Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thinking about Joni Mitchell...

A number of articles and books grabbed my attention this past week as we tried to settle back into an après rainure Montréal (an after Montreal groove.) The first, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, is a fascinating collection of interviews spanning nearly 45 years - from the early days as folk singer ingenue to later day jazz prophet and creative composer - and I devoured it. Not just because I came of age with Ms. Mitchell's music (which I did), but also because Joni Mitchell is an artist whose arc of creativity is staggering. She is a visual artist and poet as well as a composer and performer of "contemporary American music." 
Someone once said that the music we listen to as adults is rooted in the sounds we celebrated in our adolescence. And while that aphorism tends to be true for many of us most of the time, it is not iron clad - and Joni Mitchell gives shape and form as a living exception to the rule. I still love to play "garage band/head banger" songs like "Psychotic Reaction" or "Pushin' Too Hard" - and will often slip into a default Beatles/Stones state of mind - but I also continue to find artistic satisfaction and spiritual succor in music that didn't exist when I was in high school. Further, over the past 10 years, I have found myself drawn into jazz both aesthetically and intellectually. Reading about Ms. Mitchell's evolution as an artist has given me some clues about my own eclectic inspirations as well as insights into the way she has chased her muse over nearly 50 years.

The interviewer, Malka Marom, gives Ms. Mitchell lots of time and space to explore her creativity. And she never pushes herself into the center of the conversation. Like all good journalists, Ms. Marom knows that the interview is NOT about her - it is about Joni Mitchell - something that is often obscured by the likes of Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" who can't seem to get out of the way of her guests.  Further, Ms. Marom asks opened ended questions that let us see the wild and wonderful, quirky and sometimes disturbing humanity of Joni Mitchell up close and personal. Take the question about the influence of Nietzsche on the artist's work:
There's a lot of Nietzsche in my songs. I think that what I have in common with him is you can keep your religions as long as you know that it's allegory. Let's not believe in Santa Claus into adulthood. But the main thing I took from Nietzsche is support... he's describing how Germany decayed. And I take that thought, and I show how is America is decaying.

"I picked up the morning paper off the floor
It was full of other people's little wars
Wouldn't they like their peace?
Don't we get bored
And we call for the three great stimulants
Of the exhausted ones
Artifice, brutality and innocence?"

... Since innocence is lost, it's innocence defiled. It become a new obsession. People want to fuck children because they're innocent and they want to make them dirty. They want that innocence but they want to fuck it because they're not innocent. So, in decadence, there's an increase of pedophilia... Machiavelli knew that "people don't know what to do with peace... so it always degenerates into fornication and fashion!" Isn't that a great quote? So what is the point of peace if people are just gonna change their clothes and fuck a lot?

...The decadent ones, the ones that are going down, call for artifice, brutality and innocence.

"And deep in the night
Our appetites find us
Amuse us and blind us...
While madmen sit up building bombs
And building locks and bars
They're gonna slam free choice behind us."

What this book-length, multi-generational interview does is give us a portrait of the artist as a young woman who ripens and evolves over time. Even before reading it I was drawn back to Ms. Mitchell's music and over the next few months want to go deeper. Perhaps it was our reworking of "Woodstock" last month that was the catalyst? 

In our take on this gentle anthem it became a song of lament rather than the naive celebration of peace, love and music that CSNY championed in the days following the concert. Ours was even more anguished than Joni Mitchell's own folk blues recording on "Ladies of the Canyon." For like Ms. Mitchell says 45 years later, we are a culture in descent and decay. And in times such as these, the decadent ones call for artifice, brutality and innocence.  
I am thinking of working on a Lenten liturgy - maybe Good Friday - driven and shaped by the music of Joni Mitchell (and perhaps also Leonard Cohen.) It you are curious about this multi-faceted artist, if you are interested in the process of creativity, you will find this interview satisfying and challenging.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Reconstructing my jazz influences...

In my commitment to cutting back on blog postings - mostly to focus my
thinking and create more time for practicing the upright bass and guitar - I want to focus today's reflection on my earliest encounters with jazz. It was not a musical style that was honored or celebrated in my parents' home. My dad loved show tunes, traditional romantic classical compositions in addition to Protestant choir music and the occasional country and western tune. My mother's tastes were less eclectic centering on both Elvis Presley and the jump band songs of the 1940s that drove her love of jitter-bugging. 

As a young child, I can recall coming home from the grocery store with my father who was thrilled at scoring a fresh vinyl copy of Tchaikovsky "1813 Overture" backed by Rossini's "The William Tell Overture." Back in the late 50s and early 60s suburban retail merchants were giving away "free" things, from dinner ware and cocktail glasses to stereophonic classical 33 1/3 long playing albums, and my dad regularly scarped up whatever was being handed out on that Saturday. There was the ubiquitous Mitch Miller, too whom I later learned had been the head of the A & R division of Columbia Records during this era.We sang folk songs and Christmas carols in the car, we sang hymns coming home from church and all three little Lumsdens took music lessons at a young age. My brother claimed the trumpet, my sister the violin and I bounced around trying both the accordion and the cello (early foreshadowing of my penchant for genre-bending?)

