Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A gentle holy week emerges...

So Holy Week is ripening... this is a complicated time for all who honor the sacred journey
towards the Cross. For those who choose to come to worship, hard choices must be made re: schedules, commitments, family and work priorities. Many in my tradition find it hard to navigate the fully liturgical commitment. And while I understand the pressures, I also know that part of the wisdom and blessings are lost without the full Monty. For church staff, our secretaries and custodians are going nuts keeping up with the printing and cleaning; church musicians are trying to stay grounded given the artistic demands of multiple liturgies; and clergy are wrestling with the challenge of saying anything meaningful - especially after all these years. Our egos are involved - we want to be profound and well-liked - we want to make a difference to those who come to worship. And the pressures to be significant are enormous.

Often, we have created a new liturgy for Good Friday - an experimental combination of both ancient texts and contemporary music - and it is always powerful but  exhausting. This year, given our shared sabbatical, I chose the path of least resistance. And while we will still celebrate Eucharist on Wednesday at 12:10 pm, conduct Eucharist and Tenebrae on Thursday at 7 pm and lead the faithful into a meditation upon the Cross on Friday at 7 pm, this Good Friday will be different. There will be silence and Taize - candle light and poetry - it will be a simple and gentle time instead of our often bold but emotionally demanding liturgy.

I am so grateful I made this call early on. I am blessed that we pulled the plug on the Paul Winter Earth Mass we had first planned for April 19th, too. According to my official Countdown to Sabbatical it is just 30 days to lift off.  All the liturgies have been printed, all my written reflections have been written and now it is time to emotional enter the deeper journey. Here are my notes for Friday.
For the past 15 years I have been perplexed at even the Church’s denial of Good Friday.  I mostly understand why popular culture avoids this day like the plague – Good Friday demands that we own and embrace the cruciform nature of all creation – how new life only springs from death – so in an era obsessed with youth I understand why most people choose to stay away from worship on this night. After all, most contemporary people stay away from worship PERIOD – and mix it with death – forget it!

The statistics are clear: for every one person who chooses to connect with a church these days, three people leave.  In 2015 there are far more people who never even think about worship than actually participate. And that’s a mostly healthy and good thing – people have a strong BS detector after being burned so many times by the church – so I am glad they are suspicious.  In fact, I give thanks to God that the glory days of cultural Christianity are over.

What I don’t get, however, is why so many Christians run away from Good Friday. Are we equally infected with cultural relativism? Are we similarly addicted to the lie that we can live forever and always remain in control of our lives? Are we just as suspicious as those who have never experienced the Good News?  I wonder… especially tonight.  That’s why for the past 15 years we’ve been experimenting with Good Friday worship. Not only do most people stay away anyhow; but the symbolism of this night is so rich and complex that I’ve long believed it was open for radical reinterpretation.

Sometimes Good Friday sounds like the blues to me – and even cowgirls get the blues, right? Other times, Good Friday sings the songs of nonviolence and social transformation in ways that cut deeper than anything Occupy Wall Street ever imagined. And Good Friday often cries and moans like Mother Nature herself agonizing over the mess we've made in creation. It is simply the most creative and spiritually complex time of worship in the whole Christian catalog – and most people stay away.  I just don’t get it… well, maybe I have one clue.  And it comes from the way Jesus interacted with his disciples. 

Fr. Richard Rohr once wrote that “Jesus was very, very patient with his disciples – and that is good news for all of us.” He went on to explain that over and over again, Jesus told his friends about the paschal mystery: the cruciform nature of all creation.The way God set up plant life, animal life and human life to be renewed and strengthened through our encounters with trial and sorrow and even death.  The earth gets it – and doesn't resist or deny reality as fall gives way to winter before the renewal of spring. Same is true with animals – they get it, too – and never once complain about where they fall on the food chain. It is just we human beings who insist on acting like real life means we’re always in control.

The good news is that most of us can learn about God’s way; the bad news that can become
good is that most of us only learn to live in God’s wisdom by falling down and suffering. We’re stubborn. We’re willfully ignorant of what the Spirit wants us to know. In fact, most of us don’t want to believe that the way up in life requires us to fall down – that the way of spiritual blessing is always through subtraction and never addition - so God has set creation in motion in such a way that this mystery is done to us.  Often without our endorsement and certainly without our initial support, we learn to fall upward by falling down.

