Friday, February 28, 2014

A time for more silence: reflections on becoming a grouchy old man...

When I went to sleep last night I found myself thinking, "OMG! I've become that cranky old guy I always swore I would never become!" Damn, but I never saw it coming.  You see, this past week I found myself sitting in a variety of meetings and mostly HATING  how they were run. During these gatherings I heard myself calling out what seemed to me to be truly sloppy leadership - challenging not only the way the meeting was being conducted but also questioning the purpose and intent - and even wondering out loud if we were not just wasting our time?  And afterwards, I found myself carping about sloppy planning - or more precisely NO planning - that is then passed off as being spontaneous and in the moment. Or liturgy being conceptualized by committee (UGH!) Or invitations that were sent out at the last minute without time for thoughtful reflection and conversation before a response was required.  
All week long I've been like a broken record or a damaged MP3 file.  So how did this happen?  How did I wake up this morning to find that I have started to resemble those old guys in the balcony in the Muppets show? I suspect that there are a few inter-related reasons - some good and some humbling - and I share them now in the hope that others engaged in ministry will offer me their insights.

+ First, let me own my own bullshit (as per previous postings.) I know that I am wrestling with grief.  Like many men, whenever I am tired and anxious it comes out as anger - or in my case as crankiness - with a slight edginess in all I think, say or do. But as with any such complicated "gift," there is often an up and a down side active at the same time. The upside (as I see it) is an almost palpable intolerance for wasting time. I don't want people taken away from loved ones on a cold night for stupid reasons. I don't want already overly committed friends to experience unnecessary busyness that squeezes the solitude out of an already demanding day. I don't want the people I love to be "guilt tripped" into filling some institutional slot just so that a chair at a meeting can be filled and counted. And what I want for others, I also want for myself.

Thankfully, over the years we have eliminated most of our unnecessary meetings in our congregation. Our system isn't perfect but now there is only one night each month when ministries and council meets to plan, pray and prepare for action. Not only has this fostered greater lay ownership, it has also freed me from the expectation of having to be a part of every church conversation. To be sure, there are lots of other times for small groups or one-on-ones devoted to study, action and/or reflection; but only one regularly scheduled administrative meeting because we have come to believe that life is too short and precious to be wasted. Now most of our "official" work is about relationship building. As I noted in last Sunday's message, our values try to embrace these three truths:  being is more important than doing, living from the heart is more important than living in our heads, and acting with others in loving compassion is more important than most of what we do as individuals.

Sadly, this does not seem to be the norm in the wider church. In fact, I have come to sense that there is a weird type of "works righteousness" alive in the institutional church that encourages us to act like going to meetings equals faithful living. And that is the downside for me at this moment in my life: these meetings exhaust and exasperate me so much that I come home feeling as if my time has been wasted. I find these gatherings disconnected from the real demands that real people must wrestle with every day - and ultimately disrespectful. 

Sometimes I simply shut up and eat my frustration. That is probably the better course of action and is going to be a part of this year's Lenten disciplines. But at other times I find myself calling into question both the style and content of these meetings because both are so poorly conceived. I am at the point of passive resistance thinking that the time has come for me to simply resign from many of my wider church commitments. I don't want to denigrate those who find value in these meetings, nor do I want to be a pain in the ass for those who are committed to running them. I love the church - locally, nationally and internationally - but I am fed up with business as usual when it comes to boring, wasteful, ineffective and works-righteousness driven meetings.

QUESTION:  How do others deal with this reality?

+ Second, in my exhaustion over wasted time, I have come to see that what really matters - and what truly energizes me - is being in living relationship with people.  That is another upside: being with a friend as she is dying, visiting a member in the hospital, sharing prayer or tea in some one's home has value.  Leading a discussion or study has value. Hosting the celebration of Eucharist each week has value. Planning good meetings - and cooperatively, well-organized liturgies - has value. Going to band and choir practice has value. Writing and studying and praying has value. Sitting in quiet contemplation has value. Walking in the woods with my lover and our dog has meaning and value. Encouraging others to deepen their life in faith has value. Working on a well-planned and effective social justice campaign for housing for the homeless has value. 
And all of these acts and commitments are relational. I look at my wider church commitments as relational, too - I love and value these people - but too often there is no time devoted to relationship building. Our meetings are rushed and filled with busy work. Even many of the wider church so-called retreats are so filled with activities that they should be called working meetings rather than retreat because there is not time for rest, reflection or silence.

QUESTION:  How do others strike a balance between their commitment to their local church and participation in wider church events?

One last concern: given the shortage of dollars as the US creeps out of our most recent recession, I am seriously wondering whether we should join the majority of congregations and start cutting back our financial support to the wider church. That is heresy for me, but I see so little value at this moment in time - and such great local need - that I wonder whether that time has come for us?  Most other congregations in the United Church began to cut their giving to the wider church 20 years ago.  I wonder...

Well, none of this resolves my shock at becoming an old grouch. But it helps me clarify some of the factors that are contributing to this sad state of affairs. Perhaps that is why I've discerned that one of my challenges and commitments during Lent is to SHUT UP more!  To everything there is a season and now is a time for more personal silence. Let's see where that leads?
Last night, as I drove home from my clergy group I gave thanks to God for these colleagues and the relationships of depth and trust we are building. And for that experience in an otherwise grouchy week, I give thanks.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

With deep thanks...

Today I received a note from a young man who was once a member of my congregation in Cleveland.  It read:

Chief James, this is a video we shot on the Rosebud last fall -- the elders of the seven Lakota tribes have gathered and decided that we are all in danger and that now is the time. Can you send this out in your directions? Deep thank you.

In deep gratitude and respect I share it now with you...