The music I recall hearing first - which still makes me bop - was early rock and roll. My Aunt Donna, just five years older than me, turned me on to Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" at a tender age - and I was hooked. Later we would watch "American Bandstand" together in the late afternoon so that before I was even in first grade I knew how to do "the Stroll" along with Dion and the Belmonts. When American pop took a nose dive towards schlock (e.g. Bobby Rydell et al) I found myself grooving to the sounds of Saint Saens and his "Danse Macabre." For some unknown reason, my fourth grade class started a music appreciation contest and I jumped in with abandon and stayed a classical geek until the Beatles broke on to the scene.
So where's the jazz, you ask? Like many kids of that time the first jazz I knew about was a cover of Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." It had been popularized in 1965 by Sounds Orchestral and based on a 1963 recording. It seems that when the producer of the "Peanuts" TV special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," was searching for a soundtrack he heard the original tune in a taxi cab while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. He phoned SF Examiner jazz critic, Ralph J. Gleason, who put him in touch with North Beach jazz man Guaraldi and the rest is history. Since that time, I have loved the haunting and evocative melody of this song as well as subsequent renditions by both George Winston and David Benoit. 

The next year Cannonball Adderley had a huge crossover hit with Joe Zawinal's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and that groove knocked me on my young ass. Little did I know at the time that Adderley had been sax man with Miles and that Zawinal would later go on to partner with Miles in fusion before forming Weather Report with Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter (another Miles protegee.) All I knew in 1966 is that I wanted to make music that was that phat and funky!
Six other early influences are also important to note after the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" blew everyone out of the water and opened hitherto locked doors wide open:

+ Pentangle: I loved everything these cats did between 1967-1970. They were brilliant at weaving English/Celtic folk melodies into jazz/blues compositions. And their bass man, Danny Thompson, was the first upright bass player that I gave serious attention both because he was so cool and his sound resonated in my heart. I still love the way this man plays.

+ Joni Mitchell: I'm reading a new book length interview by Ms. Mitchell and it is clear that from her earliest recordings, she was moving into a jazz groove. She states it clearly when she confesses, "Miles taught me to sing." The rock band, The Byrds, felt that way about Coltrane (as the intro to "Eight Miles High" makes clear.) But Joni Mitchell was more inventive and creative and as her music matured, she found that only jazz players could give expression to her compositions.

+ Paul Winter: I heard an early incarnation of what became the Paul Winter Consort one night at the Fillmore East in 1968. A member of the Kinks had contracted hepatitis and the band cancelled their performance. So, being the business man extraordinaire that he was, Bill Graham shifted the line up and opened the show with Paul Winter.  His sax playing got into my soul in that old rock and roll emporium and I've ached to work his wisdom and passion into my music ever since that night.

+ Herbie Mann: to me brother Mann IS the man - he is just so funky and fun. When I first heard "Comin' Home Baby" I was hooked, but it was a few of his later albums like "Push, Push" and "Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty" that pushed my bass playing into a new feel in the early 70s.

+ Grover Washington: For many jazz purists, his "smooth jazz" thing is anathema - and mostly I agree. But there have been times, especially in the 1980s, when I loved to hear his tender and sweet saxophone - especially his 1988 "Then and Now" - an album I still find comforting and just right. There were many a night in Cleveland when I took comfort in this album.

+ Oregon: these cats took the Pentangle angle and pushed it towards world music with Paul Winter insights. I discovered their album, "Distant Hills" , in the St. Louis public library in 1973 and I couldn't stop playing it. I find that this whole album still shapes how my mind works when constructing a gig.

Have you ever reconstructed a musical history of your earliest musical influences? Or literary or artistic influences?  Give it a try...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Shifting gears...

Having just returned from a short trip to Montreal, wherein I had no access to the Internet, I am starting to rethink the time I spend writing/blogging/doing research, etc. This is, of course, a cyclical-thing with me, but after six days I think there would be real value in taking a longer break for three reasons:

+ First, after our most recent gig - and the creativity within that experience evoked - I think I want to spend significantly more time in musical practice and creative written liturgical reflections. 

+ Second, after the first full night of forced fasting from the internet (our place in Montreal had no connection), I sensed a gentle sense of inner refreshment. It stands to reason that my recent reflections on Sabbath-keeping would find a way into my ordinary practices, yes? Such is the blessing and challenge of honoring Sabbath and keeping it holy: it evokes new and ever more healing ways of living.

+ And third, OMG, there is a lot to do to get ready for this upcoming sabbatical! I understand better why the funding source announces the grant 6 months before the actual award; it is going to take at least that long to make all the practical arrangements. While we were away, we checked out 4-5 neighborhoods for potential apartments and discovered that we want to settle into the groove of Le Plateau (especially the far eastern section that is still in transition.) We walked 4-5 hours every day trying to get a "boots on the ground" sense of each locale, too:  where were the grocery stores? how long did it take to get to the Metro? are there bus lines close? do the parks feel safe? who is living in each neighborhood? 

We also made arrangements with a luthier who will rent me an upright bass so I don't have to schlep mine from the US. Their shop was stunning, serious and sensual all at the same time: so much wood and strings and sound! (Check them out here: the Jazz Festival Society... what great folks. Their research center, La médiathèque , is FREE. Located on the top floor of their renovated building (just of Les Places des Arts) their computers, stored music and printed archives will be a field day every time I use it. (check it out here: http://www.montrealjazzfest. com/maison-du-festival-online/ mediatheque.aspx)

So, let's see what all of this means re: who much I am sharing here, ok? For sure once or twice a week, but beyond that qui sait si nous allons le voir, oui? (I have to get cracking on my French, too!)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Starting to explore...

