Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Letting the text swim around in my head and heart...

One of my all-time favorite biblical texts has to do with the woman who weeps upon the feet of Jesus, dries them with her hair and then caresses them with perfumed oil. It is so sensual and tender - much like the grace of God, yes? Each of the four gospels contains a version of this story, but all have different nuances and twists. For this week's Sunday message I want to play with some of these unique elements and tease out insights about how they might help us become more grounded in deep compassion. A few questions have emerged:

+ First, Luke tells us that Jesus was invited to a feast at Simon the Pharisees home, while Mark says it happened at Simon the Leper's household (and John suggests it was in the home of Mary and Martha.) Now these are very different people - a Pharisee, a leper and two faithful female disciples - so why do the gospels give us these different details? What difference does it make? And what is being described by placing this story in such varied contexts?

+ Second, some commentators speak of the woman as a sinner from the city - hamartolos in Greek - and conclude that she must have been a prostitute. There is no evidence, however, that this is true. Moreover, if the woman had been Mary of Bethany as John's gospel suggests, then she certainly was not a woman of the streets.  Pope Gregory conflated Mary Magdalene's story with Luke's story of a female sinner from the city, so the Western Church has long gotten this wrong.  What perplexes me is why there is so much confusion about who really broke the alabaster jar of perfumed oil upon the feet of Jesus? What difference does the story make if she was sinner versus a loyal disciple? 

+ Third, Matthew apparently also has the meal taking place in the home of Simon the leper - like Mark - but closes the story with words that say "this woman has shared a beautiful work of love upon me." Interestingly, the word "beautiful" - kalos in Greek - embraces both the aesthetic and the ethical dimensions of beauty. Her act of extravagant gratitude not only looked and felt beautiful, but pointed toward the beauty of grace in action. I once read a sermon by an Anglican bishop in Scotland who used this text to encourage and support artists:  they, too, have created something beautiful for the Lord.

I am not entirely sure where all this is going - or what will happen on Sunday - but I love letting the questions of the Bible swim around in my head and heart for a while. And I trust that by Sunday, I will have some understanding of where the Spirit wants us to go.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Taking it slow...

Often clergy get away for at least a week after Easter, but that wasn't in the cards for me this year, so we're away this week. And the double blessing is that in addition to some quiet/away time, we get to spend each day with our little guy, Louie, our grandchild. Let's just say that it has been both a delight and also a challenge. He is a very sweet child and easy to care for, but he's starting to teethe this week so.... we need to give him some extra loving. As other grandparents have told me, NOW you recall why we have children when we're younger! It is such a privilege to help his Momma and Poppa, too.

Yesterday, for example, I tried playing a number of tunes for him and his favorite turned out to be "I Wanna Be Sedated" by The Ramones. Today it was Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" and "I Fought the Law" by The Clash. He also did a little baby jig to Woody Guthrie's "Car Car." Who knows what tomorrow will bring, yes?

Each night that we've been away I've read a little bit of Barbara Brown-Taylor's new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, as well as some of Carrie Newcomer's poems in A Permeable Life. And when my little man is down for one of his regular naps, I catch a little rest, too before working on this week's message for Sunday worship. I am doing a seven week series called: Meeting God at the Table with Jesus. Each week we'll have an informal conversation about what one of Christ's different feasts tells us about the nature of God. 
This Sunday we're using a gospel text from Luke 7: 39 in which a woman who has sinned - and it is never stated what it was that condemned her - crashes a party Simon the pharisee is throwing. Two fascinating ideas that are swimming around in my head have to do with forgiveness and gratitude.  

1) From the woman's actions - pouring expensive oil on the feet of Jesus and weeping over them with her tears - it seems clear that she has already been forgiven by Jesus. What her actions suggest is a grateful response to grace - and she is ecstatic.  As David Lohse has written:

Consider: forgiveness at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable. But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself. You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free.

2) Because forgiveness buries the past and gives us a fresh start, we must practice giving as well as we have received. It is illustrative that Jesus never scolds the pharisee or shames him. Rather, Jesus simply celebrates the woman's new life and invites others to do likewise. When we own our own brokenness - our own need for forgiveness - we can practice giving it away in abundance. And the sad truth in this story is that the party's host doesn't think he needs grace.

Rather than be taken aback by the woman’s show of love, he judges both her and Jesus. He is a man who has no sense of being forgiven – even of needing forgiveness – and so is trapped in a judgmental hardness of heart. This story, then, tells both halves of the truth: the joyful truth that those who recognize their need receive their heart’s desire and live out of gratitude and love, and the tragic truth that those who believe themselves righteous or sufficient on their own never know the joy of receiving and so pursue truncated lives absent genuine gratitude or love. (Lohse)

Preachers need time away to both rest and reflect. I am so grateful that my time away takes me my family this year.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Going to worship at club passim...

Yesterday afternoon we schlepped into Cambridge to see Carrie Newcomer at Club Passim - the venerable folk music center of the universe in these parts - and it was a total gas in every way possible. 
What's more, after the concert I got the chance to invite Ms. Newcomer to Western Massachusetts for a future gig/workshop. NOTE: I will want to do this in concert with other like-minded arts and spirituality folk in the Berkshires so watch for your invite in the days to come! 

