Friday, October 31, 2014

My back pages...

There comes a moment, perhaps it is more of a season, when you
realize two concurrent truths: one, there is far less time in front of you than behind; the other, for whatever time remains you want to go deeper into joy and gratitude. I know that is not the conclusion everyone reaches - I have known souls to choose the way of cynicism rather than wisdom, or fear instead of hope - but it is clearly the current that runs through my inner life.

About 25 years ago after my sister Linda died, I woke up one morning and realized that I couldn't continue to live the life I had created. Not only did I need to learn how to do ministry differently, I also needed to rework everything in my personal life, too. In time that led to divorce and a long season of grieving. The blessing that came from this sadness - and the prayer and therapy I embraced as part of the journey of grief - is that suffering is not the end of the story. Good Friday, indeed, becomes Easter Sunday - mostly without any effort on our part. So when the dawn of resurrection broke through my darkness, I was led into a a new incarnation of ministry and love in Tucson.

There, too, I stumbled into another season of grief. Robert Bly notes that men who are approaching mid-life often do sad and stupid things when this era hits us. Small wonder the popular culture calls it a "mid-life crisis" because often everything good is thrown away in retreat from the bad in our lives. But this time is less of a crisis than a ripening - a stripping away of the false self so that the true one might breathe and grow healthy - if we give it time and careful attention. Like Jung taught those with ears to hear: men at about 50 can either embrace with humility the archetype of "the king" and move into wisdom, or, they can distract themselves with the trinkets and emotions of a crisis and wind up to be mean-spirited cynics or foolish old men. Not everyone who possesses chronological age is a trusted elder, right? 

So I give thanks to God that my counselor helped me, pushed me and challenged me to journey through my projections and fears so that I might celebrate the painful but sacred harvesting of my true self. St. Bob Dylan got it right when he sang: I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. And as often happens, this led to deeper love and yet another phase of ministry for which I am grateful.

Last night as I lay waiting for sleep, two truths from my father were playing over and over in my head. The first is that I am now the age he was when he retired. He recently died at 83. Throughout the past 20 years he has told me - and apparently many others - that early retirement was the best thing he ever did in the second half of his life. It gave him time to go deeper into the history of America he so loved. It allowed him the freedom to travel with my mother while they were both reasonably healthy. And it provided him with the chance to serve his church more fully than when he was working 60+ hours each week. I sense that of the 20 years he had after early retirement, at least half of them were full and rich. My mother eventually died of cancer and that broke his heart and also terrified him. My sister Beth also died a sad and hard death during this time. And his health collapsed on him mostly because he refused to quit smoking and drinking and really taking care of himself. One thing his recent death has caused me to consider is this: If I have another 20+ years to live, what else might bring me life and joy during the time that remains?

The other truth I am pondering from my father's life and death has to do with giving attention to what is profoundly important to me right now. This is no longer the season for delayed gratification. Not that the Spirit is calling me towards selfishness and disregard, but it is dishonest for me to think that I have all the time in the world.  I don't - and there are people I want to shower with love and places I want to wander and explore with Dianne before I am unable. That is certainly part of what my upcoming sabbatical in Montreal is about: I want and need time to be quiet for prayer; I ache for time to strengthen my jazz skills on the upright bass; and I yearn to walk in wonder with my wife through a place that makes my heart sing. I hope that my children will visit me during this sabbatical "magical mystery tour." And I trust that on the other side of the summer of 2015 I will have some clarity about what God is inviting me towards for this next adventure.

In ways that I could not imagine, I already miss my father. We didn't speak a lot during his last few years because his hearing was shot. Phone conversations were sometimes torturous. And I didn't see him much either - mostly because I was committed to the ministry of renewal in my new church but also because there was a sadness in my father's house that pushed me away - and I had done enough of my own grieving without being burdened by his, too. How did Tom Waits put it: come down off that Cross we could use the wood? Still, it is clear there is a living wound in my heart now that he is gone and I want to honor and respect it.