Yesterday was a full one: my church moderator wrote saying, "Let's see - a tour of the church with an architect in the morning, a wedding in the afternoon and then a long letter to your sabbatical clergy replacement in the evening: great Sabbath!" Clearly he has been paying attention as I've address Sabbath
keeping all summer and he is a wise soul.  At any rate, we made it to the Eastern Townships of Quebec by early afternoon in pursuit of a book launch by Louise Penny. You may know her as the former CBC news person who in her mid 30s started to explore a new direction: writing French Canadian mysteries.
The Inspector Gamache series has become wildly popular over the past 10 years and we've come to like them a great deal.

There were about 400 people, many locals, but a good deal from the USA,too. It was mostly a female crowd, most were over 50 and very well educated. And Ms. Penny was a trip: sophisticated, bright, humble and engaging. One of the things she noted is that "she gives thanks that she lives in an area of the world were all of our senses are fed." I've been thinking about that all afternoon as we walked about Knowlton, spoke French and English with shop keepers and discussed why this region is so personally attractive to us both. It is saturated with satisfying food, art, music, weather and creativity - and that is an important clue.

Tomorrow we are on to Montreal to search out neighborhoods - and even actual apartments - for next year's sabbatical. It was a hustle to get to Lac Brome by 1 pm, but we did it - and I am grateful. A deep nap and a hot shower were restorative, too. Now for some reading and a good night sleep apres Montreal.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A jazz for the journey sabbatical is beginning...

I love the band Over the Rhine - love them - and celebrate the integrity, depth and beauty they bring into the world.  If you don't know their work, you MUST take some time to listen to what Linford Detweiler and his wife and band mate, Karin Bergquist, do as Over the Rhine. (check them out there: As our band has ripened over the years, we have used a number of their tunes in worship, on Christmas Eve and on Good Friday.
Not long ago I resubscribed to the journal IMAGE and purchased a copy of the collected essays from their symposium, "WHY BELIEVE IN GOD?" Detweiler has an essay, "A Song before Dying," that warrants multiple readings. He begins by telling the story of a friend who had recently passed away when ALS took her life. While she was in hospice, the day before she died, some friends stopped in for a visit:

There was an electrical outlet next to the bed with a sign above it that read, DO NOT UNPLUG: FOR BED ONLY.  But the bed had been unplugged and a different cord connected. This tiny subversive act allowed our friend, on her next to the last day on earth, to listen to music. This has everything to do with why I believe (in God.) When science does what it can to identify our disease, to ease our pain, to provide us with electricity so that our beds can be mercifully adjusted just so, the soul and spirit remain hungry for something else. 

If I don't believe in the messy possibility of God, I'm left to believe in the laboratory - that which can be observed, measured, labeled. Stories and music are bigger than the lab, bigger than any sanitized hospital room. I write songs. I know that the music our friend was listening to could not have been nurtured into existence in a carefully controlled environment or captured under microscope.

Like me, Detweiler said, he tried to live without God - with just reason and careful observation and logic as his guide - but "somewhere along the way, from the time I was a child, I was wired to look beyond empirical evidence for something deeper. I've tried to snip that internal wiring at times, to remove God from the circuitry. I have failed. (And) if I were to succeed, my hunch is that I would drain my life of soul, of dimension, that I'd be left closed in, pale and rigid." Trusting that something greater than self, searching for it and being open to its mysterious embrace is the cost and joy of faithful living.
In a few short hours, we will head north once again to Montreal to search out our living arrangements for next year's "Jazz for the Journey" sabbatical. For four full months I will have the privilege and responsibility of resting, practicing the upright bass and carefully reflecting on how my love of music both nurtures my soul and strengthens my congregation for soulful living in these strange and trying times. While we are in one of my favorite places in creation, we will walk and think, ponder and pray and nourish our calling to the mystery of the song. Music, someone wisely observed, is what our feelings sound like. And music is also how more and more of us encounter beauty and awe.

Detweiler concludes his essay with another story, one wherein he was playing a gig in New Zealand in the pouring rain. "We kept waiting for the audience to leave, to throw in the towel and go home. No one was leaving."

So we walked up on the covered stage and we played our songs, and four hundred (mostly) young people stood in the rain and drank in what we had to give... I realized on that stage that very few of us will stand in the pouring rain to hear the evening news, or the latest scientific discovery, or a religious creed of what we supposedly know for sure. But we will stand in the rain for what we hope will be a soulful song. When we got home, I started writing the song that would usher in the rest of my life...

I am off to perform a brief wedding ceremony and then head home to clean and pack the car. Our part of the "Jazz for the Journey" sabbatical has started.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What becomes of the broken hearted...

Here's an arcane thought that has vexed me for a number of years as a pastor: the perceived "gap" some folks have between the intimacy I clearly share with key band mates and my more guarded persona in the congregation. The wiser souls among us grasp that my calling as a pastor is fundamentally a public position - there are expectations, boundaries and even ethical standards for my public life - and I have come to trust and honor them as part of all I hold sacred. My work and exploration of truth, goodness and beauty as a musician, however, is a weird combination of personal quest and public presentation. 

