relationship between walking in the humility of the Lord and being humiliated.  We hate to know that in our essence we are just like everybody else – created out of the dust and dirt of the earth, the humus, as the Bible tells us – all of us, every one.

And so we keep stumbling and failing, hurting one another and ourselves until we’re ready to practice humility:  what’s more, we can’t really DO justice or LOVE compassion until we are humbled.  Without being emptied of our hubris, we’re just too full of ourselves and there’s no space for God’s grace.  And without grace, there is just no joy in our living.  One of my favorite stories from the realm of mystical Islam puts it like this:  Mullah Nasrudin was sitting in a tea shop when a friend came in excitedly to speak with him.

"I'm about to get married, Mulla," his friend stated, "and I'm very excited. So tell me have you ever thought of marriage yourself?" Nasrudin replied, "I did think of getting married. In my youth in fact I very much wanted to do so. I waited to find for myself the perfect woman. I traveled everywhere looking for her, first to Damascus. There I met a beautiful woman who was gracious, kind and deeply spiritual, but she had no worldly knowledge. So I left and went to Bagdad where I met a woman who as both spiritual and worldly, so beautiful in many ways, but we did not communicate well. Finally I went to Cairo and there after much searching I found her. She was spiritually deep, graceful and beautiful in every respect: at home, in the world and at home in the realms beyond it. In her I felt I had found the perfect woman." At which point Nasrudin stated to sip his tea again. Perplexed his friend asked: "Did you not then marry her, Mulla?" "Alas," said Nasrudin shaking his head, "no, for it seems as if she waiting for the perfect man."

Over the course of our history as a congregation, the prophet Micah’s admonition to humility keeps popping up.  It appears in sermons, mission statements and a variety of our covenants. Sometimes we have listened well – and the whole of Pittsfield has been blessed. But there have been other times when like ancient Israel we’ve said the right words and offered up our various extravagant sacrifices, but have not done so with humility and justice and compassion have been sacrificed to pride, status and stubbornness.

That’s why I think a careful reading of this text is in order as part of our 250th anniversary. Because if we are paying attention, we might discover that God’s invitation to do justice and love mercy comes out of the Lord’s own practice of humility. In this passage God is not angry with Israel’s arrogance or vengeful about their sins:  God is heart-broken.  And like a grieving mother or father before a cocky but cherished adolescent, God begins a dialogue with Israel.  Did you hear that? A dialogue not a sermon or a lecture – a conversation – and it is based upon the people’s complaints about God’s expectations about the way compassionate people should live in the real world.

·   Throughout chapter six of Micah God LISTENS to the complaints and concerns of the people.  God doesn’t dismiss their problems or confusion, but takes them in and honors them even when they are offensive.  And then the Lord offers a clear reply about why the children of Israel ought to be appreciative even when their lives have been hard.

·   That is God revisits the high points of Israel’s history – the saving acts of the Lord – beginning with their exodus from slavery and climaxing with their entry into the Promised Land. Remember your REAL history God says to the people – recall the depth of my love and the breadth of my justice – and your only response can be… humility.

And just so that there can be no ambiguity, God goes on to tell the people that humility takes the shape of compassion between individuals and right relations and justice in society.  Look at our history together says the Lord and KNOW that it is grounded in making flesh the gracious and life-giving practice of humility. Today we are in a place where we need to not only remember this truth, but recommit to it, too.  You are blessed when you’re at the end of your rope because with less of you there is more of God and his rule.”  Lord, may it be true for us this day by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Thursday, January 30, 2014

What does the Lord require...

It is a humbling and beautiful experience to visit loved ones - especially
as they move closer to death. We had the honor to reconnect with our dear friends last week in Tucson and I am deeply grateful for their tender welcome: in some ways, it felt like we had never left and it has been seven years. So while I am likely to share deeper reflections about all of this in the days to come, tonight I am aware of a few things that became clearer to me during our recent sojourn in the desert.

First, no matter how active I am, most of the time I cannot change most of the facts of my life. To be sure, there is always an element of free choice in each encounter; in this I have a measure of control to exercise for good or evil. Cumulatively, these small choices add up and come to define both my heart and the content of my soul. But in the moment they often seem small and insignificant. Small wonder that in the rush of my quotidian commitments, it is all too easy to opt out of compassion or take a pass on love in order to simply get the job done and move on to the next task. God knows I've done that all too often.