This weekend is the close of the Celtic year and the transition to a new one. It is also All Saints and All Souls day in the Western Christian tradition. These holy days recognize the "thin places in the year" when the season of harvest gives way to the season of emptiness. The reality of life moving into death is palpable in this part of the world - and I am grateful for its stark beauty. So, I'm going to rake up the leaves in the late autumn sun and let it be for me a time of prayer and reflection. I find that since my father's death I often need to just sit and be still. Today I will gather up what has fallen in stillness, too. A prayer for this day gets it right:

In the fading of the summer sun,
the shortening of days, cooling breeze,
swallows' flight and moonlight rays

In the browning of leaves once green,
morning mists, autumn chill,
fruit that falls frost's first kiss

Creator God, forgive our moments of ingratitude,
the spiritual blindness that prevents us
from appreciating the wonder that is this world,
the endless cycle of nature,
of life and death and rebirth.
Forgive us for taking without giving
reaping without sowing.
Open our eyes to see
our lips to praise
our hands to share
and may our feet tread lightly on the road.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve 2014....

This year, for a variety of reasons, our annual Thanksgiving Eve concert will be comfort food for the soul. It will mostly be acoustic music - with some kick ass rock and roll at the close - but fundamentally reflective and tender. In my head and my heart I am sensing something with an unplugged Motown groove with a blast of blue-eyed soul. There will be a few other changes - including a guest gospel choir to open the show - and a few other surprises. If you are in town and want some fun - all in support of raising funds for emergency fuel assistance for our neighbors this winter - come on up to the house.

Thanksgiving Eve
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 
 7 PM

A benefit concert to provide 
Emergency Winter Fuel for the Berkshires
Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations Fuel Assistance Program

Carlton Maaia II, Rebecca Leigh, Andy Kelly, Jon Haddad, Linda Worster, Hal Lefferts,Grahm Sturz, Between the Banks, Weez McCarty, 
Gospel Gang and more

First Church
on Park Square
27 East Street, Pittsfield MA – 413- 447-7351

an open and affirming congregation of the united church of christ

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Trusting our own experience...

How ironic that on a day when I am totally exhausted, Fr. Richard Rohr
shares a post re: trusting your inner experiences. Got to love the divine humor of the One who is Holy, yes?  Here is his post and then three comments on it:

Paul trusts his experience of God and of Christ over his own upbringing, over the Twelve Apostles, over Peter, and over the Jewish Christians. Paul doesn't follow the expected sources of outer authority in his life, neither his own Jewish religion nor the new Christian leaders in Jerusalem. He dares to listen to—and trust—his own inner experience, which trumps both of these establishments. It’s amazing, really, that institutional religion makes him the hero that it does, and almost half of the New Testament is attributed to him, because in many ways he’s a rebel. He’s not by any definition a “company man”—anybody’s company in fact! In terms of human biographies, he is almost in a category all his own.

It is ironic that the ability to trust one’s own experience to that degree has not been affirmed by the later church, even though both Jesus and Paul did exactly that. They trusted their experience of God in spite of the dominant tradition. And the church came along and domesticated both Jesus and Paul. We were never told to trust our own experience. In fact, we were probably told not to have any experience. It was considered unnecessary! (Yet the Church still produced people like Augustine, Francis, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Teresa of Calcutta—who trusted their own soul experience against the tide.)

Once you know something, you can’t deny that you know it. You don’t need to dismiss outer authority—its intuitions are often correct—but you’re not on bended knee before it either. The church’s fear of inner authority has not served the Gospel well and has not served history well either. I am afraid this has to do with those in charge wanting to keep you co-dependent. I don’t think Paul wants to keep you dependent upon him at all. He is the great apostle of freedom—a scary freedom that much of tradition, and most clergy, have not been comfortable with at all (Galatians 5:1-12, Romans 8:20-23).

+ First, while he is absolutely right in noting that the "Church" has not honored the legacy of Jesus and Paul - Rohr calls them rebels who trusted their own inner experiences in ways that challenged their status quo - that isn't true for parts of the Reformed Christian tradition. In fact, my own non-conformist and Congregational background actually celebrates the importance of experience. For this small part of the greater Body of Christ, we speak of "honoring the testimonies of our faith rather than demanding tests of faith." We are a non-creedal church. We recognize and respect the wisdom and truth of the historic creeds, but we refuse to make them a "test" of faith. Rather, we want to include our experience along with Scripture and tradition.

