Thursday, April 30, 2015

Have you ever been to... Woodstock?

For those so inclined to keep up with all the fun of this sabbatical in much more detail than is probably wise, head over to Jazz for the Journey

We had a great first day...

Start me up...

For the next few months I will be shifting my focus from my recent theological reflections to
things more immediate: we are TRULY into the sabbatical's first phase - and getting ready to get outta Dodge tomorrow morning. Saying goodbye to Lucie for three weeks was sad. She is such a loving screwball. For about an hour last night she sat and slept on my lap just like she used to do as a puppy. The house is always a little less real when she departs...Before bed last night I read this reflection that spoke to this moment in time for me:

When we know something and rest in that knowing we limit our vision. We will only see what our knowing will allow us to see. In this way our experience can be our enemy. True, our experience has shown us something about ourselves and about life. But this moment, this situation that faces us right now - this patient, this person, this family, this illness, this task, this pain or beauty - we have never seen it before. What is it? How do we respond? I don't know. I bow before the beauty and uniqueness of what I am facing. 

Not knowing, I am ready to be surprised, ready to listen and understand, ready to respond as needed, ready to let others respond, ready to do nothing at all, if that is what is called for. I can be informed by my past experience but it is much better if I am ready and able to let that go, and just be present, just listen, just not know. Experience, knowledge, wisdom - these are good, but when I examine things closely I can see that they remove me from what's in front of me. When I know, I bring myself forward, imposing myself and my experience on this moment. When I don't know, I let experience come forward and reveal itself. 

I think that is why I love road trips so much: there is both a measure of certainty within the car - I love to start out with my own tunes and having an automated map is a great help, too - but total surprise arrives once we hit the open road, turn off the GPS or start to wander the "blue highways" of this great land. Who knows who we'll meet? Who knows where we'll sleep tonight? Or what music we might hear? Or where the next bookstore or eccentric diner might pop up? So, it did my heart good when Di woke up today and said, "Let's head out a day early, ok?" 

In a world filled with trouble, moving into sabbatical time is filled with paradox. It is highly personal and subjective - not obviously connected to the on-going wounds of race and class currently ripping apart our cities - and has nothing to do with any compassionate response to the chaos and pain in Nepal. This past Sunday I spoke of the woman who poured perfumed oil upon the head of Jesus - and the crowd's ugly and self-righteous response - such resources should not be wasted when there is poverty and suffering all around us. To which Jesus replies: there will always be times for sharing compassion, but not always time for reflection and contemplation. She has done a beautiful thing for the Lord.

Merton put it like this:  It is in this loneliness that the deepest activities begin. It is here that you discover act without motion, labor that is profound repose, vision in obscurity, and, beyond all desire, a fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity... We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness.

It is in humility and gratitude that we start out on this journey into the unknown.  We pray today for safety and surprise, a measure of grace and the chance to meet Christ along the way. When the girls were small, we used to start every road trip with "Start Me Up" by the Stones! Sounds like a plan for today, too.  I will keep you posted.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Antisemitism part three...

Let me try to bring my three-part reflection on Christian antisemitism to a close today by starting with this quote from James Carroll in Constantine's Sword:

For Christians, Jesus Christ is a revelation of the mystery we call God. But Jesus did not come to put a fence around (this revelation), defining the corral gate as the way to salvation. There are numerous revelations of the mystery of God. (Some parts of the Church have already embraced this truth while Roman Catholicism tends towards a) grudging tolerance of other religions. (What is needed now) is an authentic respect for other religions as the true expressions of God "beckoning" the human heart.

Some of the branches of the Protestant Reformation have publicly rejected Christianity's historic supercessionist understanding of Judaism - too many have not. And while the Roman Catholic realm has affirmed that God's first covenant with Israel remains pure and uninterruptedit has done precious little to expunge its 2000 years of theological antisemitism. In fact, the case that Carroll builds for a direct connection between Christology and Auschwitz is staggering. Until we begin to credibly dismantle our hatred and mistrust of Judaism in our worship, our Scriptures and our theologies, we will remain necessarily suspect. Further, the existential security needs of modern Israel will continue to be unstable as long as bombs appear from desert tunnels and suicide warriors armed with knives attack bus riders. It is impossible to forget that the liberation of the death camps, after all, took place only 70 years ago.

Given the two millenia of hatred, death, violence, segregation, oppression and fear, is it any wonder the modern state of Israel - and many of its citizens - continues to mistrust Christians? This reality does not mean that Israel is beyond critique. In the past 25 years they have formed a temporary albeit weird theological/political alliance with Right Wing Christian fundamentalists that serves their short term security needs while ransoming their future to the Rapture. There is also a glaring imbalance in US aid. Nearly $3 billion in military aid goes to Israel each year with an additional $1 billion sent privately through tax-exempt organizations. US aid to Palestine - a much poorer nation with greater infrastructure needs given both the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the viciousness of Israeli counter-attacks - totals $414 million. 