What's more, unless I'm a hired player for a public gig, the work I do with my band mates is profoundly personal even when it gets shared in public - and there's the rub. Because what I share within the band is a vulnerability that is time-tested and hard won. It doesn't happen all at once, it takes years of listening, testing the waters, learning how best to share artistic concepts born of inner revelation and reflection. In a very real sense, what happens in the band is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. For me, faithful music-making takes place when creativity and imagination tenderly embrace and expose what is most real and essential in my soul. And because I can't always see or feel the full truth, this intimate act must be evaluated and even reshaped by artists who have found a place within my heart. It is the integration of the personal into a community of kindred spirits. What Fr. Richard Rohr calls the mystical truth of the Holy Trinity:

The fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers tried to communicate this notion of life as mutual participation by calling the Trinitarian flow a “circle dance” (perichoresis) between the three. They were saying that whatever is going on in God is a flow that’s like a dance; and God is not just the dancer, God is the dance itself! The Incarnation is a movement—Jesus comes forth from the Father and the Holy Spirit to take us back with him into this eternal embrace, from which we first came (John 14:3). We are invited to join in the dance and have participatory knowledge of God through the Trinity. Trinity is the very nature of God, and this God is a circle dance, a centrifugal force flowing outward, and then drawing all things into the dance centripetally. If this God names himself/herself in creation and in reality then there must be a “family resemblance” between everything else and the nature of the heart of God. Scientists are discovering this reality as they look through microscopes and telescopes. They are finding that the energy is in the space between the particles of the atom and between the planets and the stars. They are discovering that reality is absolutely relational at all levels. When you really understand Trinity, however slightly, it’s like you live in a different universe. And a very good and inviting one!

No wonder some are confused by the palpable love that is shared in some of our performances: in a culture that rarely goes deep, we not only take risks together in pursuit of beauty and truth we celebrate and cherish the times when true awe has lifted us beyond ourselves into something sublime. Call it being "in the zone" or simply buzzed by good vibrations, it is a sacred groove. It is how I would like to live most of the time even while knowing I must keep up my professional boundaries. There are wounded souls out there who will use you up - and soul vampires who will suck you dry - mostly because they themselves are so empty and afraid, not evil (although there are some evil mofos we need to be on guard for, too.)

Parker Palmer writes that because so many people in our culture live increasingly empty lives, "they have a bottomless pit where their identity should be - an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others. We embrace attitude and practices such as these not because we regard ourselves as superior but because we have no sense of true self at all." The ancient Psalmist got it right in Psalm 139:

You formed my inmost being (O Lord.) You knit me together in my mother's womb... I am fearfully and wonderfully made and my soul knows that very well.

Music making with those I have come to know, love and trust unlocks parts of my soul to me - and others - that are my truest self. It is a holy encounter that I treasure. Palmer writes:

Philosophers haggle about what to call this core of our humanity, but I am no stickler for precision. Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Quakers call it the inner teacher or the inner light. Hasidic Jews call it a spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul.

I am ALL for soul-full living - and revel in the soul food it creates. At the same time I have come to know that I can't live this openly and vulnerably with everyone; not only because we don't share the level of trust needed for soulful living, but because some are so empty they will simply devour me alive and keep on moving.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Thoughts about the ways I conspire in my own deformity...

I started to write a REALLY cranky post, but decided to practice what I sometimes preach and wait a few hours. Guess what? It works better in the delete mode - and besides Parker Palmer says it better anyway! He writes:

Most of us can make a long list of the external enemies of the soul, in the absence of which we are sure we would be better people! Because we so quickly blame our problems on forces "out there" we need to see how often we conspire in our own deformation: for every external power bent on twisting us out of shape, there is a potential collaborator within us. When our impulse to tell the truth is thwarted by threats of punishment, it is because we value security over being truthful. When our impulse to side with the weak is thwarted by threats of lost social standing, it is because we value popularity over being a pariah. The powers and principalities would hold less sway over our lives if we refused to collaborate with them.

This is NOT to excuse the genuinely systemic evil that exists in every society. Nor is it a pass on the historic wounds that sin,greed and envy have inflicted upon the innocent and powerless. It is simply a reminder that even in the most righteous struggle against oppression, we best not believe our own press releases because even the Pope has a confessor.

An old colleague from Cleveland, the Reverend Dr. Marvin McMickle, recently wrote that the current tumult in Ferguson, MO comes about

In response to encounters with police(that) is nothing new in this country. The riots in Rochester in 1964, the Watts riot in 1965, and the riots in 1967 in Cleveland, Detroit and Newark all started in the same way. In 1968 the Kerner commission concluded that the cause of all the riots and urban rebellions in the 1960s was largely a result of poverty, lack of access to quality jobs and housing, and the inevitable results of failed public schools in urban areas. Until we address the underlying issues of poverty, and the general climate of racism in the United States, what happened in Ferguson will likely continue to occur. As George Santayana observed, "People who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it."

One way those of us who are white might explore some of the ways we conspire to deform ourselves when it comes to race in America was well stated in the posting:  12 Things White People Can Do Because of Ferguson (

1. Learn about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America. Michael Brown’s murder is not a social anomaly or statistical outlier. It is the direct product of deadly tensions born from decades of housing discrimination, white flight, intergenerational poverty and racial profiling. The militarized police response to peaceful assembly by the people mirrors what happened in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.

2. Reject the “he was a good kid” narrative and lift up the “black lives matter” narrative. Michael Brown was a good kid, by accounts of those who knew him during his short life. But that’s not why his death is tragic. His death isn’t tragic because he was a sweet kid on his way to college next week. His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered. The Good Kid narrative might provoke some sympathy but what it really does is support the lie that as a rule black people, black men in particular, have a norm of violence or criminal behavior. The Good Kid narrative says that this kid didn’t deserve to die because his goodness was the exception to the rule. This is wrong. This kid didn’t deserve to die because he was a human being and black lives matter.

