Saturday, May 31, 2014

Who knows why...

Who knows why things happen? I trust the Lord but don't pretend to comprehend the why and how of most things in my life. I fundamentally believe that I am NOT in control of very much - even when I rebel and chaff at this truth - mostly because my powerlessness keeps being proven over and over again. Marriage, divorce, friendships, politics, spirituality, dogs, the way a song hits you unexpectedly, tears and so much more are all mysteries to me and I expect that to remain true until I die.

We sow the glebe, we reap the corn,
We build the house where we may rest,
And then, at moments, suddenly,
We look up to the great wide sky,
Inquiring wherefore we were born…
For earnest or for jest?

Last week a colleague asked me: "Why are you hosting two events at your
church that focus on the conflict between Israel and Palestine? And why now?" Well, partially because my good friends Peter and Joyce have just returned from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but that's not the whole answer. Truth is I don't fully know why - especially now. But doing so has opened new portals of possibilities for us to explore trust-building and listening carefully to the wisdom and stories of some of our Jewish friends and neighbors. It has also created the context for making connections with our contacts in Palestine, too. And just to add to the mystery of the moment: who knew that Pope Francis I was going to travel to both Palestine and Israel and insert himself into the stalled peace process?
The senses folding thick and dark
About the stifled soul within,
We guess diviner things beyond,
And yearn to them with yearning fond;
We strike out blindly to a mark
Believed in, but not seen.
We vibrate to the pant and thrill
Wherewith Eternity has curled
In serpent-twine about God’s seat;
While, freshening upward to His feet,
In gradual growth His full-leaved will
Expands from world to world.
And, in the tumult and excess
Of act and passion under sun,
We sometimes hear—oh, soft and far,
As silver star did touch with star,
The kiss of Peace and Righteousness
Through all things that are done.
Last night I was doing some background reading concerning some of the charges that Palestinian activists are making about Israel. One author reprised a statement that Dr. Amy-Jill Levine shared with us a few years ago when she was promoting The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  "Please do not hold Israel to standards that are higher or even different from any other nation state just because they are Israel" she told us. To do so, she suggested, is genuinely anti-Semitic - and I think she is right. Many of the complaints against Israel are never aired against authoritarian Arab despots. Many of the so-called historic arguments about Israeli behavior toward Palestinians in the past all too conveniently forget the actual facts on the ground in favor of sensationalism. And, while the current downward spiral of violence, hatred and fear that now exists between Israel and Palestine has created despair and frustration, making the possibility of peace and a measure of dignity appear futile, this is as much due to the machinations of Palestinian politicians as to Israel's army and their dangerous over reactions. In a word, the ugly roots of antisemitism run deep.
Note that I am not saying that any or all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Not at all.  Just that Christians in the West - and those of us whose hearts ache for real peace - need to be careful, precise and on guard against the legacy of antisemitism that has too often poisoned our analysis. Israel is NOT acting like Nazi Germany. Israel is NOT renewing a form of apartheid. And Israel is NOT the only player to derail and thwart the creation of a viable two state peace plan for Palestine and Israel. Yes, Israel has made horrible blunders that have been cruel and unjust. And yes Israel must be held accountable for both the violence and degradation it currently directs against an impoverished Palestinian people.  At the same time, the propaganda of many Palestinian politicians and extremists must be challenged and opposed with equal vigor.
I think that is why the approach of Pope Francis I is so satisfying to me: he is
neither pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. He is pro-peace. He respects both peoples and nations; he values and honors the pain and wounds both have suffered; and he hold both sides accountable for their own sins. Nothing more but nothing less. And while some disparage his intervention as mere symbolism, his call for the three faiths to meet for prayer to the God we hold in common on June 8th has interrupted business as usual. 
In my world, we will listen to our guests with respect and hospitality. We will ask them and ourselves hard questions. And we will keep searching for the deeper truths. I look forward to doing this hard work together with some of my local Jewish colleagues. Who knows, maybe we like Pope Francis can bring our Islamic friends to the table for both prayer and dialogue. Who knows why? I keep thinking of Carrie Newcomer's song borrowing Rabbi Hillel's question: if not now, tell me when? But the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning , whom I have been quoting, has another take on it, too:
God keeps His holy mysteries
Just on the outside of man’s dream;
In diapason slow, we think
To hear their pinions rise and sink,
While they float pure beneath His eyes,
Like swans adown a stream.
Abstractions, are they, from the forms
Of His great beauty?—exaltations
From His great glory?—strong previsions
Of what we shall be?—intuitions
Of what we are—in calms and storms,
Beyond our peace and passions?
Things nameless! which, in passing so,
Do stroke us with a subtle grace.
We say, ‘Who passes?’—they are dumb.
We cannot see them go or come:
Their touches fall soft, cold, as snow
Upon a blind man’s face.
Yet, touching so, they draw above
Our common thoughts to Heaven’s unknown,
Our daily joy and pain advance
To a divine significance,
Our human love—O mortal love,
That light is not its own!

I understand that some will say that this is too simplistic - or naive - that in this struggle we have to take sides. But I have to confess that one of the real surprises I've experienced this year has come from trusting God like a child. As Jesus teaches unless we become as a child we shall not move into the community of God. There is always more to say, but for now this will suffice. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Thank you, Mr. E...