The problem with taking a pass when it comes to small acts of love is that over the course of a lifetime these small lapses start to shape the contour of your truest self. Grace is always available, but cutting corners on compassion causes us to wake up one morning only to discover that we hate who we've become. In a tender way, this trip reminded me that at the end of each day all I really have to offer another is my time and love.  And if I choose to avoid doing this - if I avoid going deeper and postpone the risks and inconveniences of love - slowly I  start to shrink and wither away. "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much." (Luke 16:10) 

Second, this trip underscored in a whole new way for me that life is all too
short and precious, so why not savor and celebrate fully the blessings that have been so freely shared? Sometimes during this past week, it was an old story that made me laugh until I cried, other times it was sitting at a banquet table and lingering over good food and wine with sweet friends. From time to time it involved the common prayer of our tears or just sitting together in the silence of a love that will always be greater than our words. 

We may not be able to change much in life, but we can touch one another profoundly. And strangely, when we give ourselves over to this gift of love, something sacred happens and what once seemed so small and even insignificant becomes food for the journey. I don't know why this is true. I don't understand how sharing tears or laughter or holding one another's hands in the silence is enough to face our deepest fears and shame, but it is.  Over and over, after the stories and feasting was done and the laughter and tears were finished, all we could say to one another was "thank you." I kept thinking, "For what? For sitting here? For being incoherent and heart-broken? For loving you so deeply that my head aches and my mind has shut down?"
I guess... because all we could say was thank you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for sharing love. Thank you for opening your house to us. Thank you for cooking this meal. Thank you for weeping with us. Thank you for all the joy and sorrow we have shared over so many years. And so much more, yes? And all we could say was thank you.

This was a humbling and holy time. Now that we are home - and have our sweet puppy Lucie back with us (thank you John and Lauryn for caring and loving her as your own) - I am letting all of it wash over me in thanksgiving. I was humbled this week by the love my friends shared with us and humbled by my inadequacy in the face of their pain. I was humbled by the blessings opened to me in all of our experiences and humbled, too by God's grace breaking out in the most ordinary places and events. 

One of the texts for this week is Micah 6:8: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love compassion and walk humbly with your God. My hunch is that the practice of humility is the key to becoming an agent of God's justice and compassion. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Blogging sabbatical...

We are off to be with loved ones - and I will not be blogging during this time - a blogging sabbatical if you will.  See you in about a week.

Owning our bullshit part two...

Here are a few other truths I've learned about owning our own bullshit as a part of the church: 

+ First, clergy like everyone else, hate to be at fault so we're quick to blame circumstance, other people or our historic wounds when we create a problem. That is normal, ok? It doesn't mean you are a wicked person nor does it mean that you are any more a sinner than anyone else. What we have to do, however, is not give in to denial but quickly own what is our fault - and then just as quickly ask God and the aggrieved other for forgiveness. As people of faith we do not simply offer an apology. That would be self-centered and complete bullshit. Rather with humility and honesty, we ask to be forgiven as Jesus taught us in the Lord's Prayer. Then we give ourselves over to grace and the hard work of re-earning their trust. 
+ Second, many of the times when we clergy (or church professionals) sense or feel that we have been the source of a problem, it is simply not true. Over the years, for example, when members of the community go AWOL, when pledges are down or an event tanks, my first reaction is to ask: what did I do that was wrong? What I've now learned to do is take the next step and wait. Be still, the Psalmist says, and know that I am God. When I wait - and trust - and do not give in to fretting (my particular failing) what usually happens is that I discover either there really wasn't a problem at all or it had nothing to do with me. (Fretting,I've discovered, is the shadow side of being self-absorbed.) Time and again, if I hold off reacting I am shown that what I sensed was a problem was just my own bullshit messing with me once again. In an upside-down and inverted way I have had to learn that "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless." (James 1:26)
+ Third, while most members of a congregation grasp this, there are always a few people who fail to understand that the church - or the clergy - cannot fix their problems. God can - but most of the time we are called to carry some of our burdens as a cross and learn how to be alive, loving and real under the strain. MLK once said something like because God gave him a brain to figure things out and strength to carry the load he must never believe that the Lord is going to do our work for us. Yes, in an emergency, churches can rally to help build a bridge back to normalcy for hurting people. We can bring meals, clean houses, put on bandages, do the laundry, sit and hold your hand - but only for a short time. It is total bullshit to want the congregation - or the pastor - to be your friend, to take away your loneliness, to organize your check book, to make your family love you and on and on and on. 

Once about 20 years ago, I was complaining to a wise old clergyman about some of the issues that were frustrating me as a young minister. "I have a lot of old people in my church, many of whom want me to visit them more than I can. And when I don't come often enough, they complain to my church council." He smiled, shook his head and said, "That's bullshit - and you need to tell them that while you love them they need to get a life. You were NOT called by God to take away their loneliness. If they don't have any friends, ask them why?" And then he said something that was clarifying: "You could visit them every week and that still wouldn't be enough because they are empty inside. And it isn't your job to fill them, ok?"