Shield The People - Oyate Wahacanka from Oyate Wahacanka on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Embracing the "poverty" of real life...

Sometimes our inner spirit knows something hurts, but we don't know why. For about a year I have been wrestling with a deep inner wound that seems to show up as grief.  Not depression or despair, but a profound aching sadness that is tender, complex and very alive.  And I don't really know why, but it is time to get some clarity.

Yesterday, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote a column that resonated with me deeply.

The second split (in our hearts that separates us from the unified love of God) is life from death. It comes about when you first experience the death of someone you have known. Maybe it’s your dog. Maybe it’s Grandma. And your mental ego starts separating life and death. There are living people, and there are people who have already passed over and they are gone. So you try to manufacture a life for yourself that will not include death (read: failure, sadness, losing, humiliation, etc.).

Almost all male initiation rites insisted that the boy had to concretely face head-on this kind of dying. Sometimes the young men actually had to dig their grave and sleep in it for a night in an effort to begin to understand that life and death are not two, but include one another. If you split entirely, you spend your whole life trying to avoid any kind of death (anything negative, uncomfortable, difficult, unfamiliar, dangerous, or demanding). Much of humanity has not gone through its initiation or “baptism.”

That’s why Jesus says the rich man has an almost impossible task in understanding what he’s talking about (Luke 16). If you’ve stayed in this split kind of thinking—that your whole life’s purpose is to stay comfortable and happy, frequenting five-star restaurants and hotels, and never suffering any inconvenience—then you are going to put off resolving this split until the last months of life. But at some point, you’re finally going to have to see that this is not a truthful naming of reality. You can’t always avoid the negative.

Many of the saints and mystics, like Francis of Assisi, just dive into facing the unfamiliar, the foreign, and the scary ahead of time. Francis called it “poverty,” which might not be the way we use the word today. For him it meant facing the “poor” side of everything and finding your riches there. What an amazing turnaround! Henceforth, failure is almost impossible.

I was particularly taken with Rohr's remarks about Francis and his understanding of "poverty." This is a theme I have been exploring in my own soul as well as in the context of my congregation's 250th anniversary. Once we were literally the first - first in status, first in power, first in influence - but now life has changed and we are no longer first in anything. Some lament this "poverty" but I have come to see it as liberating because it frees us to be reunited in God's deeper love.

And now, as Lent approaches, it seems that what I have been working on in my professional life must once again become part of my own inner integration of "poverty." Well, "to everything there is a season..." and now seems to be my season to enter a new relationship with my grief and sadness so we'll see what doors that opens, yes? In one of those wonderfully serendipitous moments, yesterday was George Harrison's birthday, and one of my bandmates sent me this sweet, sweet take on one of my favorite songs ever! Truly, embracing this poverty means that failure IS almost impossible.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Worship notes: making room for Lent...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, March 2, 2014. It is the Sunday before Lent - a time when we will have our children in worship for the whole liturgy - and we'll be welcoming in new members AND burying the "alleluia" until Easter. My emphasis, in these notes, is to try and talk about Lent in a way that makes some sense to children and those adults who have not practiced it before.  We'll see how it goes.

When I was a child growing up in Connecticut and Massachusetts in the
Congregational Church, I didn’t know anything at all about Lent:  we didn’t talk about it at home, I don’t remember any special Lenten emphasis in Sunday School and my recollection about Lent in worship has to do with Palm Sunday – but not a whole lot more.

I do remember wondering why all of a sudden in the middle of winter, some of my friends came to school with a black mark on the foreheads  I didn’t know that it was supposed to be a sign of the Cross.  And I had no notion of what Ash Wednesday had to do with the Christian faith.

For a young Protestant kid from the suburbs, this was all somewhat mysterious and weird:  what was going on?  Later I heard some of my friends talking about giving up chocolate for Lent, but I still didn’t know what Lent was all about and how come my church didn’t participate in it?  So when I asked them “Why are you giving up chocolate for Lent?” they looked at me like I was a moron and said, “Because Father told us that is what we had to do.”  End of story, quit behaving like and idiot!

And this really made me curious:  who was Father?  My neighbor, Lee Bonner’s father who worked at the Sikorski Plant with my uncle Phil?  Patty O’Connell’s father, Gene, who liked to go out drinking with my father or play bridge with my parents on Friday nights? Some other father – some mystical father – who was somehow related to all these kids with black marks on their foreheads?  I had no idea…

I don’t think it was until I was well into my 20s that I began to read about Lent – where it came from and why it mattered – and it was only after my babies were born that we tried to figure out how to observe a Holy Lent as a family.  And as the decades have rolled by, I find that many in our tradition not only don’t know a lot about the origins and intentions of Lent, but think the best we can do is the exact opposite of the Roman Catholics, right?  If THEY do THIS, then WE must do THAT!

But I don’t think we construct a healthy and life-giving spirituality by keeping score or simply doing the opposite so that we can be different.  That strikes me as foolish and childish – that’s what adolescents do in reaction to their parents – YOU don’t smoke, so I WILL smoke?  YOU go to church, so I WON’T go to church.  YOU dress modestly, so I’ll dress WEIRD.  We’ve all seen it, we’ve all done it and in time most of us grow out of it, too.  No, I have come to believe that a healthy and life-giving spirituality cuts deeper than adolescent rebellion.

So I want to offer a few thoughts and suggestions this morning about how we might construct a holy and life-giving Lent for ourselves this year – for children and families as well as those who are single or empty-nesters or live in some other type of family or community – what are some of the ingredients for making Lent matter?  That’s the challenge for today.