NOTE:  some readers may be offended by one of Mr. E's tunes - spoiler alert - while the language is rough the sentiment is sacred.  Be forewarned, ok?

Last night's Eels show was everything I had hoped for - and more! Mr. E was communicating emotionally rich songs in a creative and beautiful way as an adult sharing music with adults. To be sure, not everyone in the audience was ready to leave their frat/sorority house behind - the knuckleheads behind us at the Berklee Center for the Performing Arts clearly would have had more fun if they had stayed at whatever bar they came from - and not everyone knew how to take Mr. E's new arrangement of songs that formerly shared an over-the-top arrangement but had now been paired down to their essence. As he sings on his new CD - doing a brilliant cover of the blues band incarnation of Fleetwood Mac - "Oh Well..."
Three thoughts keep running through my mind about this show:

+ First, Mr. E's arrangements speak to his comfort as a band leader AND his sophistication as a musician. Yes, his piano form is backasswards - he does everything wrong - but it all works. Last night's ensemble included the core Eels on bass, guitar and percussion - plus a brilliant young coronet player. With this type of band there was no place to hide underneath noise or feedback or distortion (as much as I love them all!) No, every note had to ring true - the sound was crystal clear but never overpowering - and every song had to stand on the beauty and integrity of the melody and lyrics. And, from my perspective, he pulled it off with grace and humility. Old songs popped when disconnected from their pyrotechnics and the new tunes stood up to the scrutiny of being played by essential a modern jazz quartet.
+ Second, Mr. E isn't afraid to be awkward with sharing his emotional life. He knows he's been a mess - and will likely be a mess again - but when E is the most personal he communicates most profoundly with most of us. That is one of the ironies of art: the personal really DOES communicate to the vast public (when we're honest.) I was moved to tears by an old song given a fresh and simple new sound - It's a Motherfucker - mostly because it says out loud what I have felt giving my heart away in love: in spite of all the pain and fear and sorrow of the past, love changes us forever. (Apparently, singing this very song brought ex-Journey singer, Steve Perry, out to the stage to sing it with Mr. E in St. Paul.)
+ And third, in a way that once again reminds me of a maturing Springsteen, Mr. E knows his music.  When Bruce was a young dude he would often hide his most vulnerable songs inside kickass rock and roll treasures. And he always shares at least ONE golden oldie in his shows just to stay grounded in his tradition.  When I saw Mr. E four years ago, he opened with "She Said Yeah" - a rockabilly song I first heard the Stones cover in their early days - and I was immediately impressed. 

Last night he opened the show with "When You Wish Upon a Star" and went on to include two other covers that blew me away:  his encore was the Elvis classic, "I Can't Help Falling in Love" - what a tender gesture of affection and appreciation - and when the encores were over (during which he did a grand surfing take on his own "I Like Birds") he closed with Harry Nilsson's, "Turn On Your Radio." Now, not only is Nilsson one of the great American pop composers, but his songs have a depth, breadth and wit that is rivaled only by Tom Waits and Randy Newman. This was pure magic.

I was blessed by a little heaven on earth as I took in Mr. E's mature music last night - and I am so grateful.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mr E does Boston...

Tonight we're going to see/hear/experience The Eels: Mark Everett and his band have a new CD out and they land in Boston tonight - so we're going. A few years back we saw them at an odd little lounge in Boston - the Royale Theater - doing a show Mr. E dubbed "a children's performance" because it started at 7 pm but they stilled rocked the house.
This time around they are at the Berklee Performance Center - a much more upscale setting - with a set of songs that are vulnerable and nuanced: the Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett. The reviewers have not been kind about this song cycle - too stripped down musically to cover the same old psychological themes they say - but my hunch is that Mr. E (who is now 51) is trying something far more subtle than his time-tested bombasts. He is experimenting with communicating to adults. Gone are the wildass costumes that have served as ironic rock and roll armor for an insecure artist. Gone, too, are the sonic assaults on the senses that can evoke strong reactions but then just fade away. 

Indeed, it may be that like other aging rock artists from Springsteen and U2 to Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, Mr. E is finding his own persona as he learns to share from the heart without having to kick your ass. I am ALL for mature artists continuing to make music beyond their initial adolescent buzz. Jazz cats have been doing it with style for almost 100 years. Besides, NOBODY really wants to see Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey play-acting teenage angst to "My Generation" one more time.

When Springsteen did "The Ghost of Tom Joad" tour - a solo acoustic gig with minimal sound loops - it was brilliant. Here was a middle aged man singing about an America that had become a moral wasteland. About 10 years later he did another ground breaking solo tour that re-framed his early music to the sensibilities of maturity. And when he returned to the rock and roll venue, there was a depth, compassion and emotional wisdom in his music that rang true across the generations. Not only had Bruce moved through "Growin' Up" (one of my favorite early songs), but now he had the vision of an elder who had paid his dues.
The new CDs by McLachlan and Amos also embrace a newly won gravitas as they enter late-middle age. It is my suspicion that E is moving through this same rocky ground and I look forward to what he discovers... 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Small signs for hope...