+ Fourth do NOT give in to triangulation - on any level in the church - it is always bullshit. If people complain to others about you, insist that they bring it to your face and tell you in person. Refuse to open anonymous letters or email. Teach your leaders not to give in to gossip or triangulation either because it is deadly. How did Jesus put it about conflict in the community in Matthew 18? 

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Not everyone will do this, but if we don't insist upon this behavior from our leaders and allies in a church, the bullshit will overwhelm you - and you have no one to blame but yourself.

+ And fifth, without a loving but essentially neutral confessor or confidant, we are likely to delude ourselves from facing and owning our shadow. Not only is that professionally unhealthy, it makes us prisoners of the bullshit. "If we always do what we've always done, then we'll always get what we've always got." I like the old saying that "even the Pope has a confessor." All of us - clergy and laity - need the wisdom and perspective of someone who loves us enough to tell us the truth. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Let's own our own bullshit...

Yesterday, during worship, I told the story of a young woman who found herself joining us on Sunday mornings. Over time, she joined us more regularly until she decided to check out our orientation series. At the second meeting, after I shared the congregation's commitment to living into our Open and Affirming discipline she interrupted me by saying:  "Bullshit.  You guys are nice people but what you are saying is really bullshit. NO church really welcomes gay people... or recovering addicts... or those on the fringe. You may WANT to, but you don't really do it, ok? So knock off the bullshit."

Two things: I think she was mostly right - most congregations DON'T really want to go beyond the idea of being Open and Affirming - so we do a lousy job of making our words and ideas flesh; and, I think many people believe their wounds are unique. They all HURT, don't get me wrong, but my deepest suspicion is we ALL hurt, almost ALL of us are wounded and NO BODY'S pain makes them special. In fact, sometimes we act like our pain is a privilege that gives us permission to become cynical. No, I'm with the apostle Paul on this one:  ALL of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Now being charged with bullshit is not the worst thing in the world. In fact, it created - and creates - and opportunity to say: That may be true but you'll never know if you keep judging us from the sidelines. So rather than live like a sniper, why not come around and check it out? If you are right after a few months, you will know it. And if you are wrong then you'll know that, too. Why not put your money where your mouth is? (In my heart of hearts I wanted to say, "because anything less is bullshit, too" but I'm the pastor, right?) So we sat around the conference table in silence for a while and then she said, "Ok, let's wait and see." And I responded, "No sniping - just come around enough to see if we're really trying, ok? I can tell you right now we won't get it right all of the time. But see what the evidence is after spending some real time with us before your final judgment."  She did - for a few months she not only came to worship but also some of our small group times and public events - and later that year on Easter she became a member.

I recall saying something similar a few years earlier to a man who became a dear friend - a smokin' musician who taught me tons and helped me think through parts of my dissertation, too - when he asked something like, "What kind of church is this?" Why don't you just come around for a while and see - so he did - and eventually brought the whole family, too. And they are still around. To be sure, there is always SOME bullshit in any congregation. But if there is a critical balance of believers wrestling with the gospel and trying to make radical hospitality flesh, grace is palpable. What's more, when you experience a community striving to be people grounded in grace, you not only cut them a little slack but you also detect how your OWN bullshit gets in the way, too. In fact, I've found that you quit blaming others for the bullshit you can't fix in yourself.
Well, I told that story yesterday because as part of our Epiphany spirituality we are trying to discern places where Christ is popping up in our world, lives and hearts. And the essence of my message was this: if you really want to stay connected with God's peace, you MUST make time for quiet and reflection almost every day. Now that has been a mantra for years - and probably some people are tired of me saying it out loud - but the truth is without regular reflection and silence we can not stay grounded and will come to mistrust the efficacy of God's grace. I can't tell you how many people tell me, "Damn, I am so stressed out!" And when I ask have they made room for quiet reflection in their life, they get frustrated like I just don't know how truly busy they are. But I do - I'm busy and wounded and perplexed, too - and without quiet reflection and rest, it gets worse. 

A curious parallel popped up during the MLK worship later the same day when one of our state legislators said:  If you don't VOTE, you can't complain because to elected officials YOU DON'T COUNT! Well, I thought to myself, same thing is true about prayer and meditation: if you don't take time to rest in God's grace, you can't complain because you are not doing your part. Not that you don't count to God, but we already have been given all the time there is so we are responsible for making better choices. And if we don't, there's NO room or place for carping. And we best not make excuses for the bullshit we try to dump on God. If we're stressed-out and haven't spent time in prayer... time has come to look in the mirror.