+ Second, my tradition has become too self-congratulatory about our modest renegade history. We love to tell ourselves how progressive and creative we are - and have been - but very few people in the United States seem to care. We have a charism for this moment in time that is largely being ignored mostly because of our arrogance.  Too often  we come across as elitist, superior and demeaning to other traditions: "Thank GOD we're not like..." (fill in the blank with Catholics, Fundamentalists, Baptists.) To be sure, we're not the only part of the Reformed Christian tradition that does this - my Presbyterian cousins do a pretty good job of excluding others when it comes to matters theological - but we in the United Church of Christ just can't get enough of ourselves. And, at least for me, this arrogance is off-putting and dishonest. My experience suggests that one of the reasons we are in such profound decline is because too often our eyes and thoughts are upon ourselves rather than the Cross. 

+ And third, Rohr's list of experiential non-conformists is too limited. Where are the English and German mystics? The Quakers? The Pentecostals? There is a long history of experiential Christians that are missing in this short posting. And while I know you can't include everything in one short essay, I like the wisdom of J. Philip Newell who is working at what Matthew Fox used to call a "deep ecumenicity." Newell (and perhaps Diana Butler Bass and Phyliss Tickle) speak of "the emerging church" or a "Christianity for the rest of us." Even Pope Francis articulates a more broadly inclusive vision and casts a wider net when it comes to honoring our experiences.

Well, that's enough for this morning. Time to head to church and prepare for today's midday Eucharist. Then it is back to my study re: the origins of modern Jewish Zionism for next week's study/discussion group.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Getting grounded...

Last night's discussion/study group was very satisfying and now I'm getting grounded in being back home:  sermon writing, study, office work and soon band practice. It is good to be home - but a bit surreal, too. Tomorrow I will share some pictures from our time away at the memorial service, but for now dig this bizarre little Buddha from my father's collection. "Can you say transgendered Buddha, children?" Is this a trip or what? (And what's with the mirror?)

Monday, October 27, 2014

We shall see...

Tonight our study/discussion group with Knesset Israel re: the historic origins of
Palestine and Israel continues. And while I am bone tired from this past week's experiences of laying my father to rest, I am eager to stay connected. After last week's introductory session it was abundantly clear to me that every day Christians and Jews need time to talk and listen to one another together. In a gentle but counter-cultural way, this conversation invites us into one another's lives. It opens both congregations to ways of thinking that right now feel outside of our respective comfort zones. It also encourages us to listen carefully to one another's stories and experiences and even try to talk together about some hard differences.

We shall see, yes? There are no guarantees that this experiment will bear fruit. Two passages from the Scriptures, however, suggest that it is worth trying. The first is from the Jewish prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near; 
let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Most of the time I try not to pretend that I know the way of the Lord. Most of the time it is best for me to be mute and watch and listen and see if a way that is compassionate and just opens up. I trust that God's way will be made clear to us in our discussion/study group without knowing that we will recognize it or be able to claim it.  As my Muslim sisters and brothers would say: Inshallah. The second text that encourages me to give this a shot comes from the writing of St. Paul about the "folly of the Cross" in I Corinthians.

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. Some demand signs and others desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Paul, as all people should know, was not denigrating or even rejecting the spiritual traditions of either Judaism or Rome, but rather pitting the two dominant cultures of his time - Jewish and Greek - against a paradoxical third - the way of Christ - whose foundational symbol is the Cross. Richard Rohr writes: The cross is Paul’s philosopher’s stone or “code breaker” for any lasting spiritual liberation. God can save sincere people of faith inside any system or religion, if only they can be patient, God-trusting, and compassionate in the presence of misery, failure, or imperfection—especially their own. This is life’s essential journey. These trustful ones have surrendered to the Eternal Christ Mystery, very often without needing to use the exact word “Christ” at all (Matthew 7:21). It is the doing not the saying that matters (Matthew 21:28-32).