3. Use words that speak the truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities. Be mindful, political and socially aware with your language. Notice how the mainstream news outlets are using words like riot and looting to describe the uprising in Ferguson. What’s happening is not a riot. The people are protesting and engaging in a justified rebellion. They have a righteous anger and are revolting against the police who have terrorized them for years.

4. Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison industrial complex. We don’t enslave black people on the plantation cotton fields anymore. Now we lock them up in for profit prisons at disproportionate rates and for longer sentences for the same crimes than white people. And when they are released, they are second class citizens stripped of voting rights and denied access to housing, employment and education. Mass incarceration is The New Jim Crow.

5. Examine the interplay between poverty and racial equity. The twin pillar of racism is economic injustice but do not use class issues to trump race issues and avoid the racism conversation. While racism and class oppression are tangled together in this country, the fact remains that the number one predictor of prosperity and access to opportunity is race.

6. Diversify your media. Be intentional about looking for and paying close attention to diverse voices of color on the tv, on the internet and on the radio to help shape your awareness, understanding and thinking about political, economic and social issues. Check out ColorlinesThe Root or This Week in Blackness to get started.

7. Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression. Dr. Martin Luther King advocated for nonviolent conflict reconciliation as the primary strategy of the Civil Rights Movement and the charge of His Final Marching OrdersEast Point Peace Academy offers online resources and in person training on nonviolence that is accessible to all people regardless of ability to pay.

8. Find support from fellow white allies. Challenge and encourage each other to dig deeper, even when it hurts and especially when you feel confused and angry and sad and hopeless, so that you can be more authentic in your shared journey with people of color to uphold and protect principles of antiracism and equity in our society. Go to workshops like Training for Change’s Whites Confronting Racism or European Dissent by The People’s Institute. Attend The White Privilege Conference or the Facing Race conference. Some organizations offer scholarships or reduced fees to help people attend if funding is an issue.

9. If you are a person of faith, look to your scriptures or holy texts for guidance. Seek out faith based organizations like Sojourners and follow faith leaders that incorporate social justice into their ministry. Ask your clergy person to address antiracism in their sermons and teachings. If you are not a person of faith, learn how the world’s religions view social justice issues so that when you have opportunity to invite people of faith to also become white allies, you can talk with them meaningfully about why being a white ally is supported by their spiritual beliefs.

10. Don’t be afraid to be unpopular. Let’s be realistic. If you start calling out all the racism you witness (and it will be a lot once you know what you’re looking at) some people might not want to hang out with you as much. That’s a risk you’ll need to accept. But think about it like this: staying silent when you witness oppression is the same as supporting oppression. So you can be the popular person who stands with the oppressor or you can be the (maybe) unpopular person who stands for equality and dignity for all people. Which person would you prefer to be? And honestly, if some people don’t want to hang out with you anymore once you show yourself as a white ally then why would you even want to be friends with them anyway? They’re probably racists.

11. Be proactive in your own community. As a white ally, you are not limited to being reactionary and only rising up to stand on the side of justice when black people are being subjected to violence very visibly and publicly. Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst because taking action against systemic racism is always appropriate because systemic racism permeates nearly every institution and community in this country. Some ideas for action: organize a community conversation about the state of police-community relations* in your neighborhood, support leaders of color by donating your time or money to their campaigns or causes, ask the local library to host a showing and discussion group about the documentary RACE – The Power of an Illusion, attend workshops to learn how to transform conflict into opportunity for dialogue. Gather together diverse white allies that represent the diversity of backgrounds in your community. Antiracism is not a liberals only cause. Antiracism is a movement for all people, whether they be conservative, progressive, rich, poor, urban or rural.

12. Don’t give up. We’re 400 years into this racist system and it’s going to take a long, long, long time to dismantle these atrocities. The antiracism movement is a struggle for generations, not simply the hot button issue of the moment. Transformation of a broken system doesn’t happen quickly or easily. You may not see or feel the positive impact of your white allyship in the next month, the next year, the next decade or even your lifetime. But don’t ever stop. Being a white ally matters because your thoughts, deeds and actions will be part of what turns the tide someday. Change starts with the individual.

This is a list of just 12 ways to be an ally. There are many more ways and I invite you to consider what else you can do to become a strong and loyal white ally. People of color, black people especially, cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.
People are literally dying. Black people are dying and it’s not your personal fault that black people are dying because you’re white but if you don’t make a purposeful choice to become a white ally and actively work to dismantle the racist system running America for the benefit of white people then it becomes your shame because you are white and black lives matter. And if you live your whole life and then die without making a purposeful choice to become a white ally then American racism becomes your legacy. The choice is yours.

Let me push the envelope a bit more as we grieve yet another tragic execution of an innocent at the hands of Muslim extremists: let's not give in to our tendency to deceive ourselves or deform ourselves in this realm either. Let's be honest: most of us know almost nothing of Islam. So here's an excellent primer called:  7 Questions to Ask Before Asking if Muslims Condemn Terrorism. (You can read the whole article here: hindtrospectives/ 2014/08/7-questions-to-ask-before-asking-if-muslims-condemn-terrorism/)

1) Do I know any Muslims in real life that I can ask?

2) Am I actually following any Muslim activists, scholars or leaders on social media outlets?

3) Am I assuming that if Muslims are not condemning violence done by other Muslims 24/7 in the medium that I personally follow, so that I can see it when I check into FB or Twitter at a time convenient for me, then that means Muslims support terrorism and are inherently violent people because of their religion?