Fr. Richard Rohr made a similar point in his email reflection this morning: 

Simone Weil, the marvellous French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist, stood on the edge of Christianity her whole life, between Judaism and Christianity, wanting her very life to be a bridge. She loved both of them and couldn’t choose either of them. She believed that the trouble with Christianity was that it had made itself into a separate religion instead of recognizing that the prophetic message of Jesus might just be necessary for all religions. We were not to be in competition with other religions, but rather to be complementary to their message.

I encourage you not to abandon your own mother tradition; that is where your deepest religious consciousness was first formed, and you have to be surrendered and accountable in one concrete place, as even the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa both insist. Otherwise your ego self is always the decider, and you operate as a loner. You must have a home base that holds you accountable for what you say you believe and a concrete community that every day reminds you that you still do not know how to love. You have to go deep in one place. When you do, you fall into the underground stream that we all share.
Apparently I'm in a "trip-hop" groove these days as I listen to Portishead and Cinematic Orchestra.  Go deep - quit relying on your ego that insists your special - that's the real bullshit. The better way is to take the time to be still.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Opening the door on MLK day...

Today members of my congregation - First Church of Christ in Pittsfield - joined with Second Congregational Church of Pittsfield and a variety of other local officials and clergy to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It was a day of special significance - for me personally - and for both congregations.

First the personal:  when I was 11 years old, I watched the first March on Washington. My grandmother's friend and pastor was attending and I was drawn to both the music and the message. Long before anyone else in my house was stirring, I was up and glued to the tv screen. My young children and I participated in the 25th Anniversary March on Washington and just last summer I listened to the 50th Anniversary on NPR as we returned home from vacation.  
This isn't so special, right? I suspect LOTS of liberal white kids could tell the same story. What takes it deeper for me, is that while my church youth group was practicing for our 225th anniversary celebration - learning "O Happy Day" of all songs - the news of the assassination of Dr. King hit the airwaves. It was a Thursday @ 6:01 pm. We were in the balcony at First Congregational Church of Darien, CT in rehearsal for a celebration that would take place later that summer. I still remember one of my class mates - a girl I went through confirmation with - turning and saying to me with a cruel sneer, "How do you feel now that your nigger got what he deserved?" No shit - that's what she said to me - in the balcony of the church.

I know I was stunned - and probably too sick with grief to speak. What takes this deeper for me, of course, is that later that summer our youth group made a "mission caravan" trip throughout the US and wound up in Washington, DC just a few weeks before the Poor People's Convention that Dr. King had been working on before his death. It was during this trip that I sensed my call to ministry - and articulated it out loud after listening to Aretha's liberation song: THINK!
Cut ahead 50 years and I am sitting in Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield. Now 168 years ago, the Black members of First Church came to the realization that they could no longer tolerate being treated as second class citizens in the Body of Christ.  The wife of Pastor John Todd apparently would not take Holy Communion from the same cup as African American members. So, in 1846 seven Black members left their segregated seats in the First Church balcony to form what later became Second Congregational Church. The first African American minister in the Berkshires, Samuel Harrison, was called and ordained in 1850.

I was asked to bring a brief reflection to today's gathering based upon Dr. King's final book:  Where Do We Go from Here? My undergraduate thesis was based upon Dr. King's work - and most of my public ministry has been shaped by his wisdom and challenge. So, it was clear to me that today we had to publicly ask the people of Second Congregational Church for forgiveness. We had to own our sin, ask for forgiveness and pledge to explore a way of rebuilding trust and love. It was a humbling and sacred time.

Afterwards, their pastor and I talked about ways we might begin to get to know one another again - personally as well as in our congregations. We'll be a part of our respective anniversaries this year. We'll bring music to one another's festivities and set up a way to start meeting more regularly with one another, too. We have much work to do re: justice and poverty. And, given our 168 years of separation there is a whole lot of prayer to share as we find new ways of being in solidarity. In so many ways, it was a holy and powerful time for us all and I give thanks to MLK that the door was opened.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Along the way...

Many things to get ready before we depart for Tucson... not the least of which is a wedding this afternoon.  It will be a joyful celebration of both God's grace and human love all wrapped together. The two young women have become dear to my heart and I pray blessings upon them today - and always.

We awoke to a snow surprise - and Di made this collage that captures the beauty. I love it - and now off to the ceremony!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The old, grey-haired preacher on a sabbath morning...

In early autumn, Di gave me a volume of poetry by Mark Halperin: Falling through the Music. One reviewer noted that "the mood of Halperin's new poems is autumnal and elegiac, yet the effect of his book is surprisingly bracing... (he is) a wryly unjudgmental observer of human folly." Another writer notes that this "is a book about high middle age when entropy, mortality and overall decline cease to be rumor and feel more or less like the beginning of something that, for all its fear and sadness, promised to be fundamentally interesting." In other words, this is a collection of poetry for... me!