The silent but open way of the Cross first asks me to sit and listen carefully to what those who are different from me want me to hear. Second it invites me to sit with these challenges for a time without rushing to judgment or action.  Third it urges me to embrace the hardness of being compassionate and silent in the midst of suffering. Fourth it points to the suffering as a clue about where the way of the Lord is being revealed. And fifth it speaks to both head and heart about the risk and opportunity of entering that suffering as a person of peace.  In his Praying with the Earth prayer book, J. Philip Newell restates the blessings of the way of Christ's cross like this:

blessed are those who know their need for theirs is the grace of

bless are those who weep for their tears will be wiped away.

blessed are the humble for they are close to the sacred earth.

blessed are those who hunger for earth's oneness for they will be satisfied.

blessed are the forgiving for they are free.

blessed are the clear in heart for they see the Living Presence.

blessed are the peacemakers for they are born of God.

So, we shall see.  In'shallah.  If we can rest and trust in the way of the Lord.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Singing for my daddy...

After a full weekend of family sharing, storytelling and sacred feasting, it is time to head home... I love these people so very much.
There is a gravitas in the second half of life, but it is now held up by a much deeper lightness, or “okayness.” Our mature years are characterized by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness, if that makes any sense. There is still darkness in the second half of life—in fact maybe even more. But there is now a changed capacity to hold it creatively and with less anxiety. It is what John of the Cross called “luminous darkness,” and it explains the simultaneous coexistence of deep suffering and intense joy that we see in the saints, which is almost impossible for most of us to imagine. (Richard Rohr)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Praying on pilgrimage...

Timing is everything, yes?  Just ask a comic - or a musician - or an air traffic
controller. The ancient aphorism is right: when the student is ready, the Buddha will appear. The day my father died, one week ago today, a new prayer book arrived for me.  It is John Philip Newell's, Praying with the Earth: A Prayer Book for Peace. It is physically beautiful, using Hebrew, Christian Celtic and Muslim Art like an ancient illuminated manuscript; and theologically rich, inviting each day's prayer with words from the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels and the Qu'ran.

As we have been on pilgrimage to and from my father's memorial service, I have been praying these liturgies. Not deeply or thoroughly, to be sure, but in a whimsical way that leaves a lot of space for prayerful improvisation. It has been a blessing and a gentle sacred anchor in a sea of complicated emotions. Last night's invitation to contemplation included these words.

Teach me your way, O God, that I may walk in your truth. (Psalm 86: 11)


The presence of God is like treasure hidden in a field. (Matthew 13: 44)


Speak for justice even if it affects your own family. (Qu'ran - Cattle 6: 152)


Not only am I grateful for the guidance in forming my prayers during this time of pilgrimage, I am encouraged that these liturgies intentionally and sensitively create a prayerful circle-dance for peace-makers among Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As the artwork in this prayer book illustrates, our fate and our faith are interwoven. The more we claim and celebrate this truth - especially in this age of polarization, hatred and violence - the more we find ourselves saturated with the blessings of the kingdom of God.

Friday, October 24, 2014

One more for the road...

This was just too good to overlook: wandering through a bookstore yesterday, I came upon the new Mary Oliver book of poems.  Inside I found a gem she calls "To Be Human Is to Sing Your Own Song."

Everything I can think of that my parents
thought or did I don't think and I don't do.
I opened windows, they shut them. I pulled
open the curtains, they shut them. If you
get my drift. Of course there were some
similarities - they wanted to be happy
and the weren't. I wanted to be Shelley and I
wasn't. I don't mean I didn't have to avoid
imitation, the gloom was pretty heavy. But
then, for me, there was the forest, where
they didn't exist. And the fields. Where I
learned about birds and other sweet tidbits
of existence. The song sparrow, for example.

In the song sparrow's nest the nestlings,
those who would sing eventually, must listen
careful to the father bird as he sings
and make their own song in imitation of his.
I don't know if any other bird does this (in
nature's way has to do this). But I know a
child doesn't have to. Doesn't have to.
Doesn't have to. And I didn't.

So much wisdom and tenderness, so much resistance and surrender simultaneously, so much awareness that in the second half of our lives there is more room for grace within ourselves and those we love than we ever imagined. So  true...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Heads of bone...

One of the essential spiritual disciplines for me (and I suspect for most of us if we allowed ourselves the time) is solitude. Without a significant time of quiet reflection, rest and honest confession, I miss what that still small voice of the Lord is trying to say. I become testy and obsessively self-centered. And no earthly good for myself or those I cherish. Thankfully, in anticipation of my father's memorial service, we built in a brief retreat from our ordinary activities, so that we might be fully present to others and ourselves.