Hope comes in the most unexpected ways. Today while I mourn the loss of one of my heroes - Maya Angelou - I celebrate the movement towards peace that Pope Francis created in his recent trip. As I spoke with a rabbi colleague today, we both expressed astonishment and gratitude for Francesco I tender embrace of the complexities and the promises of this moment in time. (A good summary can be found here:

There is, of course, much more to say - and LOTS more to pray and work towards. At the same time, I give thanks for small gifts of hope in the midst of so much pain and so many broken hearts.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Worship notes: the challenge of Ascension Sunday...

NOTE:  My worship notes for Sunday, June 1st 2014 - Ascension Sunday.

I was in conversation with a young man from our congregation this week who has completed seminary and is exploring his options for serving the Lord in the future. Among the many things we discussed was the psychological evaluation that has now become a standard part of all ordination processes:  sadly, over the past 40 years there have simply been too many unhealthy and unfit people who have been ordained and unleashed on our churches when they should have been weeded out. Too many innocent people have been hurt. So as a reaction to our failures, most traditions now require that a psych evaluation take place and become part of the on-going minister’s file.

As my conversation continued – and we talked about the good and troubling parts of any and all psych evaluations – I heard myself saying, “You know, while I understand the reasons why these evaluations occur – and I totally support them – there is just something ironic about testing a person for psychological stability after they have been called and chosen to go into ministry!  I mean, this is one of the craziest jobs you can take – and if you’re not a little off when you start, you will be if you stick with it!” To which he added:  “And let’s not even factor into our dedication a 2,000 year old Palestinian peasant whom we believe and trust to have been raised from the dead, right?!  That alone should disqualify us all!”

I mention this conversation and the ironies therein not to denigrate the value of helping people discern their calling and fitness for ministry - nor to deny that blessings can and do take place through wise and compassionate counseling – but rather to point out the sometimes outrageous and scandalous truths we are asked to embrace as people living in the spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord.  St. Paul used to say that Christians who look to the Cross as a sign of God’s love are considered to be fools who are out of their minds.  In I Corinthians 1, Peterson gives us Paul’s words with spectacular precision:

The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written, I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head; I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots. So tell me: where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching and teaching of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. While some people in the Jewish tradition clamor for miraculous demonstrations and others in the Greek philosophical seek logical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified.  For some this seems like an anti-miracle—and to other it is absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks and all other nationalities, too—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.” And that is why I celebrate being a fool for Christ!

This is the UPSIDE-DOWN kingdom, beloved, where losers can become winners – and hitting rock bottom can become a way to greater health and hope – where the Cross is seen as an instrument of God’s peace rather than a sign of shame and fear – and where those who follow Christ as Lord are called fools by those in power because we trust a wisdom and a love that is greater than all human reason, imagination and power.  

And NOWHERE is the full foolishness of God’s wisdom expressed more clearly than today as we honor the Ascension of Christ into heaven.

·   This is Ascension Sunday – the last Sabbath in the 50 great days of Easter – the feast that takes place before Pentecost next week – and on the surface of Ascension Sunday, this looks like one wild and crazy celebration.

·    And because it looks so weird on the surface, most Protestants – especially in our hyper-educated, Reformed tradition where most clergy wear academic gowns in worship and all ordained leaders are required to have advanced degrees (and psychological evaluations) – most of us don’t know what to do with Ascension Sunday.  It sounds like embarrassing, pre-scientific superstitious mumbo jumbo that is just too much to ask of the people we love in the church.  So, mostly, we ignore it.

And on one hand I get trying to dance around the spiritual wisdom of the
lessons appointed for today – they sound crazy and unbalanced – and just don’t make any obvious sense. Jesus has been lifted in to heaven in his resurrected body? Where did he go? Are we really supposed to believe that his BODY went to heaven where it is seated at the right hand of God the Father? How can that be? 

Where in God’s name IS this heaven?  And what the devil are we supposed to make of such foolishness? Easter is bad enough – it is a very tough sell these days – but the Ascension – give me a break? No, man, let’s just ignore this one and keep moving until we get to Pentecost. Believe me, I get that!  I’m all for talking about being a fool for Christ, but let’s not get ridiculous.

On the other hand, there is something powerful and holy in these peculiar texts that ask us to be playful as we go deeper into the foolishness of God’s love and wisdom. So let me suggest two truths that I have been wrestling with that have helped me start to love and even honor the blessings of Ascension Sunday.

·   First, we have to remember that Luke is not writing a linear history when he gives us stories in both Luke and the book of Acts.  He is sharing poetry and ideas in symbolic forms so that we catch a glimpse of truths too deep for human words.

·   This is not a book of science or social studies facts. Rather, Luke is going deeper than what is obvious.  He is not reporting, he is preaching; he is not summarizing, but sermonizing as he gives us some theological poetry to play with.  Specifically this prose poem seeks to connect Jesus with Moses so that the Ascension becomes Christianity’s story of the Exodus. (John Holbert,

You may recall that the book of Acts is really part two of Luke’s gospel.  In Luke he tells the story of how Jesus was born, in Acts he tells the story of how the church – the new body of Christ – is born.  In Luke, Jesus comes into the world through the body of Mary by way of the power of the Holy Spirit. In Acts, the new body of Christ comes into the world through the body of the Church – the new Mary – by way of the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. 

And then Luke wants to help us make all the connections we can with Christ’s tradition so that we have something we can trust. You see, in his day unlike our own, people were suspicious of things that were called brand new and improved. They wanted to be rooted in tradition. So Luke goes out of his way to help people see the connections – and for today he wants to show how Jesus was grounded in the tradition of Moses and Elijah.