Now there are two background realities that I need to tell you right out of the gate:

+  First, the season of Lent is NOT about simply giving up chocolate – or TV or computer games – because Lent is mostly not about giving up anything. It is more about making room than giving up.  Making room for more faith, making room for more hope, making room for more love.  Do you grasp the difference?

+  Have you ever cleaned out your closet or your dresser in order to make room for something new?  What have you done with your old clothes? Most of us pass them on to Goodwill or friends and relatives who can get some more use out of them, right?  It’s not that the old things are bad, but before we can get something new, we have to make more room.

That’s the first thing about Lent:  it is about making more room in our hearts and lives for God.  And I don’t mean just thinking about God or your favorite Bible story – that’s ok and there is nothing wrong with that – because Lent is not just about ideas.  It is about practicing new ways of living that make us more like Jesus.

+  And that’s the second truth about Lent:  there are three practices that help us become more like Jesus if we find ways to do them.  They are fasting, prayer and caring for the poor.  And they are actions – disciplines – spiritual practices that require something more than thought from us.

+  They ask us to make room so that as we put some things aside – or give them away – we practice living in the image of God.  We practice choosing to act more like the image of God than the image of Miley Cyrus or Justin Beiber or Jay-Z or anyone else.

Lent is about choosing to live more like the image of God than anything else – and that takes practice.  Is that clear?  Before I say anything more, do you understand what I’m saying about making room in our lives to practice the image of God? For that’s the only reason we DO Lent:  it helps us practice becoming more like Jesus. So if you have ANY questions, ask me right now…

There are three practices we’ve been asked to try during Lent – three ways of making more room in our lives for God – that will make us more like Jesus.  And in our tradition, we believe that Jesus shows us what God is truly like – Jesus shows us as much of God’s truth and beauty and love as we can comprehend – so if we want to become more like the Lord, then Jesus is our guide or model.

There are three practices to work on during the 40 days of Lent.  They aren’t the ONLY things to work on, but they are important. And because life is busy and hard, we only work on three during Lent so that we’re not worn out and overwhelmed.   And the three practices for making room for God are:  prayer, fasting and caring for the poor.  And let’s talk about each one for just a moment.

+  What is prayer all about?  We say all kinds of prayers in church – the Lord’s Prayer, the Lamb of God prayer, the prayer of confession, prayers for other people – all types of prayer. 

+  But what is most important during our prayers?  I think it is being quiet and silent long enough to hear something of God’s love coming back to us.  Our words are not as important in prayer as our listening; our words mostly help us get ready to listen. That’s why in just a minute we’re going to put away the word ALLELUIA from our songs and prayers during Lent – we’re going to put it away so that we can make more room for listening – we’re going to put it away so that we can feel how much we miss it.  And when we bring it back on Easter, it will be like a party or a feast!

So how might you practice listening for God more during the 40 days of Lent in your life – or family – or house?  What can you do to make more room for quiet and listening for the Lord?

The second making room practice is fasting:  traditionally fasting meant giving up something up like food so that the money we ordinarily spent on food could be used to care for those who were poor. It was a way of making room in our bodies for more love.  But it doesn’t have to be about food: sometimes you can fast from TV – or computer games – or complaining – or gossiping.  

+  When my daughters were young they went through a phase where when they got angry, they slapped one another.  And then one girl would run to me and tattle and complain and cry.

+  So one year during Lent we tried a fast from slapping – and whenever a slap did happen – they had to come to me and slap me as hard as they had just slapped their sister!  Let me tell you, slapping ended abruptly that year!

+  So how could you make more room in your life this Lent so that some money or food or energy could be used to help others? How might you practice a Lenten fast?

And last there is caring for the poor:  Jesus said that the poor will always be with us – not because they are bad or lazy or cursed – but because others will always be selfish and cruel and unfair.  During Lent, we are asked to pay attention to the poor in our world – not to look the other way when we see something that disturbs us – but to connect with the pain.  Offer some help or compassion. Make some room in our hearts for someone besides those we love.

·   Often during Lent we write letters to our leaders in Congress asking them to make certain they don’t cut off money for food stamps and other resources that help the poor.  Last year we asked Congress not to cut back on foreign aid so that we might help the hungry throughout the world.

·   Later this month, our church and some people from South Church are going to actually make a meal at the Christian Center on a Saturday to feed about 90 people who would go hungry if it wasn’t for this meal.

·   So how could you make more room in your life this Lent to care for the poor?  Any thoughts…?

We prepare ourselves for a holy Lent by making room.  The more we practice making room for God, the more loving we become – not all at once – but over a life time.  We put away the alleluia so that we have more room for silence.  We come to worship in the middle of the week for Ash Wednesday to say we have room for prayer and worship in the middle of all our other responsibilities. We take upon our forehead the sign of the Cross to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe:  God is.

My hope and prayer is that this Lent will be a joyous time of making more room for the Lord.  Today, we commit ourselves to making more room for a few new members, who are now ready to be a part of our community.  So let me invite them to come forward at this time…

Monday, February 24, 2014

Shifting gears...

So today has mostly about shifting gears.  As many of you know, I've been in the throes of grief and sharing pastoral care in a profound way over the past few weeks.  Today, I mostly slept late and then sipped tea. Later I finished up the church e-newsletter and decided to have some more tea. I'll take a nap, too, let the puppy race around the scrub a bit and then attend a working meeting at the local pub.  In a word, not much serious work.

And that is probably what the doctor ordered. Today, when I have given it any thought, I have been thinking about a film/discussion series we're planning to run throughout Lent and Eastertide.  We haven't yet come up with a title but it could be something like: Seeing Something of the Sacred in Cinema, or, When God Goes to the Movies.  (Ok, I like alliteration but we're still working on it!) 