As a person of faith who celebrates the sacred within the ordinary, Carrie Newcomer resonates with my spirituality in so many ways. Her music is simultaneously sacramental and saturated with stories of ordinary people encountering strength and grace in the midst of their humanity. She began the show with this poem from her recently publish book - and musical CD - entitled A Permeable Life - a poem I will use to start my message during worship tomorrow morning:

I want to leave enough room in my heart

For the unexpected,
For the mistake that becomes knowing,
For knowing that becomes wonder,
For wonder that makes everything porous,
Allowing in and out
All available light.

An impermeable life is full to the edges,
But only to the edges,
It is a limited thing.
Like the pause at the center of the breath,
Neither releasing or inviting,
With no hollow spaces
For longing and possibility.

I would rather live unlocked,
And more often than not astonished,
Which is possible if I am willing to surrender
what I already think I know.
so I will stay open
And companionably friendly,
With all that presses out from the heart
And comes in with a slant
And shimmers just below
The surface of things.

Three things are worth lifting up about last night's performance as they connect with the trajectory of her artistic commitments:

+  First, her concerts and recordings are drenched in beauty and authenticity. No hype, no hyperbole, just exquisitely crafted acoustic songs of faith, hope and love. She plays her guitar with verve and carefully crafts a sound that invites the listener to come a little closer. Working intimately with her regular pianist, Gary Walters, a classical/jazz artist in his own right, her songs ebb and flow, carrying the audience on a journey towards the "heart" of what is real.  Her lyrics speak of tender mercies without sentimentality. And she sings with passion and clarity, too in a rich alto voice that is never shrill or affected. I confess that I was emotionally spent after this show having shed tears of joy and gratitude over and over as I basked in the wonder of her music.
+ Second, Carrie Newcomer understands her work as a calling. Leaving the club, my wife Dianne said, "With the exception of U2 I can't think of another artist whose music I want to share more with people in church!" I was thinking much the same and blurted out, "For me, her shows are my church for they fill me full to overflowing." At one point last night she said: It is so easy to become cynical... but to wake up each day and choose to hope... and then do it again... and again... and again after the inevitable disappointments ... to wake up and do it again that takes courage. A recent Tumblr posting pushes more profoundly re: her awareness that she has a calling as an artist of faith, hope and love:

On A Permeable Life I continue to explore the idea of justice. I was listening to one of my favorite radio programs, ‘On Being’, hosted by Krista Tippet (exploring the intersection of science, culture and spirituality). On this particular podcast civil rights activist, Vincent Harding, spoke about how every justice movement has been supported by music and song. Sometimes we make jokes about the “Kumbaya moment,” but Harding related stories about how songs were at the heart of the civil rights movement (and other movements). Near the end of the program he called for the new songs of hope and justice, ones that speak to our current condition and communities. After hearing this interview I kept thinking about how music connects us in ways deeper than words. When we sing together about the ideas that are vitally important to us something changes. Singing together is not just an intellectual exercise. Yes, songs happen in our minds and intellect, but they also happen in our bodies and in our spirits. Singing together about justice brings that hope into the world in new and tangible ways. That was when I wrote the song, “Room at the Table” which appears on A Permeable Life.

I wanted to write a new kind of hymn, a contemporary call to justice and an affirmation of our ability to work toward positive change. I’m pleased to hear from listeners and organizations that the song is already being sung by groups engaged in work for marriage equality, hunger relief, economic justice, peace and nonviolent conflict resolution, environmental action and sustainable living. I believe if we choose to share, there will be enough for us all. “This is how it all begins, let us sing the new world in. There is room at the table for everyone.“

+ And third her performances consciously evoke a renewal of our best selves. From time to time, she has collaborated with Parker Palmer on shows that are part concert and part conversation. Their goal is to both model civility in our age of mistrust and empower others to practice carefully listening and authentic respect. Two years ago one of our small groups in church read Palmer's Reclaiming the Heart of Democracy (after I saw Newcomer in concert.) Our "take away" was simple: we can craft space in our hearts and our lives for gentle honesty. This set in motion a series of summer conversations with community leaders around various potluck tables that gave us a chance to talk about gender equality, immigration and new ways to bring support to folks with mental illness.

I draw sustenance from artists like Carrie Newcomer - and particular joy and encouragement from her in particular. She knows that there is a sacred place within us all that needs nourishment. Further, she knows this is true in all types of people from all parts of creation. What a blessing.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Room at the table...

Douglas John Hall places this quote from Rudy Wiebe at the start of his life's work, the three volume systematic theology for the North American context he calls:Thinking the Faith (as well as Confessing and Professing the Faith.) It reads:

Jesus says in his society there is a new way for (people) to live:
     you show wisdom, by trusting people;
     you handle leadership, by serving;
     you handle offenders, by forgiving;
     you handle money, by sharing;
     you handle enemies, by loving;
     and you handle violence, by suffering.
In face, you have a new attitude toward everything, toward everybody. Toward nature, toward the state in which you happen to live, toward women, toward slaves, toward all and every single thing. Because this is a Jesus society and you repent, not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

As I made the long drive yesterday from Maryland to Massachusetts, three thoughts about why this continues to appeal to me kept playing over and over in my mind:

+  First, as I have posted before, I am exploring a reborn and/or reawakened childlike encounter with my faith. I am not tired of deep thinking. I am not weary of profound insights. But I am exhausted by the posturing that takes place within both liberal and conservative clergy circles re: who is the most radical, the most provocative, the most faithful to the politics of Jesus. I find such posturing exhausting because I don't see anything even resembling a systematic political agenda in the life and words of Jesus. John Howard Yoder and many of my liberation theology friends to the contrary, what I see in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus is the Messiah made flesh who brings a whole different social agenda to his followers than what often passes for politics.  