That’s why Luke talks about Jesus being “lifted up.” Does anybody recall the story of Jesus meeting with Moses and Elijah on the mountain – that event we call the transfiguration – does that ring a bell? In that story, Jesus is on the mountain in prayer when the prophet Elijah and the law-giver Moses appear together. 

·   Luke wants us to understand that the ministry of Jesus is part of the justice tradition of Elijah – who was also taken and lifted up by the love of God to heaven in bodily form – and the ethical/religious tradition of Moses who is at the heart of Jewish spirituality. In fact, Luke actually concludes the Transfiguration story with the words that all of this took place “as the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up.” (Luke 9: 51)

·   Are you still with me?  Do you see the connections being made? For the people of his generation, Luke wants them to know that Jesus isn’t something brand new, but rather he continues the wisdom, justice and spirituality made flesh in time and history as expressed in the Jewish tradition. 

And just so that there is no ambiguity, Luke describes the Christian exodus experience in words that would once again evoke Elijah and Moses saying:  Jesus was lifted up.  Not only did he cross over – as was true for Moses at the Red Sea – but he was taken up into heaven by the grace of God.  Bible scholars put it like this: “Jesus' ascension, accomplished in Acts 1, is nothing less than his exodus from the earth, mirroring Elijah's own mysterious ascension in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:9-11” as well as that exodus of Moses that brought freedom to the children of Israel.

Luke connects the events of Jesus' ascent to God with similar experiences in the Hebrew Bible…joining Jesus with the quintessential prophet of justice, Elijah. By so doing, Luke in his unique literary way uses the ascension motif as a way of preaching to us a sermon about the true identity of Jesus Messiah, recalling his many roots in the sacred past of Israel's story.

·   That’s the first blessing for me in playing with this Ascension story: it isn’t about hocus pocus and pre-scientific superstition. No, the Ascension is a poem about God’s justice and mercy – a grace that takes place in time and history – but is greater than both our facts and imagination.

·    You might even say that Luke is reminding us that God’s grace, justice and mercy are out of this world.  Any thoughts or reactions?

The second blessing for me that is embodied in the poem of Christ’s ascension into heaven in bodily form has something to do with living into a faith that honors and celebrates our bodies and souls and spirits just as much as our minds. 

The master of Centering Prayer, Fr. Thomas Keating, once said that when our
Scriptures tell us that the resurrected body of Jesus was taken up into heaven, it is an affirmation that a living, breathing, healing and totally upside-down faith must include our whole bodies just as much as Christ’s whole body.  He writes: The key to being a Christian is to know Jesus Christ with the whole of our being. It is just as important to know his sacred humanity through our senses as it is to reflect upon it with our reason.

·   Now let’s play with that for a moment:  ALL of our senses – not just our reason and intellect – not just quiet moments of contemplation and prayer – but ALL of our senses.

·   That’s what today’s Psalm asks of us:  it invites us to love God as smoke is driven away and wax melts… as the compassionate are joyful and SING unto the Lord… who becomes a Father for the orphans and a protector for the widows… who becomes a shelter for those in desolation and water for even a parched land. 

Let us LOVE the Lord our God with ALL our senses – honoring the times like Jesus when we felt God’s absence and emptiness as well as those times when we feasted and were full to overflowing.

Because when we love God with all our senses – when we honor our bodies as well as our minds and spirits – then there is the chance we will honor OTHER bodies – especially those who are wounded and broken. The Ascension of Jesus is both a playful, poetic prayer that connects us to the law and the prophets of Israel, AND, an invitation to embrace and share the justice and mercy of the Lord wherever OUR bodies go.

For a long time I tried to ignore and hide from Ascension Sunday but I have to tell you now I’m loving it – loving it with ALL my senses – and I hope you can, too. And if you think I’m just totally crazy in this interpretation remember what the two men – the angels – say to the disciples as they stand there and watch the exodus of Jesus into heaven:  OK, THAT’S ENOUGH, WHY DO YOU KEEP STARING UP INTO THE HEAVENS?  IT’S TIME THAT YOU GET BACK TO WORK SHARING MERCY AND JUSTICE JUST AS JESUS TAUGHT YOU… SO GET TO IT!

As this summer unfolds and our justice work in the community ripens – as we explore with our cousins in Judaism new ways to encourage peace in Palestine and hope for the poor in the Berkshires – we will look back to this text that links Jesus to Elijah and Moses – and it shall be for us the good news that it was for our ancestors in their time of change.  Lord, may it be so among us.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Finding the cost of freedom...

Today I am thinking of the horror of war and the countless women and men who have learned to endure it even as they are transformed by it. I did not grow up in a military household. While most of the men on my mother's side of the family served their country in one branch of the Armed Services or another, not so with my father's people. He was a student with a young family during the Korean conflict and regularly spoke of his gratitude for his college deferment. So, while I grew up watching "The Big Picture" on most Saturday mornings before anyone else was stirring - to say nothing of my obsession with both "Combat" and "The Gallant Men" in the early 60s - I knew no one who had been touched by the realities of war first hand as a child.
Further, I ripened into adolescence as the Vietnam War grew in cultural and political prominence. Although it has become a cliche, it is also true to that this war came into our homes every night through the television. With six children to feed and an adult nursing home to run every evening, our clan would often gathered in front of the TV for supper. It was probably the one time in the day that my mother got a break. So along with our frozen fish sticks and succotash, there was also that little black screen every night keeping us glued to our chairs and focusing our attention. And while I could have done with less of "F Troop" or "Gilligan's Island," by 1967 I was addicted to Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News.