When I was in seminary, my mentor used to jokingly refer to himself in

the third person saying, "Well, the old grey-haired preacher thinks that people will never really change... or the weary grey-haired preacher simply doesn't have any energy for that kind of bullshit any more." I used to wonder what it would feel like to look at yourself in the mirror and speak of yourself as "the old grey-haired preacher." And then one morning about three years ago, I woke up and I knew. It hit me again yesterday as I was trimming my beard and trying to make my new hair cut work without the necessary product. Somewhere along the way, I had become that old grey-haired preacher - and I rather like it.

Halperin puts it like this in a poem called "On Certainty."

Maybe certainty is growing old

all at once, finding you stand on ice
think enough to support you. The cold
cracks beneath, or maybe it's only lies.

Think of the sick man, the accident victim

at that moment when he knows
clearly there is no saving him -
his, the certainty you crave. Suppose,

unwittingly, we just go on mixing hope

with understanding, until the horizon
shrinks to a point, or a sing note
blots the rest out, and we've nothing to pick from.

Doesn't it fit the endings we intuit -

of innocence, of love - their calm
extent, the almost infinite
flatness they leave us going on and on?

Later today I will lead a young wedding party through a rehearsal in anticipation of tomorrow's ceremony. Both women are young, tender and so much in love. I have come to care for them both deeply as we've spent the better part of the last year in conversation and prayer. There is an energy in the best wedding rehearsal that is precious in the deepest understanding of the word: sacred and beyond price. And it does this old grey-haired preacher's soul good to spend time with young couples like this - not because I want to go backwards and pretend I am something I'm not - but rather because at this stage of the game I know we need one another. How did St. Paul put it: when I was a child I thought like a child, spoke like a child and acted like a child. But now I have put childish things away... for now we see as through a glass darkly?

When I was a young preacher I thought I knew how to reform the church. I thought I knew what was broken in society and could make a dent in suffering, too. At some point, however, I realized that I could barely change myself. So while I never quit engaging the principalities and powers that break and wound us all, my sense of what I might accomplish took on a more humble patina. Truth be told, I found that the self-deprecating perspective of the Bible's wisdom literature helped keep me engaged more than the latest liberal rant. Again the apostle Paul seemed as if he were reading my mail (and email!)

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

A few years ago, I purchased an anthology of the poems of Scott Cairns

called Compass of Affection: poems new and selected and found his earlier poetry more to my liking than his later works. They were witty, ironic and spoke of finding grace in the most ordinary and broken conditions. But as the years have ripened I have discovered a growing appreciation for his later works. And while they are clearly more overtly theological, they now seem to speak to my reality in ways I had never expected. Cairns' poem "In Reference to His Annunciation" cuts to the chase:

I am sorry for your ancient

     pain, and for your more
contemporary suffering
     which extends impossibly
beyond my knowing.
     I stand chagrined by the brittle
edge our common history
     has honed upon your vision,
and by the way this long
     and righteous rage has served to chill
certain human sympathies.
     Our wretched circumstance
has left you - not for nothing -
     with so little pleasure
in the pulse of those around you.
     And if these words
bear now a trace of censure,
     forgive me all the more.
I have no agency to apprehend
     the world's appearance
before your burning eyes.
     I am most sorry for the tin
taste of righteousness,
     self-assigned, which can taint
the purest waters, and
     - it would appear - nearly any cup.

There is so much pain - and so little we can do about it. And still when I woke up from my late afternoon nap yesterday (which I find more and more satisfying) my puppy was snuggled up against my arm fast asleep.  And in that moment, like the late Lou Reed before me, I thought, "Life is good... but not always fair."  Onward to the wedding rehearsal.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Grace trumps karma...

I knew intuitively that once we started to explore this year's artistic and theological emphasis for Good Friday - GRACE trumps KARMA - more and more clues would arrive to challenge or confirm this work. So today, Fr. Richard Rohr, put it like this:

The morality of a mystic is a response to union, not an earning of union. Once you've experienced that you’re one with God and your neighbor, why would you steal from him and make his life more difficult? Once you've experienced union with your neighbor, why would you lie to him? Or steal his wife? Of course you wouldn't.

But most of us think backwards, “If I don’t lie, God will like me.” No, you’ll like yourself more! God likes you already. That problem is solved once and for all and forever. That’s what every mystic enjoys at ever fuller levels—that you know that you’re loved ahead of time, before death, and unconditionally. 