The two resources that I have found the most helpful over the years are: In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts by Ron Austin, and, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture by William Romanowski.  Austin has been a writer/producer in Hollywood for over 40 years while Romanowski is an academic specializing in theology and popular culture at Calvin College. What I like about both texts is that they give serious albeit popular readers some resources by which to evaluate films rather than the simple "thumbs up or down" that is all too common place.
One resource, for example, is helping people distinguish between a spiritual and an aesthetic experience. They are close and certainly overlap and "the very feelings of tranquility and delight that art gives can lull us into thinking that we are right with God... (however) while art can create a longing for God," Romanowski writes, "it cannot give us a life lived under God... which is about our relationships and our work, about what we do with our lives alongside and through the experience of art." He goes on to observe that: "... a religious experience... is one that deepens our awareness of God's presence int he world and the ways that human beings bear God's image."

Austin is equally insightful, but offers other resources.  He speaks of art helping us to:  1) be in the present moment; 2) affirm the mystery of the other; 3) show us ways to transform conflict; 4) wrestles with the reality of evil; 5) and urges believers to move towards a unified albeit paradoxical understanding of God's presence in our lives.

I've done three film series here over the past seven years.  The first was a Lenten series using "Chocolat" as a way to playfully embrace God's upside down realm rather than the guilt usually associated with Lent.  We then used another resource by Hillary Brand, The Power of Small Choices, that lined "The Shawshank Redemption" with "Babette's Feast." Later that year I offered a quick survey of the pursuit of beauty and truth in movies including "Koyanasquatsi," "Across the Universe" and "Pay It Forward." We haven't played with films for a while so this will be fun - and it will cut deeper, too.

Already two film suggestions include Kieslowski's The Decalogue and the National Council of Churches short film from the 1965 World Series,"The Parable."  We will start on Wednesday, March 19th and run through Wednesday, May 28th.  More as it unfolds.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Homily for rick weber...

My homily for my brother, friend and colleague in church:  Rick Weber. It was a good day!
Let me get this out there right at the start:  I LOVED Rick Weber.  He was a big, bold and beautiful personality who lived a full life with vigor and integrity.  And I have to tell you that I loved everything about this man: I loved his art – I loved his laughter – I loved his singing voice – I loved his faith – I loved his tenacity – I loved his service to Christ and the world – and I loved the way he loved everyone he met. 

I LOVED Rick Weber – so before I go any further I have to ask you – have I made this clear? That I LOVED Rick Weber?  It is important for the preacher to know if he or she is communicating with the gathered faithful, so I want to be certain that there is no ambiguity about my first point.

As a pastor, you see, it is both my deepest conviction AND my public duty to share with you some truths from within the foundation of the Christian tradition.  And I could not stand before you today as one who loved Rick in this life if I didn’t also remind you of the fact that God’s love enveloped him in his death.  If I were here just on my own authority – with just my own words to raise up – I couldn’t do it. I miss Rick too much and his absence causes me too much pain.

But as St. Paul said to the very early church:  Beloved we do not want you to grieve as those who have no hope – so I need to talk to you about hope and grief.  You will grieve – you will cry and ache and miss and fret – you will be angry and empty and bewildered at times because that is only human.  You will grieve and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. We should not truncate our grief, abort its own unique mission in our hearts or try to snap out of it just to satisfy some shallow social expectations of getting back to business, ok

Losing a man as BIG as Rick Weber hurts – it hurts like hell – and we shouldn’t
try to pretend that it doesn’t. Last week, as I was trying to pull this homily together, I broke down three or four times in violent crying jags.  I couldn’t help it – AND – I didn’t want to help it because the emptiness and sadness I felt in those moments was somehow deeply connected to the love I shared with Rick during the seven years I had the privilege to serve him as his pastor and friend.

So, I gave myself permission to cry and weep and feel the bottomless ache in my heart.  The apostle Paul, did NOT tell us not to grieve.  Rather, he taught us that in the midst of our sorrow, we must not grieve as those who have no hope. By faith, you see, we DO have hope:  one of the most profound and demanding truths in the Christian tradition is our conviction that when we were baptized into the com-munity of faith we were simultaneously baptized into Christ’s death.  So that just as Jesus was raised from the dead by the glorious power of God’s love, so too shall we be raised up into God’s love.

Jesus wasn’t kidding when he told us:  come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I shall give you rest.  It will be a rest from fear and anxiety in this life, and it shall be a rest from all pain and sorrow in the life to come because where I am going, he told us in John’s gospel, you are going, too.  And if Rick Weber trusted anything, it was that God was present with him in all of his trials and pains, joys and sorrows in this life – AND – that God would fully embrace him in love when this life was over. That’s why Rick wasn’t afraid of death:  he had hope.

Even when his tired, sweet body was broken and worn out he had hope.  A hope born of God raising Christ from the dead – a hope grounded in his own baptism – a hope that trusted that God’s love is not only greater than our imagination and ability to comprehend, but that it is also greater than death. It was an innocent, pure and child-like faith that was rock solid. I’m not sure I’ve ever met such a faithful man.

So we gather today to grieve – but that grief is saturated in love – for like our brother Rick Weber we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

I remember the first time I ever saw Rick:  he was walking across the lawn at Tanglewood.  I had just been called from Arizona to serve First Church as pastor and teacher – and we were coming through just to check in before spending a month in London – so I happened to mention to Jennifer Kerwood, the chair of the search committee, that Dianne and I had never been to Tanglewood.  We wondered if there might be time for the search committee and their families to join us for an outing to Tanglewood.  As she does so well, Jennifer made it happen and we met for a picnic on the lawn before a Mahler symphony.