By the time I entered high school, there was a lively, two-pronged critique of what was being called American adventurism in Vietnam raging across the nation. The high road had been given shape and form by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who, in his 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam" at the Riverside Church in NYC, articulated the moral implications of this war. In seven clear and increasingly critical points to his speech, Dr. King laid out an alternative to American foreign policy that too often sent her children to die at the behest of greed wrapped in lofty ideals.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” Unquote.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. (see the whole speech @ encyclopedia/ documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/
  Variations on Dr. King's insights grew - and became increasingly barbed. There were voices of rage in the student movement as well as anti-colonial intellectuals from the international realm, but the Riverside speech represented the high water mark of moral critique against this war. 

The other prong of challenge that was stirring in these years was, of course, the youth culture. Heirs of the Beat Generation and the early idealism of the Kennedy's "Camelot" - with a dose of Herman Hesse, John Coltrane and the Marx Brothers added for good measure - young people all across America were experimenting with spiritual awakenings, sexual freedom and an aching desire to experience hope and meaning in body and soul. That our quest was naive and ill-formed has become all too obvious: the distance between the Human Be-In in San Francisco on January 14, 1967 and Meredith Hunter's murder at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969 was less that two years. 

I knew something was going South even if I didn't know what it was: during the summer of love - 1967 - we were rocking and rolling with flowers in our hair singing "Don't you want somebody to love?" We would ride around town laughing and playing gigs like there was no tomorrow and no one worried about violence before heading off to the Fillmore East for a show. Earlier that summer I wandered around the West Village waiting for the Mothers of Invention's late show at the Garrick Theatre to open and I was in heaven. Less than two years later, however, heading into NYC felt more threatening - signs of drug abuse and violence were everywhere - and even the music had taken on a harsh tone. Grace was no longer singing much about "Saturday Afternoon" or "somebody to love" - now it was "up against the wall, mother fucker."
What I'm trying to say is that both the moral and cultural critique against the war in Vietnam intensified as I was growing up. And it became even more highly polarized while I was in college. So much so that for decades my path didn't consciously cross that of someone in the military until I was out of seminary in 1981 and ordained. We didn't do much around Memorial Day at First Church, Saginaw, MI. I don't know why but we didn't. By the time I had become pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Cleveland, OH, however, I was in regular conversation with vets. Many in that small working class church had been in WWII with more in Korea. And the longer I was there, the more Vietnam Vets I came to know and love. 

It was in Cleveland that I started to hear the stories from vets about what they had experienced in war. It took years to build enough trust for them to open up to me - after all I was a freakin-conscientious objector! But it happened - often in connection with my commitment to AA - and I give thanks to God that we were able to dismantle some of the fears and divisions that had grown between those who had fought and sacrificed and those of us who did not. My 10 years in Tucson gave me more experience with women and men who had seen the inside of war. And over the past 7 years in Pittsfield, I have deepened these connections slowly and patiently.

Today, on Memorial Day 2014, I find my heart weeping for those who gave their lives to protect and defend the United States. So often, our war dead served with the purest of motives. They genuinely knew what Jesus meant when he said, "Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends." At the same time, too often their pure motives and courage have been exploited and manipulated. Both truths grieve me as a citizen and a beneficiary. As one old timer said to me, "Nobody has clean hands in this one."So while I give thanks today for these women and men as individuals at the same time I mourn what some of their deaths mean for America. 

We don't do mourning very well as a nation.  We tend to think of it as a sign of weakness. Besides there are more important things to attend to in a world as broken as our own. But without mourning, our wounds never mature in healing - they just scab over - and become a dull ache. What's more, without mourning, our spirits are never humbled and emptied so we never really have to wrestle with the moral ambiguities of our wars nor our complicity in those things we truly hate. America could use a season of grief and confession. We could stand to own our emptiness in faith, too. Because the truth of God is that when we become empty there is room for God to fill us up. 

This is a bittersweet national holiday.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

I surrender...

Well, after valiantly opposing (and denying) my chest cold over the past few days, this afternoon I had to surrender. It sucks. It is draining. And there is so much I want to be doing right now - but apparently that is for another time. To every-freakin-thing there is a season, yes? That said, this enforced "chill time" has given me a moment to think about the connection between this Sunday and next:  Ascension Sunday. 

We didn't talk much about Christ's ascension in the church of my youth. We did hear about "Waiting for Godot" and the existential similarities between the Christic story and our own inner journeys and anxieties. Kierkegaard and Tillich were big in the heady environs of my adolescence. It wasn't until I was past seminary and into my first church, however, that my heart felt the overwhelming love and joy of God's grace. I talked about that today through a number of prayer/ songs that gave me an encounter with that love that will not let me go. And without realizing it on a conscious level, this was a great set-up for THIS week's encounter with the Ascension of Jesus. 