And that’s why mystics are happy people. In fact, if they’re not happy, they’re not mystics. If he or she is a “sourpuss” (Pope Francis’ word!), you know that person is still playing the moral game, which is mostly about willpower, leading to constant failure and disappointment with the self.
Earlier in the week I put it like this to my musical team:

I know it is well before Lent, and some are still recovering from Christmas and/or New Year's Day, but we've started a creative process for a new experimental liturgy for this year's Good Friday worship.  Here is the basic premise:  God's loving grace is greater than all of our sin - that is what Easter celebrates.  So what I want to explore through narrative, song, silence and symbol is how this truth is misunderstood - first by those in the biblical story - but also by many contemporary people. Those outside of the church often think that Christianity is all about judgement: it is not and that is one misunderstanding.  Many of those inside the church act like if they just try hard enough to be good, God will reward them.  Wrong and that too is a misunderstanding. For our reward is never based upon what we do, think or say; it is ALL a gift from God.  And that is misunderstood on so many levels.

So, I'm thinking the organizing song is "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" as interpreted by either Nina Simone, Cyndi Lauper and/or Yusuf Islam. It could be Jesus singing, but it could also be a lot of others in the biblical story. I want to create a liturgical concert telling the stories of how Peter, Judas, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Jesus are misunderstood - and how God's grace brings healing even to our confusion.

I think "misunderstood" is the right theme to explore in our music and writing, but perhaps the public summary of this gig should be borrowed from Bono:  GRACE TRUMPS KARMA.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I will remember you...

In a few days, we will fly back to Tucson. It will be a happy/sad
trip because we're returning to say good-bye to a dear and faithful friend. Since leaving the Southwest, we've been back twice - both times to celebrate a wedding for young people we knew and loved - but this time will be different. Of course, I will check in with a few other sweet souls while we are there, I could hardly do otherwise given the love we share. And it will be a true blessing to stay with our buddies Linda and Larry who are closer to my heart than some flesh and blood.

But mostly we're going to celebrate our friendship with Roger and Debby - to honor his faithful life BEFORE a memorial service - and to be present with two people we love profoundly. This is one of those times when you realize that the only thing we really have to share with the world is our presence. We can't heal or fix Roger's cancer. We can't take away the sorrow or sadness that is part of the leave taking. All we can do is sit and share this present moment as tenderly and honestly as we can. And leave the rest to the Lord.

Today's reading from the Buechner devotional includes this timely reflection:

When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I'm feeling most ghost-like, it's your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I'm feeling sad, it's my consolation. When I'm feeling happy, it's part of what I feel that way...

Tomorrow I will spend a little time at the hospital and in some homes connecting with a few of the people in this congregation who are hurting - people I have come to love and cherish. And then after worship - and joining our African-American sister congregation for the first time in decades for the Martin Luther King celebration - we will head off to Tucson.  Beyond some stunning weather and freaking-amazing Mexican food, I don't know what that week will hold for us.  I just know it is the right thing to do.

Buechner writes that when the thief who was hanging next to Jesus said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," there are perhaps no more human words in all of Scripture, no prayer we can pray so well." 

In ways I never dreamed, I get that today.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How long...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, January 19, 2014.

When I was a very young preacher I found myself regularly praying the words of today’s Psalm:  how long?  How long, Lord, will your people suffer?  How long will we shame and wound one another? How long must the poor be ignored and the hungry starve? How long must I feel all torn up inside and anxious? How long will the ones I love the most be trapped by fear and addicted to alcohol and drugs?

I bet you, too have your own HOW LONG lists, yes?  How long will we as a nation spend more on the weapons of war than the instruments of peace?  How long will the wicked seeds of race hatred keep producing weeds that strangle our nation’s potential?  How long will women – and increasingly men – be raped and violated? How long will good people keep silent while evil powers corrupt and pollute the most vulnerable among us?

Do you know what I’m talking about?  Do you have any HOW LONGS you want to say out loud right now?

As I have mentioned to you before, I sensed my call to ministry during the summer of 1968 just after Dr. King was assassinated.  And in spite of all of his demons and failings, I have continued to be moved by both his words and his public commitment to compassion in action.  He was someone who helped me frame some of my deepest HOW LONGS and discern how best to act in a way that strengthened the cause of compassion.  Two of my favorite MLK quotes are:

·   Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

·   A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

As time ripened – and my life matured – I found that while I kept asking HOW LONG, my emphasis had shifted.  There were still a host of laments about the common good, but now I was also asking things like:  how long must I remain such a slow learner – how long will I have to endure my own stupidity and sloth – how long will I worry about being cool enough – how long will I hurt the ones I love the most? Do you know what I’m saying here?