So as we were taking in the beauty – and sipping wine in high style on a golden Berkshire evening – there came Rick making his way across the vast lawn with Donna.  He was working hard but had a huge smile on his face. And after taking a seat and sharing introductions, he went on to tell me that he’d played golf earlier that day and did a fine job.  He was beaming and radiant – and so glad to be alive.  After eating a little gouda cheese, he turned back to me and said with that killer smile:  and now I get to spend some time this evening with my dear wife and our new pastor in all this beauty surrounded by all some incredible music.  Man, is this life good.

In that moment, I fell in love with Rick Weber. I had watched him struggle across the lawn. I was in awe of his strength and stamina. But I was totaled knocked out by his exuberance and commitment to the joy of living. And that awe and respect only ripened in the years that I knew him. As we worshipped together – and served First Church together – and visited in his home or in the hospital, I came to see that this man was truly filled with the Holy Spirit in such a way that nothing in this life would kill his joy.

Like St. Paul before him, he KNEW that in everything God works for good with those who love the Lord.  So he could move through his days knowing that nothing would ever be able to separate him from the love of God – not life nor death, not angels or principalities, not things present nor things to come, not powers, height nor depth nor anything else in all creation.

In fact, I came to think of Rick Weber as a living icon of St. Paul in the 21st century.  One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Romans 5 wherein Paul tells us that because of the joy he has known in God’s grace, we now  boast in our sufferings, knowing that our suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because  hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  And every time he came down this aisle for Eucharist – and it became harder and harder – there was an almost beatific smile on his face because my man knew that this wasn’t the end of his story.  His pain and his wounds were just another way to be closer to the God he loved.

And when I would go to offer him the bread, the body of Christ, he would almost always take my hand and hold it for a moment – he would smile in a way that was filled with such depth and faith – before kissing me on the check and saying: I love you.

 Beloved, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve as people who know that God loves us no matter how hard our life is. We grieve as those who know that this present darkness is not the end of the story.

As an artist, a husband, a father, a teacher, an athlete, a friend and an incredible servant of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Rick Weber was a man of this kind of hope.  In a moment you will hear a few other remembrances from those who knew Rick in some of the circles he worked in.  So let me close by saying that in addition to the love he shared with me and so many others – and the powerful reality of his hope and faith in the Lord – I believe that Rick was very intentional as an artist in expressing his awareness of God’s abiding and transforming beauty in the world within the most mundane things.  As one theologian put it, he had the ability to show us the extraordinary in the ordinary.

We talked a lot about art both because he loved the “en plein eir” movement that began in France in the 1870s – the open air school of artistic expression that celebrated natural light and outdoor realities in all their sacred and commonplace glories - but also because as a musician I wanted to hear how this visual artist understood his creativity as a sacred calling.  And time after time, whether it was in his living room, his bedroom or this Sanctuary, when he would display his paintings he would talk to me about what the images he painted represented – how the trees symbolized the history of his family, how the clouds showed some-thing of his father, his wife and his son – how the vastness of some of his canvases hinted at the enormity of God’s love.

In our culture, too many think of art as an extra – an incidental – something to consider after all the bottom lines are resolved and accounted for. But not my man, Rick:  like the artist and theologian, Mako Fujimura, he understood that his dedication to advancing beauty was NOT a useless act of leisure.  No, “every act of creativity is, directly or indirectly, an intuitive response to offer to God what He has given to us.” Rick saw and experienced the enormity of God’s grace. So as the depth psychologist, Carl Jung once wrote, we paint the images our soul needs to see.  I believe that part of what Rick expressed in his painting was the depth of his faith – the incomprehensibility of God’s endless love that is greater than all pain – and he did it in ways that our small minds might taste and see.

This is iconography – in a distinctly Western and modernist form, to be sure – but iconography nonetheless.  Because icons are physical representations of spiritual truths too great for words – they are visual prayers for our eyes – that always point beyond us to the grace of God. And I see Rick’s profound, child-like but life-tested faith and experience of God’s grace in everything he painted – and in almost everything he did.

Once we were talking about one of his first dates with Donna – he took her into NYC from New Jersey – he wanted to show her a good time.  And no sooner had they gotten out of the train station in Times Square when they were surrounded by a gang of young men who were intent on robbing them.  Donna said they could see the mounted policeman off in the distance, but he wasn’t going to do them any good because these young thugs were intent of separating Rick from the money he had saved to take his sweetie on this date?

So what did Rick do?  Did he try to run for it? Or fight off the muggers? Did he try to distract these bandits so that Donna might escape?  Did he scream for help and hope for the best? No with a child-like faith and profound innocence he told the chief mugger that he only had enough money on him to take his sweetheart out to dinner and a show – it wasn’t very much money at all – but that was all he had.  So could he please just let them go?

And… he did – he let them go!  We were laughing about it the other day saying that given Rick’s sincerity and his profound innocence, he probably converted that young mugger in that moment from a life of crime!  We don’t know for sure, of course, but he let them GO!!!

No wonder Rick requested that both Psalm 23 and Revelations 21 be read at his memorial service – they both evoke a trust that nothing can separate us from God’s love – yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil for THOU art my comforter and thy STAFF shall protect me. Even at the end of our lives we shall be restored to perfection with the Lord in ways that are too great for human words and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord for- ever.  And now that has taken place for Rick Weber – he lived fully in God’s grace in this live – and now he has returned home to perfection in the Lord’s embrace forever. 

When Donna and I were talking last week on the day Rick died, I mentioned to her that I believe that every dying person offers those of us who remain a gift in their death if we have eyes to see. 