To my mind, Jesus is mostly the master of compassion - pure and simple - mixed with radical hospitality and an embodied spirituality of God's grace. This has a demanding social impact, to be sure, but it is fundamentally personal at its core. As the Hall quote suggests, each act of personal compassion/grace turns social relations upside down. Call it moral jiu jitsu or the upside down ethics of God's community, what I have come to affirm is a way of "following" that emphasizes how I personally "pick up my Cross and follow." Yes, as Jesus lives into the prophetic poetry of Israel's ancient prophets, there are real demands placed on his followers - this is NOT an "I'm ok, you're ok" self-help project - but neither is it politics. Rather, it is social transformation empowered by the Holy Spirit and life in the body (community) of Christ.

+ Second, it is my hunch that so much of the posturing that takes place in public about politics has something to do with the fact that for at least 75 years, our churches have done a miserable job of forming authentic adult disciples. We obsess on Sunday School for children - and congratulate ourselves by saying that our youth are the future of the church - when most of our youth disappear mostly forever after confirmation. What's more, too many of our adult members have come to believe that being "nice" is that same thing as being faithful. So, rather than do the internal hard work of reclaiming the church's culture of formation for Christ, we make demands that the social order enforce the commitments of discipleship. 
Again, don't misunderstand me: Dr. King was right when he said that "laws cannot change a person's heart, but they can keep them from wounding me." And there is a solid place in the world for bold and challenging Christian social witness. But never in place of assertive and life-changing adult Christian formation. In David R. Ray's helpful book, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, he cites a 1989 survey of 563 different congregations by the Search Institute of Minneapolis. The depth and breadth of this survey included the Southern Baptists as well as the United Church of Christ, the Methodists and well as the Episcopalians. When the results were tallied six denominational 
representatives sifted through the findings to articulate characteristics of a mature Christian faith.  

They all agreed on the following 8: trust in God's grace, experience of God's inner peace, the integration of faith with real life including work and politics, a desire to life-long learning, participation in a faith community, values that affirm life and reflect a personal concern for the well-being of others, advocacy for social and global social justice, experience in serving others with love and compassion.

When the researchers applied this definition of mature faithfulness to the adults surveyed in the six denominations, only one out of three qualified as mature in their faith. (Ray, p. 132)

We have a lot of work to do internally before we have earned the right to speak in public. And while I am personally committed to advancing the cause of faith-based community organizing, it is all too clear to me that without a more lively drive for adult Christian formation, not much will really change. 

+ And third, most of our churches have disqualified themselves from
being listened to or taken seriously when it comes to matters that effect the public good. We are ripe with hubris and afraid of humility. We want to tell others what is right and wrong without helping our own people practice radical hospitality. We ache for the social prowess of our long past establishment status without exploring the freedom and creativity we now posses having been pushed to the side-lines. Small wonder Pope Francis
strikes so many as a breath of fresh air: he embodies servanthood as a simple man of faith. Hall puts it like this:

One thing is certain: we shall not be able to do this (living as servants) without experiencing at first hand what Chesterton calls the “difficulty” of the way of Jesus Christ. There can be no easy transition from sixteen hundred years of Western Christendom to the church of the future. It is evident that a large number of Christians are unprepared even to attempt such a transition.

Hall goes on to say that for whatever reason, most Western Christians believe that our calling is to repeat the past - to reinforce by dominion and politics - a big is better way of institutional life "so that we may conquer in the name of Christ." This is a self-important dead end that will not bear anything resembling the fruits of the Holy Spirit. So, I have found myself energized and focused again by a growing encounter with the "childlike" aspects of faithful living. I will keep you posted.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Both sides now...

So glad to be back home: it was lovely to be with my sister and her husband - I even got to have her 49th birthday dinner with them - and it was also quite moving and good to visit with my dad. There is much to say, but I want to let the experience settle in before sharing my reflections. What's more, tomorrow there is work to finish and then head off to Boston for the Carrie Newcomer concert. 

So for now, let one of the artists who changed my life, Joni Mitchell, say it for me like this...

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Saying good-byes...

In a short time I will hit the road for Maryland where my father and sisters now live. I haven't been back since my sister Beth's memorial service more than a year ago. And this trip will be fraught with a host of complicated emotions as it is likely to be the last time I see my dad in his own home. He's been in this house for over 30 years - and in Maryland for over 40 - but the time has come to call all good things to an end. 

Since my mother's death, he has managed to cobble together his independence - with a lot of ups and downs both physically and emotionally - but it is no longer safe or economically viable for him to live alone. So, by early summer, he will be moved in with one of my very compassionate and generous sisters. My trip will be to check in with him and pick up a few things from the old house for the wider family.

It has been postponed twice because of blizzards and once because the
presenting issue had been resolved. So now I am mostly going to say goodbye. I didn't grow up in his house. By the time my family moved to Maryland I was already off doing my own things. For a short time we stayed with my parents before seminary while I saved money working as a concession stand manager for a softball field. 

Over the years I've visited but never considered it my home. I grew up in New England.  To be sure, I love the open fields of Maryland - most of which are being turned into condos for Washington, DC refugees - and I enjoy the early burst of Southern flowers. I love seeing my sisters and their families, but that's about it. Still, it fells like this will be a hard trip and saying goodbye to the old place will be complicated - especially knowing how much my father treasures his independence.