In the midst of all of the angst and social suffering that caused me to weep and rage, there was an emerging awareness that I too was part of the problem.  That the reality of sin and greed – fear, shame and selfishness – was not just a problem out THERE, but ALSO in here. I remember going over and over the letters of St. Paul thinking:  this cat has been reading my mail!  Especially these words from Romans 7: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but do the very things I hate.  Eugene Peterson’s reworking of this text in The Message is particularly poignant so let me read the whole thing:

I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison.What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary… if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!

I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope.

·   Are you still with me?  Maybe you’ve had that startling realization, too that as much as you want to be a part of the solution you are simultaneously part of the problem?

·   That’s part of what the dilemma today’s Scriptures ask us to wrestle with on the second Sunday of the season of Epiphany:  how long?  How long will I resist owning that I am as much a part of the problem as the solution?  How long will I let sin dishearten, depress and demoralize me?  How long will I try to solve this impasse all by myself rather than let God’s grace take charge?

I think that is what John the Baptist’s confession suggests – I must decrease so that the Lord might increase as the Lamb of God – and it is also what Christ’s reply to Andrew is all about: come along with me and see.  Come and follow.  Come and experience the unforced rhythms of grace.  Like the Apostle Paul wrote:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus… you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will strengthen you to the end… for God is faithful and true.

So let’s spend a little time talking about what it really means to put the spirituality of Epiphany into practice.  Specifically, I want to think out loud with you about ways we can both tap into God’s grace for peace and forgiveness, and, how we can use God’s strength when we are at our weakest to mature in faith.  That is, how do we turn the energy of our HOW LONGS into the blessings of the Lord?
The late Henri Nouwen once put this challenge in the form of two questions that will confront us throughout our lives if we’re paying attention.  He asked:  Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little word?  And is there a still point where I know my life is anchored from which I can reach out to the world with hope and courage and confidence?  For me both questions cut to the chase as non-negotiables and I’ve come to rephrase them like this: 

·   Am I in touch with the peace of the Lord that is deeper than all my feelings? And, do I know how to get centered and grounded in God’s grace so that I can be active and creative in the world?

·   If I want to honor compassion more than suffering in my sphere of influence, if I want to be a man of hope rather than despair in my family, if I want to strengthen love and defuse hatred in my church and community then I need to be living out of God’s peace by resting in God’s grace.  Anything less, you see, puts me right back in the double-bind St. Paul named so well as the trap of sin.

So let’s turn first to Nouwen’s first question about knowing, experiencing and trusting that quiet stream the runs underneath all the ups and downs of our little worlds, ok? 

·   Have you ever known the comfort of God’s peace?

·  Where or how did it come to you?  Can you say out loud something of this experience?

It has been said that only an experience with God’s peace teaches us to trust and love the Lord with all our heart, mind, strength and soul: doctrine can be helpful but it doesn’t inspire, clearly written creeds can be useful but they don’t energize or motivate us into living by faith.  No, in order to go deeper and live more consistently as a person of compassion we must first have an encounter with God’s peace and second regularly practice returning to the heart of this sacred experience.

There was a woman I knew in Cleveland who used to love to go on spiritual life retreats.  “I just feel like I have been lifted up to the mountain top” she used to tell me.  Most of these retreats were held over two or three days on weekends.  Participants would show up at the retreat house for Friday dinner, get settled and then celebrate evening prayer.  Then for most of the day on Saturday and half of the day on Sunday, there would be Eucharist, study, quiet times and a chance to speak with one of the spiritual mentors. There was excellent but simple food, there was beauty and solitude all saturated on the love of the Lord.  “I just can’t get enough of those times” she told me again and again.

The only problem with her on-going commitment to these spiritual life retreats was that as soon as she returned home to her surly and alcoholic husband, all that inner serenity vanished.  “I hate coming home,” she told me.  “I’ve been to the mountain top – and then that SOB drags me down into the mire and mud of the valley of the shadow of death – would that I could stay in my retreat forever.”

·  Do you see the problem here?  She knew something of God’s peace – she had experienced that quiet healing river of love – but she didn’t know how to reconnect with it when life got hard.  She didn’t know how to tap into it again when it mattered.

·   And that is essential if we’re going to live out of God’s peace – we have to know how to reconnect – and then actually practice going back to that quiet place day after day after day.  Like the Psalmist sang:  I waited patiently for the Lord who inclined his ear to me; he lifted me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay and set my feet upon the rock so that I could sing a new song.
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “we teach our children how to measure, how to weigh, how to do business. But we fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe (and nourish it.)” First, we must experience that sweet peaceful stream that continually runs underneath all our ups and downs; and second we must practice returning and renewing that connection.  Both are essential, ok?

·   And here’s the key – it isn’t complicated – but it does take an incredible effort because the only way to stay connected to God’s peace is to practice resting and trusting. 