Rohr likes to say that hardly anyone goes to the Cross willingly: most often we don’t choose to pick up our Cross and follow – we try to run in the other direction – so it has to be done to us.  That’s where the story of the disciples comes in: three times in the gospels Jesus tries to explain this to his disciples.

·    The first time comes after Peter confesses that he believes Jesus is the Messiah.  Jesus then tells him:  Exactly, Peter, and now the son of man must suffer many things at the hands of those in power… even death before I will be raised again to new life.  To which all the friends of Jesus freak out and protest in denial, prompting Jesus to shout:  Get thee behind me, Satan. You don’t have on the mind of God but are addicted to the things of culture.

·    The second time takes place after the mystical prayer meeting on the mountain we sometimes call the Transfiguration. Jesus was in deep conversation with Moses and Elijah – and afterwards he brought his healing spirit to a boy infested with demons.  As they are leaving this blessing, Jesus once again says to his friends: Look, pay attention, the time is coming when I am going to be put to death – but have faith I will be raised again, too. 

·    The story goes on to say that when Jesus and his friends got to their evening resting place and Jesus asked his students what they had been talking about as they walked through Galilee, they told him they had been arguing about which one of them was going to be the most important after Jesus seized power.  No kidding!

·     So Jesus sat down asked his friends to listen again as he explained: "Anyone who wants to be the most important has to become the least important--the servant of all the others.” He knew that like most of us, we want to be on the top, we want to be in charge; but he was trying to tell them that if they want to truly be free and happy they need to go to the bottom. We want to be the boss and he tells us to become servants. 

·     Finally a third time this happens after a series of parables that emphasize some of the first shall be last. The group was now headed for Jerusalem and Jesus explained that he must suffer and die before being raised again by God’s love.  And almost like a broken record his friends refuse to grasp what he has been saying. James and John want to know if they can sit at his right and left side when he becomes the king of a new political order.

Fr. Rohr writes that “You can almost hear the sigh and sadness in the depths of Jesus' heart when he hears these words. So, once again, he turned to them and said: "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I will drink or be immersed in the same bath that I will be immersed in?" (Mark 10:38). Jesus was trying to bring them back to reality, the inevitable reality of any human life.” And just so that there could be no ambiguity, Jesus explains:

You know how the so-called rulers of nations like to lord it over the people? And how those at the top like to make their authority felt? Well, with you it has to be different. If you want to be important, serve others. The son of man himself did not come to be served but to serve, to give his life so that everyone might be set free.” Jesus offered the world a new pattern of power and leadership, which few in church or state have ever really agreed with: we are really stubborn and often deaf, dumb and blind about this, too.

And that’s why I am so often stunned that more people don’t show up for Good Friday worship.  We KNOW what we’re doing most of the time isn't working. We KNOW that we hurt and live in fear and shame more than we want – and still we keep on doing what we've always been doing but expect different results. 

So THIS year we decided to let Good Friday be a time for quiet reflection at the foot of the
Cross.  No wild rock and roll music, no big productions, no shaking you by the collar for your attention.  All we've done is taken some of the scripture lessons for this night and meshed them up with poems written by contemporary artists – poems that speak to our world – in the hope that simplicity will help us lay claim to the difference between God’s way and our own. We've linked Allen Ginsburg with the prophet Isaiah – Denise Levertov with the gospel of Mark – Robert Bly with the betrayal of Jesus –  Maya Angelou with the Lord’s agony on the Cross – and Naomi Shihab Nye with Christ’s death. We've also interspersed times of quiet, meditative singing and silence as a structured way for us all to slow down and let God’s upside down wisdom resonate deeply within.

Now here’s the thing: if you've never sung Taize songs before, think them like monastic jazz:  you start with the melody and sing that a few times, then maybe you’ll want to add a harmony – or another instrument might come in – or you can sit things out for a spell, too.  As the music breathes, swells and eventually comes to a quiet close it will have a life all its own. At the close of our time together – after some spoken prayers – you will be invited to come forward to light a candle.  Your candle can mean anything you want it to mean:  a prayer for someone you love – or hate – a symbol of your light against the darkness – an act of hope – your way of saying you are still lost in the mystery of life ache to be found – whatever. Tonight is given over to the mystery of God’s healing love that so often lets us fall down before raising us up. I am grateful that you chose to come out on this strange and blessed night.  May the spirit of all that is true guide us.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Lord, my heart has not been haughty...