My hunch is that I'm going to share something like this:

+ At this moment in history, when religious bodies continue to disqualify
themselves from being taken seriously by the world because we foment so much hatred, fear and violence, I want to consider an alternative. Specifically, I want to explore what the poetry of our tradition teaches us about God's grace that we have ignored - or buried - or intentionally banished to the periphery. I do NOT want to spend time trying to prove how many angels dance on the head of a pin nor do I want to use esoteric language to talk about the awe of God's love that really only can be experienced but never fully explained. And on Ascension Sunday that is quite a challenge...

+ Nevertheless, here's much working hypothesis: the stories in the Bible and words of the ancient creeds are mostly midrash and poems pointing to a host of blessings that are far greater than our imaginations. In today's poem we're told that Jesus is lifted up in a great obscure cloud of light... so that he now bodily sits at the right hand of God. Now I have to confess that on one level I have NO idea what the information in this story is telling me. One one level, it is truly incomprehensible and even after reading theologians far smarter than myself, I still don't know what their point is.

+ On the other hand, when I step back and let the poetry and imagery of this story speak to me, I  begin to see a few blessings that I can really celebrate. First of all I see that the broken and wounded but resurrected body of Jesus is now embraced fully by God -and that's good news for me. Because it tells me that God understands intimately all my wounds and brokenness. God's grace isn't abstract or ethereal, it is related to my living hurts and shame.

+ This story also suggested that what happened to the wounded and crucified
Jesus is part of my experience, too: God raised him up, brought healing and hope to him as well as the gift of new life. And what God has done for Christ, God promises to do for me. That's good news, too. And one thing more: the more I open myself to God's healing and transforming grace - the more I become an ally of Jesus - the deeper God's love works within me. The ancient Easter Orthodox tradition teaches that the more I rest in God's love - waiting in prayer and mediation as Jesus advises - and the more I let my heart trust that God is in charge - casting my anxieties and fears upon the Lord - the more peace I encounter. In those moments, I actually taste a bit of God's kingdom as it breaks into my ordinary experiences. Heaven is NOT some place in the time/space continuum, but deep intimacy with God wherever I am. And these tastes that happen in flashes now, will happen more profoundly then.

That's what I think I'm thinking about right now.  But it is time to take another break and let this damn cold run its course. Happy Memorial Day dear friends: tomorrow we will light some candles to honor our beloved veterans who died in service to God and country. Please, don't forget them.
1) Jane Butler-Biggs: Ascension @
2) Salvador Dali: Ascension of Christ @

Saturday, May 24, 2014

On faith, hope and love...

Yesterday my reflections centered on the way people of faith use words when disagreeing with one another. It was implied that my critique centered upon those individuals seeking to live into the compassionate alternative to the status quo manifest in Jesus Christ. As a rule I don't speak for - or even to - the wider culture. From my perspective, I haven't earned the right to be trusted: I am still learning to pay my dues through acts of solidarity and partnership on behalf of the common good. 

This is an essential given the arrogance of Christendom's past. Like my mentor in ministry, Ray Swartzback, used to tell me: "As a straight, white man you have to earn the right to be heard - and your credibility isn't portable. Every place you go requires earning it again as a servant of justice and love." I get brother Ray's insight. I affirm it strategically. But more importantly, I honor it theologically. The living, wounded Body of Christ in the 21st century must be different, albeit connected and humbled, because of our history. My writing, speaking, music-making and activism is guided by Ray's reworking of Christ's words before the Last Supper where Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his disciples as a servant. I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. 
At this stage in my life I know that I get this wrong at least as much as I get it right. The ancient rabbis used to teach that we should hold two notes in our left and our right pockets. In one the note reads:  You were made just a little lower than the angels. In the other: Remember, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. The poet Rumi writes in much the same vein:

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.

It lands left.

I ride after a deer and find myself

chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.

I should be suspicious

of what I want.

It is painful, hard and complicated for contemporary Christians to shift gears. We have, after all, 1600 years of being top dog to confess, let go and move through into something new that is yet emerging. Still, now that Christianity is being disestablished throughout the United States - and is truly disestablished for those of us who used to be known as the Protestant "mainstream" - we have been given a fresh start. Sadly, when many reflect on what this new day for our tradition might mean, all we can muster is a return to our former dominant status. As Douglas John Hall writes, "we assume that the only way into the future for Christians is a repetition of Christendom past - only better, stronger and bigger!" In doing this we're left being as snarky and mean-spirited as popular culture and/or as empty of alternatives as worn out secular humanism.

Hall goes on to synthesize what I sense to be the challenge for people of faith
in the West at this moment in time: unless we "discover ways of conducting our life and our mission that differ radically from the Christendom form of the church that has dominated throughout most of Christian history, we shall be doomed in the future to be part of the world's problem, and not its solution." (http:/ /www2.

That requires of me at least the following:

+ First, I must train my utilitarian nature and obsession with fixing and/or changing things to learn the practice of contemplation. I need to take time to listen and think. As they say in the realm of spiritual direction and friendship: now is the time to take a long, loving look at reality. Hall writes "...original, deep, critical, theological thinking —is the conditio sine quo non - the condition without which the Christian movement will not find its way into the uncertain future." Simply stated: now is the time for me to hurry up and slow down so that I might do nothing except ponder reality through the lens of love and trust. "Be still... and know that I am God" is the rule of the day for me.