For about three weeks I have been wrestling with what I might say at this memorial service. Last Sunday, as we were driving down to Maryland from Massachusetts, I heard a song that grabbed me - I knew instantly it was right - but I didn't know why. So for eight days I've let it swim around inside me as I practice playing it, trusting that in time the deeper truths will become clear.

This often happens to me with music: I hear an oblique or alternative reading of a spiritual truth within a contemporary song that "fits" the feel of a Bible passage or liturgical event, but isn't obvious to others in a linear sense. For years I simply pushed through their resistance claiming, "this is poetry, god dammit, figure it out for yourselves!" And while I still believe that the interface between art and worship need not be over analyzed - it is after all, a way of entering the mystery of grace, suffering, beauty and truth all at the same time - the least I can do is offer a clear invitation to the feast, yes? 

You see, for many the mystical path has been absent and/or denigrated in our churches for generations. What's more, for at least the past three generations the fundamental working metaphor in our culture has been the financial bottom line. Many of us, it seems to me, have come to embody the ancient prophetic words of Amos 8:  "The days are coming when there will be a famine in the land, but not for bread, nor a thirst for water but for hearing the words of the Lord." Like Eugene Peterson makes clear in his advice to pastors, because our culture has desensitized our people, our work must take on the challenge of the Psalmist who prays to the Lord to help drill a hearing canal into his head of bone. Peterson writes about Psalm 40:

It is a hearing psalm - the need to be heard - and the need to hear... but all too often conventional hearing and ritual get in the way of this hearing. "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire - but my ears you have opened..." Literally the line goes "You dug ears for me." (The image is) a human head with no ears. A blockhead. Eyes, nose and mouth but no ears... only granite bone. God speaks. No response." (Working the Angles)

First the Psalmist needs God's intervention for him/herself to hear a new song;
then the artist can share the revelation with conviction. So invitations and clear explanations - as well as out of the box songs and art - can be both an act of grace and a chance to hear the word of the Lord beyond the din of habit, addict or empty ritual. But like Dylan said, "I need to know my song well before I start singing it." I need to know WHY it breaks through my own bone head before I can offer it as a gift to the Lord in the presence of God's people. So, I've been struggling and listening fiercely for how I might share a word of the Lord in the context of this song.  

Last night, after a long drive and some quiet time, with Di falling asleep I began to "hear" what might need to be said at this memorial service. As I walk about today, I'll let my hunch percolate and then simmer. I am so grateful we have set aside this time.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
   he inclined to me and heard my cry. 
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure. 
He put a new song in my mouth,
   a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
   and put their trust in the Lord
Happy are those who make
   the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
   to those who go astray after false gods. 
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
   your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us;
   none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
   they would be more than can be counted. 
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
   but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering
   you have not required. 
Then I said, ‘Here I am;
   in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
   your law is within my heart.’
photo credits: Dianne De Mott

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The blessings of being ambushed by God's love...

NOTE:  After the tragic and horrible shooting in Ottawa, I needed to change the title of this post. My prayers go out to my home away from home and my loved ones in Canada.

So we're on the grieving/reflecting road again today: first for some quiet time to get rest and perspective; and second to celebrate my father's life with family in Maryland. Both are essential - for body and soul. The weather already befits this pilgrimage - grey and damp - and I sense that is where I'm being called to dwell for a spell. When I spoke to my sister this morning on the phone, and we noted how we were both weary, she asked, "I wonder how long this will last?" To which my wife later replied, "About two years - and then sporadically without notice afterwards." I gasped - but know she's right.