One of the ideas I am going to "sit with" over the four months I am away on sabbatical, is this: what new/old form of worship/community is needed for our congregation and town at this moment in time?  As I read about and experience the demise of traditional Sunday School, for example, I am aware that: a) contemporary families are more stressed and conflicted about Sunday morning than ever before; and b) everyone says they are interested in more "quality family time together." From where I sit I understand that to mean: Sunday mornings are the only wiggle room many young families still have in a week that is over-booked and already too complicated.  Small wonder more and more people simply stay in bed and do a late "brunch" together. It is their practice of true Sabbath time.

Some colleagues have moved away from Sunday morning Christian formation altogether: they host a light supper and shared youth group/formation events on Wednesday evenings after sports practice but before it gets too late for younger children. Others have completely thrown in the towel and closed their Sunday School ministries. And still others are trying to continue some form of formation but experience poor participation and only modest enthusiasm from all involved. So what I was wondering - and what I will carry around with me for the next 150 days - is something like this: a twice a month late afternoon gathering that includes light refreshments, group singing, a time for discussion and teaching followed by Holy Communion. Say a new/old combination of informality and sacrament that began at 4 pm and ended by 5:30 pm that let people have maximum freedom throughout their only structured day AND gave people a time to return thanks to God in community?

There would be implications for my staff - and I will want their critical input - and it would take some time to get off the ground, too. At this stage in ministry I also know that given the doctrine of unintended consequences, some shit will likely hit the fan even if I have no idea what that is right now! Such a shift would also change how I use the rest of my week, too. But that wouldn't be such a bad thing: I want to give more time to both pastoral care and music-making on the flip side of this sabbatical rather than fritter my energies away on the dead-ends in the wider church. 

My mind drifts back to one of my favorite psalms - 131 - and the comments Robert Alter offers:

Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
     nor have my eyes looked too high,
Nor have I striven for great things,
     nor for things too wondrous for me.
(Alter writes: "strive for great things" literally means "gone about within great things" in Hebrew.)
But I have calmed and contented myself
     like a weaned babe on its mother --
          like a weaned babe I am with myself.
(There is some ambiguity here but the text probably means to quiet oneself like a weaned baby settling down within a mother's embrace. The Hebrew goes on to say "like a weaned babe I am on myself" so Alter suggests that the person is quietly holding/touching him/herself in an embrace of comfort that brings reassuring calm. The Psalmist evokes a sense of beautiful self-containment, an embracing of one's self like a small child.)
Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
     now and forevermore.

Sabbatical thinking, pondering and wandering is all about the blessings of waiting. Reading this psalm also evokes my main, wee man in Brooklyn whom I will have the chance to hang when our sabbatical begins in NYC.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

It started with ashes...

The journey began with T.S. Eliot for Ash Wednesday:

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost 
lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates

And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

It began with ashes and waiting - confession and quiet - it began as a journey should: with expectation, commitment, gentleness and the awareness that we were getting into something greater than ourselves even if we weren't yet sure what that was. As the journey ripened into the forty penitential days, I came to realize that I was only paying attention some of the time. Yes, I started with the best intentions - T.S. Eliot, ashes and all - but there were days when I forgot about it completely. Of course there were days when I prayed and pondered, and for those I give thanks. But more often than not I let myself drift back into worries and fears about loved ones and money - the state of the world all around me and within me - without once stopping to consider that I had promised to walk patiently with Jesus towards the Cross. Truth be told, that's more often the truth about my journey - and not just at Lent. I am so easily distracted.
So now we are at the start of Holy Week - and I am reading James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. Brilliant, troubling, clarifying and heart-breaking all at the same time. I kept hearing his insights as we shared the Passion Narrative today in worship. He makes the point that in the earliest days of the Church, there was an internecine battle between Jews who chose to follow Jesus and those who did not. In first century Palestine there were many such theological challenges within Judaism  During this time, it should be noted. it was the Roman Empire that was the common enemy of rabbis, priests, scholars, zealots, Essenes and more. Rome was a vicious, brutal and unrelenting occupying army,
The Roman armies had swept through many of the towns and villages of the country raping, killing and destroying nearly everything in sight. In Galilee, all centers of rebellion were brutally suppressed; the rebel-held town of Sepphoris was burned to the ground and all its surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. Thousands of Jews were killed. Villages in Galilee were laid waste. In Jerusalem, were rebels had briefly taken charge, the Romans showed the lengths to which they were prepared to go to maintain control by swiftly executing anyone even suspected of collusion in the rebellion -- Josepuhs puts the number at two thousand. The Roman means of execution, of course, was crucifixion, and Josephus makes the point that indeed the victims were crucified. This means that just outside the wall of the Jewish capital, crosses were erected - not three lonely crosses on a hill as in the tidy Christian imagination - but perhaps two thousand in close proximity. On each was hung a Jew, and each Jew was left to die over several days the slow death of suffocation, as muscles gave out so that the victim could no longer hold himself erect enough to catch a breath. And once squeezed free of life, the corpses were left on their crosses to be eaten by buzzards. This grostequery was its own justification. Its power was magnified because for Jews, coming into contact with a corpse made one ritually impure... the shadows of those crucifixes, in other words, were also the point. The Jews who'd been left alive were being reminded whom they were dealing with in Rome, reminded for weeks by the sight ans trench of the bodies. The image of those scores of crosses would stamp Jewish consciousness for a generation.