4) When I meet a person of a different faith is my immediate assumption, “This person is Catholic, he must be a child molester” or “This Jewish woman hates all Muslim children and wants them to be bombed” or “This person is a Christian, he must want to steal the money of gullible old white ladies who think the Rapture is imminent?” Or is my assumption when I meet people is that they believe all these things are abhorrent and that we share these basic values?

5) If some people of a faith tradition have committed criminal acts, even if they claim it’s done in God’s name, does it automatically mean that every person of that faith tradition supports crime?

6) This Hindtrospectives blogger sure sounds mad. She claims that Muslims have been condemning all kinds of Muslim terrorism for over at least over a decade on every medium available to them. Is it up to me to find these condemnations, or is it up to them to make sure I see the thousands of condemnations they’ve issued in the past?

7) Do I know what a search engine is? If so, I wonder what will come up when I type “Muslims condemning terrorism?”Was that too snarky? Oops, sorry. Here’s a make-up present for you – Sunni and Shia British imams denouncing ISIS together. That clip has less than 40,000 views – can we work together to change that?

Also, a suggestion to my readers: if you want to change reality on the ground, one way to do it is to support Islamic Relief’s efforts to aid Christians and those displaced by ISIS in Mosul.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Becoming playful, creative and restful in community...

This is a week of catch up before my closing two weeks of vacation: last
night we had a sabbatical team meeting, today a few local social justice Berkshire Organizing Project meetings, tomorrow some follow-up on both CROP Walk plans and an emerging ecumenical shared Christian Formation plan for youth and Friday a wedding. Then it is on to Montreal - with a quick stop over in the Eastern Townships for a book signing for Louise Penny - and then a few days of fun and apartment hunting for next year's sabbatical.

Before bed last night, I read these words of wisdom from Parker Palmer in his A Hidden Wholeness:

The divided life is a wounded life and the soul keeps calling us to heal the wound. Ignore the call, and we find ourselves trying to numb our pain with an anesthetic of choice, be it substance abuse, overwork, consumerism or mindless media noise. Such anesthetics are easy to come by in a society that wants to keep us divided AND unaware of our pain - for the divided life that is pathological for individuals can serve social systems well, especially when it comes to those functions that are morally dubious.

In preparing for "our" sabbatical - and that is what the grantee reminds us is at the core of our proposal - both pastor and congregation are invited to find new/old ways of being playful, creative and restful. I know that I need this and trust that the congregation does, too - especially given our shared penchant for doing, doing, doing. Palmer's book reminds us "that because we are communal creatures who need each other's support - and because left to our own devices, we have an endless capacity for self-absorption and self-deception - community is essential for rejoining soul and role." So, as hard as it is for some of us, myself included, to practice being playful, creative and restful that's where we are headed.


Monday, August 18, 2014

breaking it down: rock and soul sunday...

Well, our "Rock and Soul Revival" was a gas with over 100 folk joining the party. We were able to raise over $2K for Berkshire Environmental Action Team and show some of the folk how connected a church can be to changing our hyper-individualistic culture using peace, trust and music. Three comments were repeated often to me after the gig:

+ First, the way all of you played together showed how much you love and care for one another.Most of this crew has been with me since the first
show began in 1997. That means we have almost 20 concerts under our belts and each one gets better artistically. And one of the reasons for this has to do with how much each musician values the others. There are NO divas allowed at this gig and not because they are banned, but rather because there simply isn't space in our hearts for self-centered bullshit. This is a love fest and when this crew comes together everyone works hard and makes certain the other performers shine and do their best. And as a performer, you can actually feel the loving support holding you up and pushing you deeper - and so can the audience - it is palpable. 

+ Second, I don't think I've ever heard a group in a church play so beautifully. Your music is a festival of sound and it is all done with care, commitment and quality.  Everyone brings their best game to these benefit concerts - nobody phones it in - and that is one reason there is such high energy. Another important factor is that we're all giving of ourselves for a greater cause. But a key factor is that whether you are a pro or an dedicated amateur, each performer has cultivated her/his own commitment to aesthetic excellence - and it shows. This is NOT a jam band. This is NOT a free for all. This is NOT Farm Aid (as much as I love that gig!) This is a living experiment in bringing our best music into the moment, in a well-practiced and disciplined form, and then sharing it to see what the Spirit can do when it is received in love. So, yes, this is the finest church band I've ever heard. Someone said, "Where do all these people come from?" I smiled and replied, "Well, most of them come from our church... and those who aren't with us regularly on Sunday morning are musical colleagues, friends and lovers who care deeply for one another and value caring for the wider community."

+ And third, the songs fit together like a liturgy - they told a story - a story about working and being together in both the joys and sorrows of life. That is not an accident, right? Each of our concerts/events is designed to tell a story through the music and poetry: sometimes the story is hard - like the Good Friday realities - sometimes it is a mixed bag - like our Festival of American Music on Thanksgiving Eve - and sometimes it is challenging - like yesterday's call to commitment re: environmental justice. It is my conviction that our music must not only be truly beautiful in an artistic sense, but that it must also take us on a journey: by the end of the concert we need to be in a different place from where we started. We must feel the challenges, know in our hearts the solidarity and trust the hope we've shared together over two hours. In a word, at the end of each show a sense of community must be realized or else the story didn't work.