·   Robert Wicks, one of my favorite writers on this subject, says:  without the practice of regular simple rituals that reconnect us to God’s peace, “life can easily get out of hand and become an experience of rushing toward our grace until an event that reminds us of what’s really important steps in and stops us win our tracks, asking: where are you going? Life is so short. Are you being mindful, loving and attentive to yourself and those around you? Are you nourishing the peace of God within you?”

You see, more often than not we can get out of the habit.  Even after we’ve been touched and nourished and inspired by something of God’s peace, we still can get distracted and fall out of practice.  That’s true for me, I know, and it is probably true for you, too. And that’s why our tradition – like other spiritual traditions – has created simple rituals that we can do every day and every week to help us stay connected to God’s peace. To remind us over and over again of that quiet stream of love that runs underneath all our ups and downs.

·   Now let me be clear with you about something:  the rituals I am talking about are simple but focused – they emphasize silence and solitude – and cannot be done on your way to someplace else.  So as much as you want to believe that praying in the car counts – and it does in a very minimal way – unless you consciously take the time to quietly and consistently refresh and renew your connection to God’s peace, you are fooling yourself.

·   What all the masters have discovered is that we need i10-20 minutes most mornings or evenings to sit quietly and just listen for the Lord within.  We might take a moment or two to read a poem or spiritual lesson – or listen to some music – and then we need to offer God our thanks and gratitude.  You might find that taking a regular walk alone does the trick.  Or intentionally and prayerfully reading the words of a hymn can work, too.

What’s important is reconnecting to the stream, recommitting to God’s guidance and grace, returning to and renewing your encounter with that sweet and loving peace.  “Simple rituals of prayerfulness balance our secular obsession with success, fame, power, physical attractive-ness, money or simply just getting our own way. They help prevent normal human desires from becoming our idols.” (Wicks) And without regular practice and reconnection to the source of our peace, we soon discover ourselves anxious and fretting and afraid and caught up in shame and blaming and all the rest. 

Like St. Paul said:  I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.  Or as they say in some of the 12 Step groups:  if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.  Want to use your HOW LONGS as a way into God’s peace? Then like the cab driver said to the young violinist who was lost and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  Practice, son, practice:  that’s the first insight for today. 
That’s what Jesus was telling Andrew:  come and see – come and follow – come and learn a new way. The second insight is this:  God has shared Christ with us so that we might know that still point within that can anchor all our outward activity.  It is called grace.  Not judgment – not doctrine – not fear – not shame – not liturgy nor religiosity.  Grace and grace alone is our anchor – and the way we practice nourishing and trusting God’s grace is through patience:  “I waited… patiently for the Lord” right? 

·   I don’t have to tell you that patience is no longer a virtue in our culture or economy: we want it all right now – and there is precious little encouragement to cultivate patience.  But it is the only way to regularly reconnect with God’s grace so that we share more gratitude than judgment.

·   Patience, you see, is how we practice being compassionate with ourselves so that what is true within us can be shared in the world.  One of the great mystics of the Christian tradition, St. Charles Borromeo, said:  “Be sure that you first preach by the way that you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing but live otherwise.”

And it is so easy to quit practicing patience in our quest for results or in our need to squeeze everything into our jammed schedules.  I once heard a story about a little girl who was late getting home from school. As you might imagine, her father who was working from home, was worried sick – and was getting annoyed because now he was going to be late for an important meeting. So when the child finally stepped through the door, her father yelled at her for being late.

And when his daughter’s eyes swelled up with tears, he caught himself and asked, “Can you tell me why you were so late?” To which the little girl replied, “I was helping my friend who was in trouble.” So dad asked “And what did you do to help her?” to which his daughter replied quite simply:  I sat down next to her and helped her cry.

Now two truths are revealed in that exchange:  first, the small child became the rabbi who was able to teach her daddy something simple and child-like about living compassion; and, her father was given the chance to practice forgiving himself with patience and grace. Both truths are equally important if we want to live as allies of the Lord.  We will be given chances to grow and learn and change from the most unlikely sources:  children, enemies, animals, sorrow, pain and sin.  

·   How did the Advent lessons put it:  the last shall become first and the first shall become last – the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid – and a little child shall lead them?  See how they return again in Epiphany?

·   And we will be given opportunity upon opportunity to practice being gentle and forgiving with ourselves so that what we know on the inside is how we live in the world outside.  All of a sudden, a child returning home late from school becomes the confessional where daddy can practice accepting God’s grace patiently.


Practicing the way of peace – embracing the deep compassion of the Lord – and renewing our connection with these gentle blessings regularly change us from the inside out – and bring a measure of healing to the world.  These are the gifts of God for the whole people of God – so let’s not waste them, ok?  Rather, let us come and follow and be free.

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:...