His health is not good - he is what I often call and OLD 83 - as self-care has never been his long suit. He's lived life hard - and life has been hard for him, too. As is probably true for a lot of first born sons, we've had our ups and downs. There came a time when I had to physically draw a line against the violence when I was about 15. Over the years we transitioned our battles into intellectual and emotional sparring, but built a modest truce after my mother's death took the zip out of his living. 

As many children of hard families come to realize, there comes a time to put the past into perspective and live into the present. At this stage of the game, I believe my dad mostly did the best he could given his culture and perspective. And like some of my AA friends remind me, living through my various wounds has also brought me wisdom and blessings, too. Not that any of what took place was right or good, but it is what it is and we have to learn to make our peace. So, "taking one day at a time..."
After this visit, his new home will not be his own. His driving will likely come to an end, too. That's a lot of loss for an independence for a man come of age after WWII. What's more, all of his familiar references from shops and scenery to his church will soon be different. This will be a hard summer for him. I know he hopes to make it up to Massachusetts for my daughter's June wedding. I hope this can happen. We'll get the chance to bring him to our home, too. But nothing is certain.

Ok, I've delayed getting on the road long enough... I pray traveling mercies on myself.

Monday, April 21, 2014

After working on the yard on the first day of the resurrection...

When Dianne and I moved here seven years ago, it was the start of an adventure.  We said upon leaving Tucson, "we won't do it if it isn't fun." But that hasn't been entirely true. We had to carefully and strategically challenge those forces and people in our congregation that opposed turning the abstract ideals and words of "renewal" into living realities. We had to endure harsh winters after 10 years of Tucson sunshine. And we had to bury individuals who had become part of our hearts and for whom we still grieve with sighs too deep for human words...
During these years, we buried Dianne's mother, my sister and our dog, Casey. I made the transition from being a cosmopolitan cat to someone who loves breaking my back with raking (and sometimes shoveling snow!) What's more, I have slowly but surely embraced both the slower pace of life that a small community affords and a worldview that cherishes the beauty of our little world. For decades I have intellectually affirmed E.F. Schumacher's axiom that "small is beautiful," but now I love it in my soul.
Moving here put us in close proximity to our children - whom I adore more than words allow - as both are within a short drive. In these years they have both married - one divorced and will soon remarry again - and the other has become a momma to our collective joy. We are also in the same time zone as most of our family (excepting Phil and Julie) and that has been a source of joy and comfort. Over the years, both of my daughters have spoken of the importance of "place" or "home." As a wandering pastor - and the son of a travelling salesperson - being grounded in one locale was never deeply important to me - but it is now. One of my girls turned me on to Wendell Berry and today I grasp the reason he wrote this poem: 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
These days my back hurts more than ever before but my heart knows more and more peace.  I carry more weight on my bones than I would like but I feel lighter about my place in God's creation. In fact, I mostly worry less and less about the bullshit that so warped my soul for most of my days because I am learning to trust that God is in control so I don't have to be.  Some days, the best I can do is walk with the dog in the wetlands and pray. I love the way Mary Oliver puts it:

to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go

I have discovered a passion for Montreal and jazz - creative liturgy and winter - listening to the "peepers" as they mate in the wetlands and maple syrup. This Lent I made myself a set of prayer beads that brings a grounding peace that I would have never expected in my former days. What's more, I am learning to trust that it is God I feel when I weep over pain and loss and the sadness of life. Indeed, God is fully present within me and beyond me - and I am so very grateful. I just celebrated my seventh Easter in this sweet place and I have been blessed by all of it - the good and the hard, the joyful and the anguished - and on a day of working in the yard, I can say I know and cherish it all.

Tomorrow I will leave for two days of checking in with my sister and father in Maryland. The time has come for him to leave his home of more than 40 years. It is a sad but essential transition. And while there isn't anything I can do to make it better, I can be there for a short time. And love him - and share a meal with my baby sister (on her birthday no less!) I want to hold them all in my prayers, too. So, when the morning comes, I will hit the road... and if it should all work out, I'll be back home soon so that at week's end Di and I will be able to go hear Carrie Newcomer as she debuts her now CD at Club Passim in Cambridge.

Pictures by Dianne De Mott

Chilling out after holy week...

Today is pure chill-out: lots of rest, some time in the yard with the sun and gentle conversation.  There will be a long walk with the dog and a simple supper at the close of the day, too. But nothing rushed or demanding for today is pure chill-out.
Two ideas keep resurfacing as I savor the richness of Holy Week 2014. The first has to do with my call to "reclaim a childlike faith." This was the heart of my Easter message - holding on to the feet of Jesus with a childlike devotion to his love and grace - as Matthew's resurrection text describes both the Virgin Mary and Magdalene. The only thing they knew was to cast everything upon Jesus and trust that this was enough. I am struck by the purity and simplicity of such faith. What's more, I am simultaneously bored and wearied with the uber-sophisticated questions and parsing that so many of my contemporaries want to advance when it comes to Jesus. 

Don't get me wrong, I have no interest in spiritual stupidity, moral relativity or the religious intolerance bred of contemporary fundamentalism. So let me reclaim a term used by Frederich Schliermacher - the liberal theologian of the 18th century that both liberals and conservatives love to hate - I am speaking of the "cultured despisers of religion" who are certain that they are smarter and more useful than any of us embracing a "childlike faith and trust in Jesus." Without regurgitating the history of theological debate since 1799, let me suggest that I am celebrating what might be called the reintegration of "the way of the heart" back into "the way of the mind" that has become all too rarefied and elitist.