In a down and dirty way, here's the arc of the story we tried to tell in song yesterday. This may be too much detail for the ordinary reader, but I want to document how it happened:

+ We began with the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine"- an acoustic folk anthem about what it feels like to try out everyone else's answers to life before finding that confusion is normal. It is a song that says we are on a quest and we're going to look everywhere for our answers. It is profoundly non-ideological in it's commitment to the journey of life and the perfect way to kick things off.

+ Then two Pete Seeger songs took place that stated the challenge of caring for the earth in a way that empowers people. Pete always used group singing to create beauty and encouragement, so why reinvent the wheel? He was already the master so we borrowed his tunes, had the crowd singing and had a ton of fun doing it.

+ Two gentle songs followed, one by an old and dear friend, and one by a new friend: both added depth to the journey. One sang "Feelin' Groovy" with a flute break and the other invited 3 other women to join her in harmonies as she told of experiencing the healing of the sea. The story deepens and reminds us that journey is as much personal as it is social and cosmic.

+ The next three songs became the heart of the story for me: "Helplessly Hoping" by CSY was beautifully performed with just an acoustic guitar and 3 voices in close harmony (we are in this together and can offer support even when life and love is cruel); then we deconstructed the 60s anthem "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell into a lament (how did things so loving turn out so badly?) by starting it like a Childe ballad a capella and then adding voices and instruments (guitar, bass and soprano sax) to create a sense of weariness and sorrow. This section concluded with our sultry take on Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy" (upright bass, piano, drums and solo voice) that makes it clear that "while everybody's crying mercy... but they don't know the meaning of the word."

+ Then it was time for some reflection so we did Herbie Hancock's "Cantalope Island" an upbeat instrumental that gave people time to groove and think. I followed this my mournful interpretation of "Nowhere to Run" in honor of Robin Williams reminding folks "to reach out to their helpers because life can be a bitch." Then it was collection time with the bluesy "Turn Me On" by Nora Jones that ended with the Wailin' Jennys' beautiful "One Voice."

So in that first set, we introduced the journey - we made it personal and social - we gave the people a chance to reflect and lament and at the same time draw strength from one another and from the beauty - so that by the time we reached "One Voice" the complexity of being faithful and compassionate in the quest for caring for the earth had taken on sound and form. The second rock and roll set did something similar - especially the arc of songs that included "Compared to What," "Long Train Runnin'" "Piece of my Heart" and "Feelin' Alright." As one friend said, "You got them up and dancing in church - not a small feat!" And we raised over two grand! 

It was a GREAT gig and I am so grateful to each of the musicians who donated their time. Let me also thank our two incredible tech men:  Rob Dumais on sound and Paul Durwin on video. They, too, give so much of their time and we couldn't do it with out them. (I hope to have some clips to post as the week unfolds...)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rock and soul sunday...

Today is our Rock and Soul concert @ 3 pm: it will be a full day and we'll all be wasted at the end, but also grateful. Here's the invitation our mission partner, BEAT, has been sending out.
Here's a link that was published locally yesterday about the 10th Anniversary of BEAT: it is a concise and clear overview of BEAT's work in the community to day and why it is important to support them. (Check it out here: http://www.

And, of course, here's the poster Di created for our concert at 3 pm. We're doing all kinds of music from acoustic folk to brash Janis Joplin rock and soul. After all, it IS the 45th anniversary of Woodstock. The first set will be gentle and introspective - tunes by the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, Linda Worster, Nora Jones, Weez McCarty and CSNY - that will close with the Wailin' Jennys'
"One Voice."  Our guest and founder of BEAT, Jane Winn, will bring brief greetings before set two - and then the ruckus begins. We've got Creedence, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin along with the Doobie Brothers, Thelonious Monk, Les McCann and Eddie Harris, too.  So come on out for the fun if you are in town.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Getting down to rock and soul...

Today as I embrace a time of reflection and renewal on our Sabbath, I
have been thinking a lot about our upcoming "Rock and Soul" concert. These events have both been intentional and organic in ways that always surprise me. And while some more hesitant folk in our churches have had a hard time getting their head around why a pastor would put so much time and energy into a rock and soul show (or a folk music gig or a jazz performance or anything else that is just a little outside of the box) the vast majority get it - as do many of those whose lives vibrate with life outside of our Sanctuary. So here's what I have discerned about why these kinds of concerts/events/happenings are of value:

+ First, popular music speaks to our culture.  In my spiritual tradition, the use of music has always been steeped in high culture: if it wasn't classical, it was not of the Lord. This became increasingly true in the 19th century as artists separated themselves from Christianity in the West and began to pursue "art for art's sake." Many in my Reformed tradition accepted the notion that artists where set apart to explore higher truths - and many artists bought into this foolishness, too. The result has been a phony distinction between high and low culture that spiritualizes some art and denigrates others; just go into most art museums if you think I am mistaken and you'll discover an atmosphere of quiet, intense reverence that once only existed in places of worship. Such a rarefied approach to art, however, deepens the ancient binary way of organizing life into good and evil, light and dark, high and low.  

It also disconnects people of faith from what is happening in the nitty-gritty realities of life on the ground. Living with our heads in the clouds is antithetical to a faith that proclaims "the Word became flesh and lived among us." Like the angel said to Christ's disciples 40 days after the resurrection on the day of the Ascension: Sisters and brothers, why are you standing around looking towards the heavens! Jesus is no longer there but calls you to get back to the work he started here on earth. So get to it! (note: this is my very free interpretation of Acts 1) Popular music at its best - as well as visual art, TV, movies, sculpture and dance - rejects the heaven/earth divide. Take a listen to 21st century country music if you think I am mistaken: it will let you know what the vast middle class of white Americans are feeling. The same is true for the heartland of black culture as a quick survey of the most popular hip hop performers will disclose. In the book of Revelations, we are told to "listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches..." and one way of doing this involves popular culture.