Sometimes we don’t get it – and sometimes the death is too complicated – but in a good death, I have come to see that the dying person wants to bring comfort to those who are living by sharing a quiet gift or even a gentle message. So she told me that she had been wondering why there had been so many ups and downs with Rick’s health over the past five weeks.  What was God saying in all of this? If this was really the time for him to go, why were there so many complications? At some point, however, it came to her that perhaps there was still something to be accomplished before Rick was ready to let go and return to the Lord. 

She didn’t know what it was – or who had to do what – but when she stopped worrying about what was going on and trusted that this too was part of God’s love, she was more at peace. So when she got the call to go to the hospital last Sunday morning because Rick’s time was close, she thought:  I’ve never been with a person when they died – I’m kind of frightened about this – but as she sat with her husband and he slowly and peacefully left this life she said:  I wasn’t afraid. In fact, she saw Rick leave this life in a way that was saturated in peace as a quiet serenity washed over him – and she knew it was alright.

Behold, the Spirit of the Lord says to us in Scripture: I make all things new… I will be your God and you will be my people and I shall wipe  away every tear from your eyes. Death will be no more; neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain for you for the first things have passed away.

Today I give thanks to God for sharing Rick Weber with us:  his love, his art, his faith, his family, his laughter, his music and even his death have been sacred gifts – and as much as I miss him, I am so very grateful for them all.

Friday, February 21, 2014

For rick weber...

For my friend and brother in the faith: Richard T. Weber. This poem by Mary Oliver expresses how Rick lived. May we ALL be so blessed.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.

I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

We paint the images we need to see...

Last night I tried to write a memorial service homily for my brother and friend, Rick Weber, who went home to the Lord on Sunday just before worship began. I don't think of myself as particularly sensitive to the ways of the spirit, but I knew in my soul that something was shaking last Sunday. And, as the full day came to a close, it was made clear why.
Sadly, all my starts at this homily came to a crashing halt over and over again as I found a host of ways to distract myself.  Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, once described a writer's life something like this (I don't have the actual book at home but it is worth finding and reading if you know anything about trying to write.) He says most (slacker) writers (like myself) get up in the morning and sit down before the computer with a fuzzy but urgent sense of what we're suppose to transcribe.  But first we have to read our emails and peruse the news - and then we need to get some coffee.  But we're out of coffee so before any real writing can begin we need to go to the coffee shop and get ourselves pumped up. There, we spend some time visiting with the usual suspects - and read the morning paper just for safe keeping - before getting a latte to go.  Once home, we check out emails one more time and then create a fresh new document for the day's opus.  

After staring at the newly opened document for about 20 minutes - and maybe adding a few words or a title - we have to pee because of all the coffee consumed. So after returning from the toilet, we get down to it in earnest and come up with a few versions of our opening sentence. They are all clunky and only hint at what is closest to our heart. So, better get some more coffee - and maybe a muffin, too - for sustenance. By now, four hours have evaporated and there are three sentences on the page. Panic and frustration sets in so we pace around the front room for about 20 minutes. We flip through a book of quotes - or do it on line - to try to jog our imagination into gear.  And then we pee again.  

It is only after all of this that a (slacker) writer is really ready to engage in the discipline of giving shape and form to her/his thoughts on paper (or in this case a reasonable facsimile.) Then we write in a burst and two hours later have a draft that we will edit and worry over for another three hours. And then, after printing it out and doing a hard copy edit, will give us permission to head back to the coffee shop and reward ourselves for working so hard and creatively.

That's what my writing felt like yesterday afternoon and evening.  First, there were writing chores to finish for church. Then there were blogs and emails to catch up on - so now it is two hours into the project with nothing written. So I flip through some books of poetry - and let myself have a 5 minute crying jag - before actually opening a new document.  I, too, stare at the blank page for a few minutes and then go open a Pacifico (I love Mexican beer) and sip it while jotting down a chronology of my history with Rick. This experience evokes another brief crying jag so I decide to take a break and watch another episode of "House of Cards." This may be the most cynical show on TV and the only thing it inspires is the need to watch one more episode. So, I heat up some bean soup, watch Kevin Spacey et al get mean and nasty in the most sophisticated ways and then decide I'm ready to write.

Except, of course, I'm not - and still nothing gets written down.  I've been "writing" in the slacker mode now for over three hours without much to show for it. Like my early experiences with centering prayer, I've had lots of other ideas float through my mind and heart - and I've written a few down - but nothing to show for being centered and still.  Or creative and productive. So, at 8:30 pm I called it a day and trust Jesus when he told us that he would send the Holy Spirit to speak for us when we needed him the most. My prayer is that this will happen later tonight after a full day of pastoral visits. So I had another Pacifico and straightened up the kitchen before Dianne got home from work.

This morning I reread something I saw last night from Fr. Richard Rohr that
touched me.  It may become part of my homily and made me think back to last weekend when we skyped with Jesse and little Louie in Brooklyn. We talk to Jess and watch our grandson role around and laugh. And every time Jesse got close to his face - or called out his name - like a joy-filled electric shock little Louie turned towards her face and laughed and laughed in near ecstasy. Rohr wrote:

I have heard it said that the gaze of delight between a mother and the baby at her breast is the beginning of the capacity for intimate relationship. We spend the rest of our lives hoping for that moment again: that kind of safety; that kind of security; that kind of feeding; that kind of living inside of one world, where we are delighted in and loved. That is the True Self. Perhaps the most perfect image of this we can find is the Madonna with the Baby Jesus. This is the most common painting in Western art museums, I am told, probably because there is absolute wholeness mirrored in the gaze of love between mother and child. As Jung said, we paint the images our soul needs to see. We also become the God we connect with. That’s why it’s so important to know the true God, and not some little, punitive, toxic god, because then you don’t grow up, but live in fear and pretense. Contemplation, as Thomas Keating says, is the divine therapy. We know God and we know ourselves by inner prayer journeys and not by merely believing in doctrines or living inside of church structures. God’s way of dealing with us becomes our way of dealing with life and others. We eventually love others, quite simply, as we have allowed God to love us, which should create quite a loving world.