After making the horror of the Roman occupation clear,  Carroll goes on to suggest two other insights that warrant prayer and thought for Christians during Holy Week:

+ First, during the early years of the emerging Jesus movement the common enemy of the oppressed was Rome. Yes, there were aggressive and harsh theological challenges taking place between the competing Jewish camps of the time - and this would include emerging Christianity. There were ugly and cruel words spoken and written, but there was no inherent  anti-Judaism in these squabbles This is the Middle East, after all, where arguments are heated, personal and vitriolic by bourgeois Western standards. (And if you think I am exaggerating, read some of the barbs being traded back and forth in the aftermath of Israel's most recent election.) To quote Carroll, this "was a sectarian conflict among Jews" and not evidence of anti-Judaism in any way, shape or form within Christianity.

+ Two or three generations later,  however, when these same words and arguments of early Christianity have become normative for a community that is no longer primarily Jewish their impact changes.  Where once they reflected a sectarian conflict within Judaism, now they pit mostly Gentiles of the Roman Empire against a common Jewish enemy - and real enmity against the Jew takes off like wild fire.  In fact, Carroll asserts, not only do those who come to write Matthew and Luke begin to diminish the impact of Roman oppression on the Jews in these gospel stories, but they also begin to direct their legitimate fear and hatred away from Rome and onto the isolated Jewish people. "As Christian Jewish communities are steadily more alienated from their fellow Jews, so the 'enemies' of Jesus expand to fit those new situations. By the time John's (gospel is written) in the 90s, those enemies are now "the Jews" - that is, all those other Jews except us few right ones. If we had understood the literary genre gospel, we would have understood that. If we had understood gospel, we would have expected that. It is, unfortunately, tragically late to be learning it. Just as the original fate of Jesus was shaped in part by intra- Jewish disputes, the communal memory of how that fate unfolded was itself shaped by those disputes, especially when Roam domination of Jews started to unravel."

For the past 10 years, we have been aggressively reworking the once anti-Jewish polemic embedded in our gospel readings concerning the Passion of the Christ. Over time they have driven us to the Shoah and have made Christian Antisemitism normative even in the 21st century. Our retelling of the Passion today was therefore appropriately and thoroughly scoured because: "in John's gospel, Jesus (comes) to identify the evil one with the Jewish people" and that is something that NEVER could have happened. What we emphasized - and what the story shows in archetypal fashion - is how easily our fears of "the other" can become violent when we believe the propaganda of our leaders and seek to dismiss our reponsibilites through the destruction of a common scapegoat.  As Gerard makes clear: the gift of Jesus to the world is showing us what happens to everyone when we murder the  scapegoat. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, is crucified and his ugly death cannot be ignored or excused.

So today we gathered once again in community, not with ashes and silence but with palms and songs. It was cold outside but the sun was bright and stunning. Four congregations in our small city gathered to "bless the palms."  And in an unexpected gift of humor, each of these  four different theological traditions embodied their respective histories as we gathered in a public parking lot for this liturgy:  the Episcopalians made a single, straight line and waited for the pastor and crucifer, the Methodists arrived first so that we might gather around their humble wooden cross, the Lutherans showed up last carrying wild, liturgical poles and banners, and the Congregationalists sort of wandered over willy nilly as the spirit led them - or didn't.