As many of my reflections and postings over the past few years have noted, our culture has lost touch with the ability to recognize and savor authentic awe. We are unable to synthesize the impact of art and culture upon our spiritual sensibilities. And we no longer have a language that integrates truth, goodness and beauty into theological categories.  As a book I was reading last night, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches by David Ray, observes: without a meaningful theological grounding we remain confused about "what is essential" in life as well as perplexed about "its essential purpose." To paraphrase St. Anselm: theology is faith seeking understanding. And all too often contemporary theology not only denigrates the affective aspects of faith - the way of the heart - but idolizes intellectual constructs that strive for objectivity but all too often become abstract.

This morning, Fr. Richard Rohr spoke to this in his daily reflection:

The five positive messages of initiation, which I call “the common wonderful,” are a cosmic egg of meaning that will hold you, help you grow, and give you ongoing new birth and beginnings (i.e., resurrection). By cosmic egg, I mean your underlying worldview, your life matrix, and your energy field—that keeps you motivated each day. If it is true then it must be accessible from all directions, which is why I call it cosmic, and because it is life-giving, I call it an egg. It holds you together in a shell of meaning.

Our cosmic egg operates largely subliminally, but very powerfully. It is more caught than taught. I find these messages in Jesus’ teaching, but there are similar messages in all the great traditions, especially from the Islamic mystics, the Hasidic Jews, and the Hindu holy men and women. The first message of the common wonderful: It is true that life is hard, and it is also true, as Jesus said, that “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

Enlightened people invariably describe the spiritual experience of God as restful, peaceful, delightful, and even ecstatic. Seek joy in God and peace within yourself; seek to rest in the good, the true, and the beautiful. It will be the only resting place that will also allow you to hear and bear the darkness. Hard and soft, difficult and easy, pain and ecstasy do not eliminate one another, but actually allow each other. They bow back and forth like dancers, although it is harder to bow to pain and to failure. You can bear the hardness of life and see through failure if your soul is resting in a wonderful and comforting sweetness and softness. Religious people would call this living in God.

This spirituality is grounded in honoring paradox. It also celebrates the way of the heart without trashing the way of the mind. It is apophatic AND kataphatic which strikes me as a truly "childlike" way of being faithful. As one man from my church wrote to me last night:  "Here is a prayer that popped into my head during Easter worship. 'Lord, as you have risen today may your love and goodness rise in me everyday. Amen." Damn, but that is brilliant - it is just like the two Marys laying upon the ground in awe while reaching out to hold on to Jesus as the only truth big enough to offer them grace and hope. I am going to be playing with this "childlike" calling a LOT over the next seven weeks.

The second thing that has been swimming around inside me as a consequence of Holy Week is how profoundly our Good Friday theme - MISUNDERSTOOD - resonated with those who joined us.  There are so many layers to this notion that I think we've only scratched the surface. What's more, I am more clear than ever that we've stumbled on to a powerful way of helping people do deeper into their own questions with this type of liturgical art/concert. The music is just one aspect, albeit essential, but so too with the silence and the movements. 

Is it fair to say that for those outside our traditional religious categories, the old liturgies don't work? Not that they are bad - I loved being in the midst of candles, darkness, chanting and incense during the Easter Vigil - it fed my soul. But so many people spoke to me of the intensity of their emotional and intellectual journey during MISUNDERSTANDING - it gave them permission and the tools to go deeper - that I want to push this truth in ways that touch more lives.  As our culture loses connection to the ways of awe, we have a unique opportunity to reawaken the soul to the importance of embracing truth, beauty and goodness both within ourselves and as part of our commitment to the common good.

I like the way Leonard Kass puts it in his essay, "What's Wrong with Babel?"

Given that the human beings want the city (of Babel) but God does not, our first impulse is to think that the answer depends on knowing God;s reasons or seeing things from His point of view. Of this, all that we know is contained in God's remarks, no doubt uttered with a negative judgment, "Now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do." God, it seems, sees the likely success of the project, but doesn't approve it. He does not approve of the prospect of unrestrained human powers, exercised in support of unlimited imagining and desires. More generally, God may not like the absence of reverence, the vaunt of pride, the trust in technique, the quest for material power, the aspiration for self-sufficiency, the desire to reach into heaven - in short, the implied wish to be as gods...

... the project for mastery and unity begins by presupposing a partial estrangement of human beings from the world, which it hopes to overcome. Yet, in the end the project for mastery - that is, if successful - means the complete and permanent estrangement from what is real. Ironically, the proposed remedy makes the disease total and totally incurable. The self-sufficient and independent city of man means full estrangement and spiritual death for all its inhabitants. (Kass, The New Religious Humanists, pp. 62/76)

If I learned and experienced ANYTHING over Holy Week 2014 it was this: like Joni Mitchell once sang "we are golden, we are stardust..." and in our brokenness we ache "to get back to the garden." (I love Eva's cover...)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lord, as you have risen...

After Easter worship today, one of my friends came up and said:  "As things unfolded this little prayer sprang up inside me."

Lord as you have risen, may your love and goodness rise in me every day.  Amen

What a blessing! I'm going to use this every day between Easter and Pentecost.
(Thank you Dave Comstock for this GREAT picture!)

A week in review: holy week 2014

Here are a few pictures from Holy Week 2014: it was a wild and wonderful ride during which we met a number of new friends. So as Easter Sunday morphs into nap time (and then maybe a bit of yard work in the sunshine) I am letting the joy and awe of God's grace percolate within. Next week will be about a bit of rest, a trip South to see family and then Carrie Newcomer's show in Cambridge (and maybe an overnight, too.) Onward to the pix...