Two of my favorite writers, Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr, posted things today that resonate with my life. The first is a poem by Ron Wallace that uses humor to point out that even in hard times there are also blessings.

by Ron Wallace
Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.
All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows' ears,
getting blood from turnips,
building Rome in a day.
There's a business
like show business.
There's something new
under the sun.
Some days misery
no longer loves company;
it puts itself out of its.
There's rest for the weary.
There's turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.
Some days I know
I am long for this world.
I can go home again.
And when I go
I can take it with me.
The second comes from Rohr's reflections on "the dark night of the soul." He makes two important insights:  1) it is God's ambush - surprise - that helps us all get over ourselves and claim the deeper rest of grace, not our work or shame or fear; and 2) this ambush can come as much from joy and beauty as challenge and/or hard times.
I wonder if the only way that conversion, enlightenment, and transformation ever happen is by a kind of divine ambush. We have to be caught off guard. As long as you are in control, you are going to keep trying to steer the ship by your previous experience of being in charge. The only way you will let yourself be ambushed is by trusting the “Ambusher,” and learning to trust that the darkness of intimacy will lead to depth, safety, freedom, and love.

Any use of fear techniques or trying to shame people into the spiritual journey is inherently counter- productive. It simply makes you more defensive and protective of your boundaries, but now at an unconscious level (I am afraid this is true of a high percentage of Christians, who were largely raised on fear of “hell” and social pressure). We need spiritual teachers like John of the Cross to help us see the patterns of the spiritual journey that actually work, so we can be a bit less defended, a bit less boundaried, with ourselves and with God. Only then can God do the soul forming work of seduction and union.

God needs to catch us by surprise because our very limited preexisting
notions keep us and our understanding of God small. We are still trying to remain in control and we still want to “look good”! God tries to bring us into a bigger world where by definition we are not in control and no longer need to look good. A terrible lust for certitude and social order has characterized the last 500 years of Western Christianity, and it has simply not served the soul well at all. Once we lost a spirituality of darkness as its own kind of light, there just wasn’t much room for growth in faith, hope, and love. So God has to come indirectly, catching us off guard and out of control, when we are empty instead of full of ourselves. 

Now it is time to pack and hit the road: I wonder what ambush awaits us on this pilgrimage? 

(photos: Dianne De Mott)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Onward to Maryland...

One of the blessings of my life involves playing music with REALLY talented and humble artists. Tonight, before heading away in the morning on a journey that is grounded in celebrating my father's life at a memorial service in Bowie, MD, we gathered for band practice.  Not the whole BIG band of desperadoes that join us for the Thanksgiving Eve gig, just the core of our church band - and these cats always raise my spirits with their generosity AND their talent. 

Now don't get me wrong, when the BIG band gets together it is both a bit of homecoming/family reunion and musical magic: truly sweet and soothing music to heal the weary soul. But there is something sacred about making music with my mates. I love them. I trust them. They are so gifted and simultaneously humble and funny. Clearly, I needed to be with them tonight before heading off for the farewell for my father.

Let me suggest the breadth and depth of this group's musicality and commitment.We started off with this tender song by Kate Rusby: The Wandering Soul.

After two takes, we did some a capella explorations re: the harmonies on the chorus and then ran through it one more time. I was in tears with the beauty. So then, in the spirit of Monty Python, it was time for something completely different and we tackled Tom Waits masterwork:  Hold On. God I love this song. Someone recently said this is what Bruce Springsteen would sound like with three testicles!  All heart and soul, hope and sorrow, at the same time.

For good measure we worked our way through some Ryan Adams, Tom Petty and Warren Zevon tunes - especially the really wild ass, head banger ones mixed up with a few heart-breaking Joni Mitchell ballads. Like I said: these cats blow me away and feed my soul. 

Tomorrow we're off - to rest and reflect, to prepare and ponder, to connect with loved ones and celebrate the life of my father - it is yet another pilgrimage. One of the things I have learned about pilgrimage is that there is always resistance. One master put it like this:

Resistance arrives whenever we launch any new entrepreneurial venture, when we begin a program of spiritual advancement, when we attempt to overcome any unwholesome habits, when we seek education of any kind, when we decide with courage to change an unhealthy lifestyle pattern, and when we initiate an act that entails commitment of the heart, along with a few other triggers...  Resistance will do its best to keep us in our habitual everyday momentums, where we feel comfortable, safe and at no risk of transformation.

I am aware of my own hesitations so I am ready to learn from even the hard or empty places of this pilgrimage. And feast on the fun of this wonderful family, too. Perhaps that's why I needed to sing this song tonight with complete abandon.  Onward to Maryland...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

In life beyond death, we are not alone...