As a painter, Rick Weber, knew something about this truth - and his work and life was a reflection of his intimate relationship with a loving and grace-filled God - a God who was much more Madonna-like than anything resembling a God of wrath and judgment. Rick was a gentle contemplative and an artist. A man who loved passionately and creatively. He was a blessing - and it hurts like hell to know that he has gone to heaven. I give thanks for this AND still grieve.

Here is one of his works - Family Trees from 1999 - after he was first diagnosed. I love this for so many reasons...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Worship Notes: being and living from the heart in community...

NOTE: My very modest worship notes for this Sunday, February 23, 2014. My three organizing thoughts come from Henri Nouwen's spiritual direction notes in the book edited by Christensen and Laird simply called: Spiritual Direction.
The late Henri Nouwen once wrote something that I have been thinking about a LOT over the past year:

Remember: YOU belong to God from eternity to eternity. You were loved by God before you were born; you will be loved by God long after you die. Your human lifetime – long or short – is only part of your total life in God. The length of time doesn’t matter. Life is just a little opportunity for you to during a few years to say to the Lord:  I love you, too.

·    + I don’t think most of us believe this to be true; I know that there have been times in my life when I didn’t believe it – but I do now.  In fact, today I think it is one of the most important things we can say to one another – we need to help remind ourselves over and over that from the cradle to the grave and beyond we are loved by the Lord – this is so important.

·    + So this morning I want to continue to share some of my reflections with you on what it means to live as hospitable, humble and hopeful people in the 21st century.  As I have noted before, these three commitments or Christian practices are inter-related – joined in a sacred unity like the Holy Trinity – that teaches us that we really can’t practice hospitality without a deep and abiding awareness of our fragility and limitation – that’s humility.  And we can’t really face the facts of our humility – our brokenness – without a deep trust that God’s grace trumps karma – that’s hope.

·    + Earlier this week I was talking to my friends from Canada, Peter and Joyce,
you just returned home from three months in Palestine.  They were there as witnesses for peace – ordinary human beings dedicated to showing up and sharing a little bit of love – in the hope that authentic hospitality, humility and hope can make a little difference in that wounded and tragic place.  They told me stories about the suffering of the Palestinian people – the incredible anguish and shame they are forced to endure – and how grateful they are for the smallest sign of solidarity.

·    + I hope to find a way to bring Peter and Joyce to share some of their stories with us later this year because they embody the heart of today’s message:  God loves us from before the beginning of time and will continue to love us long after we have died – and what we are called to do is share a little of this love and spread it around as best we are able given the time that remains.

Using the words of Henri Nouwen again, all that we can really do in this life is start to live in ways that recognize and enflesh three truths:

+ First, that being is more important than doing;
+ Second, that living from the heart is more important that living in our heads;
+ And that doing things together in love is more important than doing almost anything else alone.

Being is more important than doing:  man is this a tough one to own and make real – don’t you think?  Doing gives me the illusion that I’m in control – that I’m special – that I can fix things and make a real difference.  Being, however, is just about showing up – showing up and being a person of love (and humility and hope, too!)

A few weeks ago, my friend in Tucson, Roger taught me all about this all over again.  When we went down to visit and spend a little time with him before he becomes painfully sick, he and his sweetheart, Debby, kept saying how wonderful it was for us to be there.  It gave them both so much – and kept wondering to myself:  like what? What does just showing up and being DO?

+ I know it matters – it feels good to be with those who love you – and who know you and respect and value you even with all your flaw and failings – but what does it do I kept wondering to myself.  Sometimes at the end of the day, after we mostly just sat and talked and ate and laughed and even wept a little, Dianne and I would talk about: why does just being here matter so much?

·    + Have you ever had that experience?  Do you know what I mean?  You want to help – you want to make something better – and there’s nothing you can do except just BE there? It is in times like that that I come smack up against the truth that I really can’t do much of anything:  I can’t FIX most things, I can’t HEAL most things, none of my EFFORTS will do anyone any good EXCEPT just being present with love.

That is so hard… I remember standing around the bedside of one of the church elders back in Tucson years and years ago – his name was John Brown – and he was as crotchety and provocative as his name’s sake.  John Brown.  Dianne and I were waiting with John’s daughter, Ann, in a hospice room because it was clear he was soon going to die.  And so we waited and waited and waited. Sometimes we told John Brown stories – and there were a lot of them – sometimes we sang some hymns quietly or read from the Scriptures – and sometimes we just stood there in an awkward silence.

All of us, except Ann’s loving but very uncomfortable husband who as a very typical man with big feelings and wanted to DO something.  He was in business and had been in the military and he was a take charge kind of guy.  So he kept pacing around the room – fretting – and trying to rearrange the furniture until Ann in total exasperation Ann blurted out: for the love of Jesus, man, will you get out of here and go buy us some coffee or something?  And John’s whole countenance brightened as he raced out of the room because NOW there was at lease SOMETHING he could DO.

And, of course, now without his frenetic presence, it seemed that John sensed it was ok to let go – and he did – dying peacefully and beautifully in the quiet.  Most of the time all we can do is show up and BE there – we can DO anything that really matters – because most of the time being is more important than doing.  I know there were many times over the past two months when I would show up at the hospital when Rick Weber was there and I felt so impotent and useless.  In fact, once I even said to him in the ICU, “Man, I wish there was something I could do to make this better!”  But of course there wasn’t… so we just held hands for a time and prayed. One thing we must learn is that often being is more important than doing.