BAND PRACTICE FOR MISUNDERSTOOD: Carlton, Jon and James cooking up some sweet, hot jazz...





Many, many thanks to Andy, Brian, Carlton, Dave, Dianne, Eva, Jon, Jonnie, Rob, Sue as well as Liz, Scott, Paul, David, Becky, Crystal, Mark and Janet, too. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

reflections: behind misunderstood...

About 75 people showed up for our presentation of MISUNDERSTOOD - folk from our faith community and many from beyond the usual suspects - and it was a profoundly beautiful experience.  We conceptualized it as an encounter with "song, story, silence and solidarity" - an artistic invitation to the deep spiritual wisdom of Good Friday - that also transcends the limits of religious traditions.  As I said at the outset, "We know what we're hoping for but we won't know if we got there until it is over." I'm pretty sure we made it... as all of the musicians - instrumentalists and vocalists alike - gave their best with a tender love that was palpable.

There are two observations I want to make about this gig that may not be clear to anyone except those who worked on it and saw it evolve over two months of rehearsals:

+ First, while I had a working sense of where I wanted MISUNDERSTOOD to go, the full vision of the evening was not realized until about a week before last night's performance. It was, you see, an exercise in following the prompting of the Holy Spirit while being open to artistic creativity with trust and spontaneity. There is NO way I could have seen how someone's as yet unwritten biblical narrative about the Virgin Mary would jive perfectly with the song we picked to evoke the audience's response. But "You Are So Beautiful" struck precisely the right note of adoration and awe mixed with humility and hope. Same thing happened with the biblical narrative for Mary Magdalene and it's musical twin: "One Moment More." When the singer changed the closing words in our final rehearsal, no one knew how closely they would support and strengthen the arc of the as yet incomplete spoken story. 

This happened over and over again: "Secret Journey" was paired with Peter's lament, "Until the End of the World" followed my narrative about Judas and the close of the Passion Narrative marking Christ's death was followed by the ironic jazz/blues of Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy!" This band not only listened to the heart of my hopes for MISUNDERDSTOOD - bringing wild and challenging music into the mix - but they also listened to the Spirit who helped us shape both the written/spoken narratives and the essence of the Good Friday story. 

It was chilling - and reassuring - how all of this came to pass.  As our musical director, Carlton Maaia II once told me about playing jazz, "You have to LOVE the process..." because working the process of practice and improvisation on the way to performance often leads to something innovative and mind-blowing. But it won't come unless you love - and WORK - the process.

+ Second, part of "the process" is practice. Rehearsal. Refusing to treat a "church gig" as something that is just "good enough." My bandmates ache for high standards - no sloppy singing, no going through the motions while playing a solo and no taking a pass even when life is hard and work demanding. These cats gave it their ALL - lots of practice, lots of reworking and rethinking each song along with LOTS of direction and correction from me as band leader - because in addition to a performance this was also a collective prayer from each artist.  Think about that: our music and our spoken words were offered to God - and the gathered audience - as an act of devotion.

Small wonder the performers were simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted with MISUNDERSTOOD was over. Today when I went over to the Sanctuary to polish the silver for Easter Sunday, it felt like I had been run over by a truck. I was blessed by what happened - totally engaged and excited by the whole evening - and I was emotional and physical toast! And I know that is true for most of the other musicians, too. This was a work of art with the highest creative standards, AND, and a living prayer shared in community.

I hope to be able to share with you clips from MISUNDERSTOOD in a few days because it was adult Christian formation at its best. What's more, it was a total gas - and I don't want to keep all the fun to myself.  
(pictures: Dianne De Mott, Liz de Caulderon, Leo Mazzeo)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting ready for good friday...

You just never know... Last night a small group (about 40) gathered for
Eucharist, story-telling, foot-washing and prayer.  As is often the case, I put aside my prepared notes and simply spoke about living as Eucharist for the world (i.e. as the bread of communion that is taken, blessed, broken and shared) - as a servant who joyfully chooses the role of bringing comfort and tenderness to others (i.e. as Jesus kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples) - and as Mary standing at the foot of Christ's Cross and holding the wounds of the world within herself rather than lashing out.  At the end of my homily, I washed the feet of our newest staff person - a young soul who is new to the Christian tradition - reminding the gathering that next year "everyone will have the chance to come forward in humility..."  

This gathering concluded with a simplified reworking of Tenebrae - a series of readings and hymns shared in the context of extinguishing candles - so that at the close we sat for a time together in the silent darkness. It is a way, as one participant said later, "of making space for all of us to be together in our brokenness." There were lots of tears - my own and others, too - mostly because just below the surface in most of us there are wounds and sighs too deep for human words. So when we are given permission to listen to our wounds, they often erupt as tears, yes?

Once again I was struck by how counter-cultural this gathering was:  for whatever reason, this collection of souls decided NOT to go to the pub crawl. They postponed TV for an hour - or whatever else they usually do at 7 pm on a Thursday evening - and came together to weep in the shadows.  As those far wiser than I have known for millenia, this is both a form of non-violent resistance to the madness of popular culture and deep soul work. Being together in this safe place, sharing the tender innocence of a foot-washing and then hearing the old, old story mixed with the old, old songs was fortifying as well as humbling.  The small mistakes didn't matter - we were going deeper - so even my stumbling over the closing of the Lord's Prayer was not out of place within the darkness. 