+ Second, my everyday walking around life - as well as my professional and public activity - needs to offer evidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ is grounded in hope, reconciliation and compassion rather than moral or ethical rules. The liberal church in the United States has a long history of shouting about how bad, corrupt and immoral others are because we have substituted exhortation for spirituality. Spirituality is how I live and share the love of Jesus. Exhortation is finger pointing no matter how well intentioned. Spirituality is embodied and incarnational and guided by love; exhortation is almost always saturated in shame. And in 21st century America, no one listens to our cries of DO THIS or DON'T DO THAT! Why should they? "Activist preachers who believe that their congregations are just waiting every Sunday to be told - once again - what they must, should and really ought to be doing, simply have not heard the deafening WHY? that is being shouted (silently, of course) by the polite people in front of them." (Hall) As those who began the Protestant movement knew all too well, "gospel precedes law." What I am called to embody is how grace matters in my life while leaving the rest to God.

+ And third my prayers are to be guided by three words:  faith, hope and love as everything else is merely commentary. Faith means trust - it is not power in the traditional sense - but rather an antidote to hubris. Faith not only recognizes and embraces doubt, it gives us permission to live with uncertainty. Hope points to the future recognizing our existing failures and even despair.  Hope does not shy away from human or ecological suffering; rather it holds this suffering tenderly trusting that even death is not the end of the story. And love, as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote "is the revelation of the fact that the final power of God over man (sic) is derived from the self-imposed weakness of God's love." Hall closes one essay with an extended quote from Tillich that has juice for me.

When we look at the misery of the world, its evil and its sin, especially in these days which seem to mark the end of a world period, we long for divine interference, so that the world and its daemonic rulers might be overcome. We long for a king of peace within history or for a king of glory above history. We long for a Christ of power. Yet if He were to come and transform us and our world, we should have to pay the one price we could not pay: we would have to lose our freedom, our humanity and our spiritual dignity. Perhaps we would be happier; but we should also be lower beings, our present misery, struggle and despair notwithstanding. We should be more like blessed animals than women and men made in the image of God. Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross as a way, and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and of humankind.

Hall writes:  a theology of the cross is a theology of faith - not sight or certainty - a theology of hope - not consummation but trust - and a theology of love - that is often the polar opposite of traditional power politics. Most of Christian history has been about a theology of glory. "And if you want to understand what the theology of glory is, you just have to turn this ordering of the virtues around: it is theology of control and sight - not faith - of consummation - not hope - and of politics and power - not love." 

My work - and calling - and critique is addressed to those within the community of faith who seek to live into Christ's Cross and its radical alternatives. More than ever those wrestling within the Christian family are being asked to bury our inner snark for a season or two; find ways to speak with more love and clarity even when we disagree; and trust that God knows more than we could ever imagine. Without this, I sense that we're just part of the same old arrogant Christian bullshit that the world is discarding at record speed.

Friday, May 23, 2014

If your only tool is a hammer...

So what's the difference between speaking with passion and conviction and being a bully? How do you differentiate between words that are intellectually or emotionally over the top because a button has been pushed and a shadow exposed, and, a firmly held conviction that challenges the status quo? A moment of self-disclosure, for many of us, discerning these differences is a life-long quest - especially those who have confused anger for passion and getting our own way with advocacy. Add the double-whammy of our culture's insistence upon repressing nuanced emotional health in most men and the challenge becomes even more complex, yes? 

One of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, put it like this in a collection of essays entitled The Death of Adam:

It all comes down to the mystery of the relationship between the mind and the cosmos. Those who would employ reductive definitions of utility or reality credit their own perceptions of truth with fundamentalist simple-heartedness, brooking no allusion to complexities and ambiguities and countervailing experience... It seems to me that there is now the assumption of an intrinsic fraudulence in the old arts of civilization. Religion, politics, philosophy, music are all seen by us as means of consolidating the power of the ruling elite, or something of the kind. 

She goes on to argue that contemporary culture - and our infatuation with the marketplace as the only viable metaphor for reality - nourishes a "terror at complexity (that) has driven us back... (to) a very crude monism. We have reached a point where cosmology permits us to say that everything might in fact be made of nothing, so we cling desperately to the idea that something is real and necessary, and we have chosen, oddly enough, competition and market forces, taking refuge from the wild epic of cosmic otogeny by hiding our head in a ledger."
My experience - personally and professionally - suggests that Ms. Robinson is on to something: not only have we made an idol out of marketplace realities, we have let the most shallow market metaphors feed our fears of complexity. Indeed, as one poet wrote at the turn of the century, "We have become what we have hated." Funny how that works out over and over again. Jesus put it like this in Luke 12:34:  where your treasure is, there will be your heart. Or as the 19th century moral philosopher, Ludwig Fuerbach, said:  "You are what you eat." You become what you do - your habits, culture and material surroundings shape and inform your worldview - and we have chosen to be overfed on a diet of consumerism and fear for so long it even shapes how we speak with those we love. Somebody has to win - and somebody has to lose.
As I was surfing Facebook last night, Diana Butler Bass, posted this quote about life in a post-Twin Towers context that has implications for my opening question.  She wrote:

In the 20th century, there were three events that dramatically changed the global religious landscape: 1) the trenches of WWI; 2) the Holocaust; and 3) the nuclear bomb. After all three, it was exceedingly difficult for conventional religious faith to make meaning in the world (and raised questions engaged by the greatest philosophers and theologians of the last century). Increasingly, it seems to me that the exponential growth of religious disaffiliation in the North America has a lot less to do with individualism than it does with a profound cultural reaction to the "Post-Twin Towers" world. In a very real way, people who have left churches are reacting to a loss of meaning in conventional pre-9/11 religion, spiritually unmoored as they are attempting to remake forms of faith that provide a new way of life from the ashes of religious violence and crusading hatreds. If we blame the "nones" for the problem of religious decline, we've missed the point; for many of the newly unaffiliated feel and see the problems far more clearly than (sadly) many of the church people I know. There is no way around the cultural reality of religion's complicity in global violence and until we get our heads and hearts around that, and until we discover new paths of theology and spirituality and making community, there's not much hope for any of our existing religious structures. (BTW, this "Post-Twin Towers" reality is so much like the years following WWI in Europe that 1914 and 2001 suggest a sort of historical poetry of anguish and post-Christian doubt.) 

Here's the take away for me in three parts:

+ First, in our current culture of competition and fear, it is small wonder that even good-hearted people speak to one another with cruelty. Where is the alternative model? Certainly NOT in most of our churches, synagogues and mosques.  Bass is right (as was Joseph Campbell before her) in noting that religion is so complicit in the global violence of this era that we have been disqualified from any significant public role. People have voted with their feet and taken their hearts and minds with them. To my way of thinking, those of us attempting to live into the call of the Spirit, must recognize that we have to earn the right to be heard. We must saturate our words and actions in compassion so that a track record that is objectively observable in the marketplace can be considered. And we're no where close to having earned the right to be heard again.  Like David Crosby sang:  it's been a long time coming, gonna be a long, long time gone.

+ Second, given this reality in the West, our work also includes showing
contemporary people how life has value and hope before death. No one in our world - that is, the world of Western culture and history - is worrying about life after death. Most of us in the post-Twin Towers realm want to know if there is meaning BEFORE our lives are over. As Bass notes, you can see the confusion, fear and despair in our art just as this was clear in the culture of post WWI and the Holocaust. 

Think what you like of Paul Tillich's sins - and he could be cruel in some ugly ways - he was also brilliant in observing that the Spirit of God was at work in the artists of his day. Indeed, he was so bold as to say that the Spirit of God had vacated the churches of post-WWI Germany because they were obsessed with sentimentality and nationalism. Not so in the music and visual art that gave birth to abstract expressionism. Much of contemporary visual art in this generation is flirting with beauty - a long forgotten virtue - that speaks to our inner emptiness. This is a clue about how to nurture meaning and hope in the 21st century. Beauty evokes awe - an experience that the marketplace has squeezed out of everyday considerations - but which is an essential ingredient in identifying real passion and authentic compassion.

+ And third, this moment in time invites us to reclaim the value of community after three generations of rugged and obsessive individualism. And not phony or forced community that demands membership and rules and dues. No, the simple table fellowship of Jesus will do very nicely. An open table where there is a place for everybody and the whole party is eager to hear your unique and important story. The time has come for religious bodies to practice lots more feasting where story-telling is at the core not doctrinal minutiae. Group singing, too is a lost art in the West, but it can teach us so much about listening as well as trusting and sharing. Just an encounter with creating harmony is a lesson that cuts deeper - with gentle beauty - than almost anything the marketplace currently offers - Disneyland included.

Rilke described our dilemma through the lens of his own generation in this poem that continues to shape and haunt me.

sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

Last night, after I finally went to bed, I finished Paul Harding's new novel, Enon. Not coincidentally, I had just watched the movie version of The Book Thief (from Markus Zuzak's novel of the same name.) Both books - and the film - explore something of our culture's soul at this moment in history:I see it as a deep and crippling grief writ large that we are confused about embracing. We avoid grief, we self-medicate against it, we scapegoat and distract ourselves with foreign enemies (real and imagined) to avoid paying attention to our own sorrow and shame. Nevertheless, we are still shadow-boxing with the world of our fears rather than spending time grieving and being liberated by the Spirit.

Sadly, most of our churches (I don't know about our synagogues and mosques) stink at mourning. We rush through everything in a sanitized way then expect our people to get back to business three days later. Look, that was ok for Jesus after HIS death, but most of us need years to figure out what has changed. Thomas Lynch, a poet undertaker, has written insightfully and ironically about grief and death.

Yeats said to Olivia Shakespeare that the only subjects that should be compelling to a studious mind are sex and death. Those are the bookends. And think of it, what else do we think of, what else is there besides that? “I think most people drive around all day being vexed by images of mortality and vitality. All they’re wondering about is how they’re going to die and who they’re going to sleep with, or variations on that theme—what job they’re going to have, whether they’re tall enough or skinny enough or short enough or smart enough or fast enough or make enough money, and all of it plays into these two bookends.

There are clues all over the place that we are ungrounded, filled with fear and terrified to grieve. We turn even the slightest disagreement into a contest where someone has to emerge as a winner. To which I suggest the road less traveled - the way of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer, the way of Robinson, Bass and Lynch, the way of our modern shamans making the music of faith, hope and love - and the way of silence and listening, the way of music and beauty. Because if your only tool is a hammer, everyone will look like a nail - and there are too many people hurting to whack them again.

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:...