Well, my father finally returned home in the Lord yesterday. And while I am just starting to take the finality of his death to heart, I am glad that for him the struggle is finished. He was a hard-living man who by the end of his 83 years had totally destroyed his lungs. When he said to me last week in a moment of quiet reflection, "I can't believe it has come down to this!" I was incredulous - but that has been part of our personal dance since I was 15 (and now I am 62.) As I have said to others professionally - and have now had to embrace on a personal level - most of us die as we have lived.
I suspect this had something to do with why I felt like I needed to return home at the close of last week. Over and over these words from St. Matthew kept repeating in my head: A disciple once said to Jesus, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father and then I will follow you.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’ My dad wasn't ready to let go but there was nothing left for me to do to help him - except leave. Some people, for whatever reason, need to be surrounded by everyone in the family before they feel ready to embrace death. Others must first hold court one last time before they can accept the truth. And still others, like I suspect was true for my father, need more solitude and space before they can enter a good death. Not that he wanted to be left alone when death arrived; rather he just wanted to exercise one last bit of control when it happened and shroud himself in the privacy that was so important to him in life. Again, we often die as we have lived. 

On Saturday there had already been a steady stream of family since early morning. I don't think it was coincidental, therefore, that he died while just one my sisters and her family kept watch with love and prayers. My father was an emotionally private man. He was passionately loving, too but in a well-guarded and proud way. So after his hospice aide had finished washing him and giving him a shave, my hunch is that he felt able to let go. Not only was he now clean-shaven - something he insisted upon throughout his 83 years - but he wasn't saturated with the feelings, anxieties, presence and needs of the crowd that had previously gathered around his bedside in love. For very different reasons, most of us had to be away, some for just a short time - but I think he used that break to give us all one last gift in the only way he could: he accepted reality and entered into his death with a quiet dignity - and a fresh shave. 

When I left on Thursday, I told him that it was time for me to get back to my community of faith: there were weddings to honor and worship to celebrate. At the time, he waved his hands in a manner I first considered dismissive. Given the growth in his throat and increasing congestion, he had limited his words and taken-up Marlon Brando-esque hand motions a la "The Godfather." When I said "good bye" it appeared he was saying, "Ok, ok, hurry up and be gone." I knew he was angry with death - and the fact that I had helped him confront the fact that his was imminent - so I kissed his head and headed back home. I was sad but that too has been part of our dance for decades.

But upon further prayer and consideration I choose to believe that what my father was saying to me wasn't dismissive but: "Please, hurry up and be gone so that I can get on with this! You've done your work, now let me do mine!" Like the quote from Matthew's gospel, I choose to believe that he knew it was time to let the dead bury their own dead so that the living could continue the feast. And that's exactly what we did: I had the privilege of offering the blessing at the wedding feast for Carlton and Rebecca's last night and then celebrating worship this morning before kicking off a truly successful CROP Walk (our best ever!) My dad's parting was very much in keeping with how he lived: he was a sweet man who found it hard to always show his sweet side. So in death as in life, he shared it with us quietly. 

I am grateful - and look forward to celebrating his life sometime next week when the wider family gathers for his memorial service. The United Church of Canada's "new creed" closes like this:  in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God." 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Just shut up if you don't understand it...

After four hard and beautiful days with family in anticipation of my father's death, we are home. It was time well spent. As one friend put it, our work right now is "to love him to death." That is not always simple, but it is always right - and it is both right and complicated when it comes to loving this man. I give thanks for the safety we experienced both travelling to and from Maryland and for the time to tell family stories in the car with Michal and Dianne.
When enough time has passed - and my father has moved from this journey into his return - I may reflect on the hard love we have shared. Bob Franke's song of the same name is a good place to start. For now, however, Robert Bly's poem, "The Russian," speaks to me of what it means to love and lament a man whose wounds I can never fully comprehend.