This is where St. Paul’s words are pure genius and grace when he tells us that after having a deep and mystical encounter with God’s love, God made him see his limitations. Paul tells u:

Because of the extravagance of the revelations, and so I wouldn’t get
a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me: My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.

·    Nobody knows what Paul’s handicap was – ultimately it doesn’t matter – because Paul understood that whatever it was helped keep him humble. It pushed him to his knees so that he had to rely upon God.

·    That is to say, he could show up and want to be about love, but everything else was of the Lord.  When he lived this way, blessings grew out of burdens; when he tried to fix things by himself, it was disaster.

The second truth about living as people of hospitality, humility and hope is that most of the time our heart is more important than our mind – and man does THAT make some of us crazy?!?  We’re intellectuals!  We have graduate degrees!  Why most of the Reformed Protestant tradition is built on INTERPRETING the word in Scripture! We believe and certainly act as if being created in the image of God has something to do with being smart and sophisticated and oh so intellectual.  After all, Thomas Aquinas called us “thinking animals,”

·   And isn’t that the Latin name we’ve given ourselves - homo sapiens – from two words – homo meaning man and sapientia meaning wisdom? We really do think of ourselves as wise men and women over and opposed to the animals and the trees and sun and the stars.

·    What a joke – what an illusion – what a trap?  Not that we don’t have wisdom and not that thinking isn’t important: clearly it is.  But as Nouwen puts it: when the physical, emotional, intellectual or moral life commands all the attention, we are in danger of forgetting the primacy of the heart. The heart is that divine gift that allows us to trust, not just God, but also our parents, our family, ourselves and our world. Very small children seem to have a deep, intuitive knowledge of God – a knowledge of the heart  - that sadly is often obscured and suffocated by the many systems of thought we gradually acquire.

·        What’s more, he writes, people with physical or mental disabilities easily can let their hearts speak thus revealing to us a mystical life unreachable by many intellectually astute folk.  This life of the heart originates in God at the very core of our existence and is one of the ways we know that we have been loved by God since the beginning of time.

Remember how I started this message?  YOU belong to God from eternity to eternity. You were loved by God before you were born; you will be loved by God long after you die. Your human lifetime – long or short – is only part of your total life in God.

·    I’ve realized that again and again as I simply sit with people who are dying:  being present – and living from the heart – is what matters in those moments.  And they are really all we have to bring to the table, right?

·    Last Sunday, when some of us attended the 168th celebration of the founding of Second Congregational Church, their moderator, Mrs. Wiggins said something that knocked me out and humbled me in a beautiful way.  She talked about how grateful she was that there were people from First Church at this celebration.  She said that we had our start together as God’s people – and they will join us for our 250th celebration – and they will do so giving thanks to God for us. Because even though there were some rough and very ugly moments in our history, the Holy Spirit has used what was broken and weak to bring us together into THIS moment.

I’m telling you, she gave thanks to God for our historic racism – although she never said that – because by owning it now we can grow stronger in God’s grace.  And that is NOT the head or the mind talking, beloved, that is the HEART filled with God’s hope by the Holy Spirit. To me, sitting in front of that sweet congregation, I kept saying:  this woman is St. Paul speaking to my heart saying: I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.

In something called “The Paradox of Our Time” falsely attributed to George Carlin, someone wrote:  Today we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy it less. We have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; 

We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less wellness. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom and hate too often. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life; we've added years to life, not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor and conquered outer space, but not inner space. 

Homo sapiens?  Probably not so much – there is just too much evidence to the contrary – so in the cause of hospitality, humility and hope we’d do better to honor more of the heart and less of the mind. I love this reworking of St. Paul’s love admonition in I Corinthians 13 in Peterson’s The Message:

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

So first it is more important to be present than to do something.  Second the
heart is more important than the mind and all our abstract thinking.  And third, given our call to community: doing things together in love is more important than doing almost anything else alone. When we live our lives from the heart so that most of our days are spent simply showing up to be real and loving with one another, we discover two things:

·   One is that we need others to help us stay accountable and connected: it is so easy to wander off on tangents – or get lazy – or hurt feelings and forget that this world and this commitment to God IS NOT ABOUT US.  It is about how we love one another. So, I know that I need loving and honest friends to say:  I think you are off track, buddy. I think you are too self-absorbed Pastor. I think you have your head up your butt!

·    Jesus is so clear in today’s gospel: You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

·   The second is that we learn best how to live for others NOT from the strongest among us, but rather from the weakest.  From our children, from those who are the most vulnerable, from those who need us the most.  Have you ever cared for a person who is dying who doesn’t have anyone else to help them?  No family? No hospice? No money?

·        Tell the story of Ellen Guzay in Cleveland…

I hate being vulnerable – I hate crying – I hate having to listen to the will of God’s people rather than my own ego or addictions or selfishness.  And every time I try to go it all by myself my life becomes a COMPLETE mess. I am my own worst enemy – you probably are, too.

And so God has given us a plan:  it has to do with practicing hospitality, humility and hope in our everyday, ordinary lives.  And when we do not only do we stay grounded to God’s grace, but we become agents of love and peace and hope in the real world.

·   Our lives are short my friends – too short – so I want to be saturated in as much love as possible.  Nouwen was right:  Remember: YOU belong to God from eternity to eternity. You were loved by God before you were born; you will be loved by God long after you die. Your human lifetime – long or short – is only part of your total life in God. The length of time doesn’t matter. Life is just a little opportunity for you to during a few years to say to the Lord:  I love you, too.

So let those who have ears to hear: hear!

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:...