This was a night where we met parts of our most profound grief and held them quietly in the presence of the Lord. Tonight we will gather to push the edges of this grief in other ways as we wander through the story of the Cross with songs from beyond the church tradition. What I have discovered in our reworking of the Good Friday story over the years is that it is archetypal - it describes the journey of the soul as we commit ourselves to the way of the Sacred - and artists as diverse as U2 and Mose Allison have tapped into this truth.  Fr. Richard Rohr recently put it like this: 

Following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Jesus invited people to “follow” him in bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, which is both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus—the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a usable one for God.

These few are the critical mass that keeps the world from its path toward greed, violence, and self-destruction. God is calling everyone and everything to God’s self (Gen. 8:16-17, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:15-20, Acts 3:21, 1 Tim. 2:4, John 3:17). But God still needs some instruments and images who are willing to be “conformed to the pattern of his death” and transformed into the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10). They illuminate the path because they allow themselves to be used.

Jesus crucified and resurrected is the whole pattern revealed, named, effected, and promised for our own lives. The Jesus story is the universe story. The Cosmic Christ is no threat to anything but separateness, illusion, domination, and the imperial ego. In that sense, Jesus, the Christ, is the ultimate threat, but first of all to Christians themselves. Only then will they have any universal and salvific message for the rest of the earth.

What I take from this is NOT that God only works through human beings, but rather God's love is grand enough to work through human brokenness - and we can become willing partners towards healing and hope, too. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Three ingredients to Christ's new commandment on Maundy Thursday....

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for tonight's worship gathering @ 7 pm.
There are three commitments for living into the “new law of Christ’s love” we are asked to grow into on Maundy Thursday:  a) Eucharistic living as symbolized by the bread of Holy Communion; b) Servanthood living as shown to us the ceremony of foot-washing; c) and living in the mystery of the Cross that invites us to have our suffering turned into greater compassion.  Now I don’t believe that any of us will consistently embrace these commitments with identical verve over the course of our lives – this is a life-long learning commitment – but I am equally certain that if we don’t consciously choose to make these commitments the core of our spirituality, the BEST we’ll be able to say about our faith is that we were faking it.

+  Passing for followers of Jesus rather than practicing the way of the Lord – acting as casual observers of Christ and his Cross rather than disciples – because anything less than these three commitment is cheap grace.

+  And I don’t say this lightly:  look, I know most of us will stumble from time to time and take the easy way out when we can.  Human nature being what it is, I know that dying to self takes forever – it is not something we can grasp and then put into practice all at once – it is clear that learning the way of Jesus requires our whole time on earth.

So getting it wrong and trying again and again, falling down in sin but getting up over and over by grace, doing your best while regularly lifting up honest prayers of confession is the organic rhythm of sacred living.  Making mistakes is how we learn; getting it wrong is part of the practice of Christianity, so that is NOT what I am talking about with the words “cheap grace.” 

No, cheap grace is the perverted and self-centered notion that simply thinking lofty, spiritual or loving thoughts is the same as doing them.  It is the ancient heresy of separating word from deed – living as if what we think and say is more important than how we act – behaving as if our bodies and the things we can physically touch are of lesser value than our noble, abstract ideas.  It is a spirituality thoroughly rejected by Jesus and his Jewish tradition, but one that has been all too popular throughout the whole history of Christianity – and is sadly all too prevalent in our generation.

·   Think of the New Age gurus who teach that all disease and suffering is the result of what we think. They call it the law of attraction – if we hurt, we’ve brought it on ourselves – and if we thrive, the same thing. For them ideas are more sacred and true than our physical realities.

·   The same would be true of the anti-Semite who last week opened fire on innocent people at a Jewish community center in Kansas City.  This man’s IDEAS about faith and real life were more important to him than the living flesh of people he hated, so he was able to convince himself that murder was of the Lord.

Over and over we see the same thing in suicide bombers or so-called pro-life warriors who attack abortion clinics in the name of God’s love. These children of God have elevated their thoughts to such a sacred height that they are completely divorced from whatever happens in the realm of the living. And let’s be clear that most of these people are not mentally diseased or suffering from PTSD:  they genuinely believe that their thoughts are more holy than their actions so when all hell breaks loose and innocent blood is spilled, who cares?

Maundy Thursday stands in quiet opposition to all such selfish, ugly manipulation of God’s love – and we are given three practices to help us stay grounded in what is real.  First, we’re asked to make a commitment to Eucharistic living by practicing Holy Communion in community. 

At the communion table, the bread is REAL – the wine is REAL – and there are no virtual images present.  We can touch the elements and taste them; we can smell what is set before us and see them as we pass them around in our flesh and blood hands to one another. There is NOTHING abstract to the Eucharist:  the ordinary is recognized as sacred, the extraordinary and holy is honored in the midst of our humanity and God’s blessing is experienced by sharing rather than hording.
So how do apply or live into the commitments of communion?  How do we embrace a spirituality of Eucharistic living?  Well, there are four steps – or ingredients – and we learn them from the bread we bless and share.

·   First the bread is taken:  just as God offers life to us as a gift, we, too, are asked to take and receive the totality of life as a gift – the celebrations and the suffering  are all sacred – and all we can do is simply hold them and honor them.

·   Second, the bread is blessed:  what is ordinary and mundane is prayed over and cherished for this is the way God’s nourishment becomes real for us; not by magic, but by blessing and awareness.

·   Third, the bread is broken:  it is torn – it is wounded – it becomes part of our real life experience.  This is the step most people hate but it is also built into the fabric of creation. We are going to fail – and sin – but our failures and sins can lead to forgiveness and greater wisdom.  We are broken.