 It was really too funny and all too true: apparently we process even as we do theology and unconsciously practice our governance.
I pray that I might be more attentive now we are on to Holy Week 2015...

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Getting ready for the passion...

This morning I got to do what I love best about my job:  visit and pray with people I love in
our preparation for worship and then visit and listen to a beloved friend's story of his mother's recent death. The snow was falling this morning - make it end, Lord, please make it end - so everything was hushed.  Across the street from the Sanctuary the Vietnam Veterans gathered for prayer and remembrance while we did likewise in anticipation of Palm Sunday. Four adult readers (and a young child) moved throughout the Chancel recalling the last days of Jesus. 

Before I turned on the lights, the child said to me, "Oh... I like it like this. Kinda dark... it is so... um relaxing." We sat for a few minutes together in the natural light of this old place in silence: this fourth grader, his father and myself. Before going into the balcony to get the lights ready for our practice, I mentioned, "One of the things I like best about my job is coming in here when it is quiet and dark. It is a privilege, don't you think?" He nodded and then walked with me to learn how to get things ready for our practice. Before we started I shared this old prayer:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who of thy tender love towards us, hast sent thy Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, to suffer death upon the cross, that all the world should follow the example of his great humility; Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with Thee and the Holy Spirit, reign forever as one God. Amen.

Then we used Walter Wangerin's retelling of the Passion Narrative - A Way of the Cross - as our text. In 40 minutes we were finished and people went their separate ways until we gather with three other congregations @ 10 am tomorrow for an ecumenical blessing of the palms. At noon I was blessed to spend a few hours listening to the story of a man's love for his mother. I was told of the time he spent with her in hospice shortly before her death, the deep beauty he was graced to witness as she moved closer to her last breath and his abiding faith that she has now crossed over into God's eternal love. I trust that we shall be with one another again, he told me. I don't know what it will look like or how it will feel, but I know it to be true. Or I know as much as I can right now given the ambiguities of human faith and doubt. 

We spoke of the gifts the dying so often share with those who remain. Of a presence that continues beyond space and time, too. How all of this is part of what St. Paul meant when he wrote: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death so that you do not grieve like those who have no hope. For we who believe that Jesus died and rose again also believe that God will bring with all those who have fallen asleep with him.  We talked of a grace greater than our imaginations - and far greater than our sins - a grace that gives us the serenity of peace beyond our grief. Then we embraced and promised to see one another tomorrow.

When I left the snow had finally stopped - and right now the sun has appeared.  I could do this work until I am unable to walk or speak.  So as evening begins to descend upon the Berkshires, I give thanks to God today for my calling and for this congregation.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The art of Archambault...

The posters created for the Montreal Jazz Festival are among the most stunning examples of popular art happening today. In their way, they rival the best from the days when the Fillmore East and West unleashed their creativity on our culture. For 25 years, the official posters have been imagined and painted by Yves Archambault.  Trained in the fine arts and graphic design, Archambault began work with the Jazz Festival in 1988 - and has worked as  the artist in residence ever since.
Image result for montreal jazz festival posters
The Jazz Festival writes: The artist has long chosen fluid media for his paintings; his favourite is ink. On paper or wood, he plays with darkness and limpidity, with a chiaroscuro that invokes the contrast between light and shadow characteristic to live venues. Having experienced the metamorphosis of graphic techniques, from analog to digital, the artist now works and creates in an endless to-and-fro between the drafting table and computer: he scans, enlarges, transforms colours, superimposes, to finally draw forth an image created of ink and pixels.

For me, Archambault captures both the experience of jazz AND its promise.  Bill Frissell once said: anything is possible in jazz - you can try anything - and nobody gets hurt. Dave Brubeck also observed: there is a danger in the spontaneity of jazz because if you refuse to play it safe you never know what's going to happen next. I sense that in Archambault's work and love it.
According to our "sabbatical countdown" clock, we leave in four weeks:  34 days.  After waking up to yet another drive way/garage flood (thank GOD spring is really coming) we ate breakfast, put on our water gear and took to the shop-vac. In about an hour we had things under control because in the past two weeks we've become pros.  Sabbath days have their own surprises, yes? Suffice it to say, I am psyched to see what Archambault has cooked up for us this year.

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:...