+ Second, music draws people into community - and celebrates their gifts. What I have discovered in doing this for 30+ years is that there are people in our congregations who are ACHING to share their gifts but don't feel as if they are valued. This is especially true in churches where only the elite are elected as officers, only the finest of classical culture is offered in worship and where the ordinary tends to be under-appreciated or dismissed. Further, if the only way people in church experience music (or the other arts) is through performances by the best and brightest, ordinary people will rightly conclude that true faith is essentially passive exercise. How would they think otherwise when their gifts aren't needed or valued? 

But get a small group together to sing and play popular music - and help them
practice productively and see the sacred in the music and message of some of their favorite songs - and a whole new energy of creativity is released into the community. Here is what I have found in doing the work of church renewal: we NEED the gifts of ordinary folk. And they NEED to share these gifts. Because I am a musician, I tend to go for the low hanging fruit first and tease out the musicians by asking them to join the feast. But the quest for unlocking the gifts of our people must go deeper than music so that the full range of ordinary blessings are embraced, shared, celebrated and nourished. 

+ Third, playing rock, soul and jazz in the Sanctuary invites people into our space who might never darken our doors for worship. I have been told the following enough times to believe it is true: "I won't regularly come to your church on Sunday mornings (for a variety of reasons.) But I will be there for your out of the box musical gigs because they nourish my soul in ways that traditional worship does not." I've heard it said that listening to such a prophetic pronouncement by those outside the church is unwise in this time of scarcity because it asks us to cultivate programs that don't meet the immediate needs of the congregation. My mature response (and I have been immature and snarky through the years) goes like this: our musical events do something in the wider community that goes beyond the utilitarian. And while we have gained new friends and members as a result of these gigs, mostly what happens is that we build new alliances and friendships with people who once mistrusted the church. What we are changing, therefore, is both our relationship to the wider culture and how they speak about us when we're not around. By joining our Sanctuary with the wider culture's quest for justice and compassion we become partners for the common good. And we are doing this in a way that the makes sense to those beyond our walls because music is a participatory art form - and popular music is participatory in spades.

+ Fourth, drawing emotional, spiritual and ethical truths from popular music helps people in and out of the church discern how God is still speaking beyond the old forms.  In a world as hurting as our own, in an era that saturates our consciousness with the suffering of the world, we can often wonder: where the hell is God? Our work with popular music helps people learn to discern the presence of the Lord beyond scripture and worship. It honors the holy in the songs they sing on their way to work. It lifts up the presence of God whether we're at a funeral or a party. It brings the sounds and feelings of the working week into the Sanctuary. It becomes a way of prayer. And it reminds people that there is a source of hope and love beyond the obvious pain. In fact, this love and hope is embedded in our pain.

Professor Jeremy Begbie of Duke Divinity School put it like this where he owned his own classical bias and the limitations it imposed upon him. He said:

Sometimes I’m asked in classes, “What kind of music do you like?” And I refuse to answer. The reason I refuse to answer is because it’s assumed that that’s the most important thing you could ever ask about music: “Do I like it?” I think Christians need to learn -- if they’re really interested in engaging culture, they need to learn to ask a subtler question, which is: “What’s going on here?”

Why is this person doing this writing, performing, whatever? Why are people buying this, listening to it, whatever? What’s happening when they consume this music? And then I think one learns a lot more. You learn a lot more about other people. We learn much more about the culture that we’re living in. And so I’m often recommending music that I know will be a bit of a stretch to perhaps the group I’m with, and they’ll recommend music to me that might be a stretch for me, but I think we’ll both just learn a good deal more and expand as Christians a little bit more.

Some examples: I’m a great fan of the Scottish Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan. James MacMillan is a -- that’s tough music. It’s not the toughest contemporary music, but you wouldn’t have it with the shower on, you wouldn’t have it as background music. It has to be listened to, but when you do -- I’ve known people who have no classical training and who would never think of going to a classical concert being totally mesmerized by this music and feel that they learned something as Christians about the Christian faith in the process.

That I would like to see going on more. A student in a class the other day played a song by Sufjan Stevens. I can’t remember which one it was, but it was about a serious topic. I thought it was banal given the serious topic.It turned out a lot of the class, particularly those of a certain age group, in their 20s and early 30s, were deeply moved by this and thought that it was completely appropriate to those lyrics.

So I had to do a bit of thinking on that instead of just swipe that aside. I said … , “What’s going on here? Why do you hear profundity or at least music that’s appropriate to those words where I only hear trivialization? Because it sounds almost facetious, that sound, considering the profundity of the words.” That’s an example of a two-way learning process where we need to challenge each other on Christian terms, to say, “Christianly, what can we learn about the gospel or the Christian worldview from this music?”

That’s the key question to ask, I think. Not instantly, “Do I like it or not like it?” -- because until we ask the first question, actually, you’re just not going to like it, but then we might be missing out on something fantastic.

If you are in the area on Sunday, August 17th @ 3 pm come on by for our Rock and Soul concert. We'll be raising funds for our ally in caring for Mother Earth. And rocking the house.

gobsmacked and surprised...

My current quest to unlearn the ways of privilege and power in favor of a holistic  spirituality of tenderness, solidarity and living small ...