·    And fourth the broken, blessed and taken bread is shared:  it is given away as food for the body and the soul. It is not horded or treated as private property – it is not a special gift kept only for the wise or privileged or the members of this or that tribe – it is shared freely and joyfully.

Do you know these four ingredients:  taken, blessed, broken and shared? They are one of the spiritual practices that God asks us of us on Maundy Thursday. They are one of the ways we become disciples of Jesus as Christ.

·   So think about that:  your life, like the bread, is taken – by God – it is NOT fully yours. It is a gift – a gift that is then blessed and cherished – a gift that is also broken by real life – a gift that can become a blessing for others when our brokenness is honored and transformed and shared. 

·   All of this – our bank statements and our shopping lists, our TV habits and the way we care for our bodies – are involved in a spirituality that is both intimate and earthy.  It is physical and incarnational and there is NOTHING abstract or idealized about Eucharistic living.  Is that clear?  Do you have any thoughts or questions?

The second commitment or spiritual practice of Maundy Thursday is servanthood as documented in the way Jesus washed the feet of all his disciples.  It too is fully earthy and radically inclusive because Jesus didn’t just wash the feet of those he liked – his favorites – he washed them all – and that’s one of the reasons why so many people are uncomfortable with even holding a foot-washing ceremony in worship.  What if I have to wash the feet of that knuckle-head who always complains about me?  What if I have to hold the foot of a person I’ve never met? Or worse, the foot of someone I know all too well?

And it only gets worse because foot-washing is not just about the idea of serving somebody else, but actually getting down on our knees and holding someone else’s foot in your hands, right?  So over the years I’ve come to realize that this ancient ritual is SUPPOSED to make us uncomfortable.  It is supposed to teach us about humility and trust, about the sacredness of our bodies and how much God loves us, about servanthood and loving what we often hide away and neglect.  And there are a few steps here, too:

·   First, for the person who is going to have his/her foot washed, you have to get up and come forward.  You have to consciously choose to be a part of this ritual – not as a spectator – but as a participant.

·   Second, you have to take off your shoe and some of us don’t like our feet. We think they are ugly – or rough – or stinky.  And while all of that may be true, so what? They are part of our bodies – part of the gift given to us by the Lord – and they are to be honored and cherished – like Eucharistic bread, right? But we still are ashamed or embarrassed by them; so by choosing to come forward and expose your foot, you are practicing loving yourself as God loves you – and that’s really hard for most of us.

·   And third, you are literally practicing humility as you let another serve you. It is incredibly humbling to look down at someone from church that you have worked on projects with – or built Habitat houses with – or served on church council and choir with – and see them holding your worn out old foot. And it gets worse still - and better – because that person isn’t just looking at your foot; they are holding it tenderly, pouring warm water over it and drying it with care and affection. 

Having your foot washed is one of the ways we can feel what it is like to be a child again – dependent and loved, powerless and connected – it is practicing the way of the servanthood of Jesus in a very embodied and sensual way.  Same is true for the one who does the foot washing. They practice a different type of humility by kneeling and touching, by caressing and cleansing another’s foot with respect and awe – by voluntarily taking the lesser role of a servant. 

·   The whole ritual, you see, is about consciously choosing to place your life into the hands of Christ – that’s what the physical ceremony symbolizes – it is an exercise in trust.  Small wonder so many feel uncomfortable and want to avoid it, right?

·   What’s more, after you’ve had your foot washed by another – or washed another’s foot – you can never treat them with disdain or disregard again. You may not LIKE them, but you can’t neglect them because a profound and humbling connection has been created that can never be erased. It is the bond of servanthood.

So first we’re called into Eucharistic living.  Second we’re invited into servanthood living.  And third we’re asked to live into the way of the Cross, a commitment to hold within us our pain and suffering – offering it to the Lord – so that we don’t pass it on to others and wound them.  The mystery of the Cross is that it trains us in the way of compassion, not complaining causing us to hold our suffering within rather than pass it on to others. 

This is part of what Jesus did in the garden on Maundy Thursday when he prayed:  Father, thy will be done, not my will. Remember this prayer takes place after the foot-washing and the Passover meal. 

·   It is as if he were saying:  Lord, help me take all the fear I know inside me – and all the pain being directed towards me – and hold it.  Not push it away or dump it on another – but hold it within.

·   And over the course of Thursday night and into Friday, that’s just what he did:  he held that fear and pain within himself and refused to give it back to any of those who hurt him.

In an extended quote, Fr. Richard Rohr put it like this: When you hold your pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. For then you will be an instrument of transformation for others. As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Standing would not be the normal posture of a Jewish woman who is supposed to wail and lament and show pain externally.  But she’s holding the pain within; Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. She’s trying to say, “There’s something deeper happening here. So how can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” You see, until you find a way to be a transformer, you will pass the pain onto others.

Jesus on the cross and Mary standing by the cross are images of transformative religion. They are never transmitting the pain to others. All the hostility that had been directed toward them—the hatred, the accusations, the malice—none of it is returned. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery. And it takes our whole life to comprehend this… Unfortunately, we have the natural instinct to fix our pain, to control it or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego always insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love – something he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until you move to a deeper level where it all eventually makes sense in the great scheme of God and grace.

This holding our pain and fear in God’s love takes practice – our words and ideas must become flesh – for without it, we will keep on wounding one another and never grow closer to God’s grace.

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:...