"The Russians had few doctors on the front line.
My father's job was this: after the battle
Ws over, he'd walk among the men hit,
Sit down and ask:'Would you like to die on your 
Own in a few hours, or should I finish it?'
Most said, 'Don't leave me.' The two would have
A cigarette. We'd take out his small notebook -
We had no dogtags, you know - and write the man's 
Name down, his wife's, this children, his address, and
He wanted to say. When the cigarette was done,
The soldier would turn his head to the side. My
Finished off four hundred men that way during the
He never went crazy. They were his people.
He came to Toronto. My father in the summers
Would stand on the lawn with a hose, watering
The grass that way. It took a long time. He' talk
To the moon, to the wind. 'I can hear you growing' -
He'd say to the grass. 'We come and go.
We're no different from each other. We are all
Part of something. We have a home.' When I was
I said, 'Dad, do you know they've invented sprinklers
Now?' He went on watering the grass.
'This is my life. Just shut up if you don't understand

Mostly, I sense, I am supposed to just shut up right now because there is so much I don't understand.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A bit of a break from writing and another round of grieving...

NOTE: Tomorrow we head back to Frederick, MD as my father has reached the conclusion of all his medical options. The time has come for him to enter and embrace the hard blessings of hospice care and we want to be with him for a few more days during this transition. I will be out of the loop re: writing for probably a week. Thank you for the love and prayers you have sent over the past month; I am humbled and grateful. What follows is a slightly modified version of the note I recently shared with my congregation. 

As you read this, once again, I will be on my way to Maryland to be with my sisters to help during my father's closing days. While we cannot predict the precise close of his life, it is clear that it is approaching quickly. A wise professor and friend from my first days at college, Martha Baker, recently said it best: We labor to come into this world and we labor to leave. It's hard work. Each person has a part to play in the closing drama, as you well know, but not all the lines are scripted. However, they are all blessed. I believe that to be true. I also believe that while being with my family takes me away from First Church, it is part of ministry: specifically modeling what is most important in hard times, trying to practice what I preach about compassion and giving shape and form to my deepest commitments re: a ministry of presence.  As was true when my grandson was born about this time last year, this is one of those times/seasons when tending to the heart is essential.  

For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear and a time to sew; a time for silence and a time to speak; a time for love and a time for hat; a time for war and a time for peace.  (Ecclesiastes 3)

Years ago I read something by the great contemporary prophet, Erma Bombeck, and it has shaped my mature ministry. She noted upon receiving her own diagnoses of inoperable cancer that, "If I had my life to live over again..."

I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day. I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.  I would have talked less and listened more. I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded. I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace. I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth. I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband. I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have sat on the lawn with my grass stains. I would have cried and laughed less while watching television and more while watching life. I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime. 

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle. When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, 'Later. Now go get washed up for dinner.' There would have been more 'I love you's' More 'I'm sorry's.' But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute, look at it and really see it .. live it and never give it back. STOP SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF!!! Don't worry about who doesn't like you, who has more, or who's doing what Instead, let's cherish the relationships we have with those who do love us.

In the spirit of Jesus who scolded some publicly pious and/or pushy people around him that they "knew how to read the signs of the heavens but NOT the signs of the time," I said "ME TOO" when I first read Ms. Bombeck's words  and shout it again now as my family embraces my father's approaching death. When I get to the close of MY life, I want to have at least been present for the important times - even if I didn't fully grasp their meaning until much later. So I will be back at week's end to join some of you for a celebration of love and hope at Carlton and Rebecca's wedding on Saturday, October 18th. And then for our worship on Sunday when we learn from Celtic Spirituality about praying with our feet - on pilgrimage - when we take a trip around our own Sanctuary and learn about our Celtic Cross, our windows and more. And then for our CROP Walk to Fight Hunger.
Please note that I am not the only First Church person grieving the loss of a loved one a this time - so be attentive to others who have lost their parents recently or are caring for loved ones who are approaching death.  I give thanks for our lay leadership at this time for their loving support and wise counsel. And I rejoice in my small family - my wife, daughters, sons-in-law, sisters and brother - who know how to hold one another in tender love in a tough time without drama or foolishness. That is a deep blessing.

credits: the first picture was taken at my graduation from Union Theological Seminary and includes my dad (looking like Henry Kissinger) and my daughter Michal (at about 3). The second picture is my dad at HIS graduation from the University of Pittsburgh and myself (1952). And the last picture comes from the lst birthday of Louis Edmund Piscitello and Dianne (my little man bears the middle name of both my dad and myself.)

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:...