With Hamas entrenched in Gaza - still committed to the destruction of Israel - and still receiving funding from Iran (a nation that still publicly denied the Holocaust) -  and political stalemate in the West Bank reducing Fatah to mere political theater - there is very little room for hope on the ground  The recent election of Netanyahu in Israel - who played the anti-Arab card boldly and without shame - offers little new wiggle room for peace. Yes, people of conscience can continue to monitor the status quo. Yes, we can find ways to purchase consumer goods made in Palestinian cooperatives. (Check out their catalogue @http://www.koinoniapartners. org/catalog/2014catalog.pdf:) And yes we can be in touch with our legislators. One group I continue to support, Churches for Middle East Peace, can be reached here: .https://org2

There are six additional areas worth consideration:

1) Find ways to study and discuss James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. Find out what your religious group teaches about Judaism.  Create a similar study group to learn about Islam. Two very different, but useful, resources are: Karen Armstrong's, Islam: A Short History, and G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque.

2) Read and study the real historical narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict that did NOT begin in 1949 - nor in the late 19th century with the rise of Zionism - but rather 4,000 years ago. Wrestle with the magnitude of this challenge and let it guide your heart. Learn about the subjugation of the Palestinian people under the Ottoman Empire and the various post WW I Arab nations. Begin to go beyond the headlines and political rhetoric.  One useful overview is One Land, Two Peoples by Deborah Gerner.

3) Discover the anguish of both the Palestinian nakba and the Jewish diaspora born of the Arab War against Israel in 1949. Learn how the Arab nations responded to the Palestinian refugees and compare this experience to what happened in Israel.

4) Take the time to understand how the Oslo Peace Accords collapsed - and what has happened since that time. The PBS special, Shattered Dreams of Peace, is a good starting point.

5) Support efforts on the ground in both Israel and Palestine that creates common security and shared economic and cultural experiences.  See this resource complied by YES Magazine for help @

6) Become active in the fight against both antisemitism and Islamophobia. One local group that I value is Music in Common @

As some of you know, I do not support the BDS effort against Israel at this time. I believe it is fundamentally about our own frustration and inability to deal with despair rather than a creative avenue of social change. I know, respect and love people who disagree with me profoundly on this issue - and will always do so. My perspective is simple: we are in a bind that seems impossible to resolve. In this, I am called both to prayer and the exploration of those small and often foolish things that can shift the balance of power in ways towards peace and compassion.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

everyone knows redux...

Following up on my post re: antisemitism from yesterday, let me make a few additional observations from within my own experience. As I wrote previously, my theological education - and personal cultural references - almost universally avoided any discussion or analysis of our egregious history of Christian antisemitism. Given the magnitude of redressing the wounds of racism required by the civil rights movement of the 60's - and the social sin of sexism made clear by the emergent second wave of feminism - I understand why little effort was made to confront the ugly legacy of antisemitism in the Church. After all, my predecessors in the seminary had given significant moral and intellectual energy to that challenge. Think Van Buren, Tillich and Niebuhr. So with cities in flames and the bedrock of the American dream in question from the bedroom to the boardroom, there was simply no time for exorcising these demons.
And that, of course, is part of the insidious nature of antisemitism: we have breathed it in since the earliest days of the Church, so we often fail to notice its destructive presence in our thinking, politics and liturgies.  Take the work of the Jesus Seminar - an odd combination of gifted scholars and theological wannabes - which inadvertently advances a supercessionist agenda in the name of reclaiming the radical politics of Jesus. They are never mean-spirited, hateful or deliberate in this failing, but I would suggest it happens nonetheless.  I think of the books and lectures of Marcus Borg and/or John Dominic Crossan . Both are scholars of integrity. Both have been committed to the work of liberation and compassion in our time. And both, in different ways, have made a sustained case that the ethics, spirituality and politics of Jesus are significantly different from that of his Jewish foundation. To use James Carroll's analysis, they separated Jesus from the Jews albeit for the loftiest reasons. 

Amy-Jill Levine summarizes this failing in her essay, "Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made about Early Judaism."  Her point is persuasive: "When homilists or teachers do not know Jewish history of theology and out of ignorance construct a negative Judaism over and against which they position Jesus, or when they presume that Jesus' numerous insightful and inspirational comments are original to him rather than part of his Jewish history" the destructive legacy of antisemitism gains traction. Even when we (and I include myself in this critique) avoid the sinister "blood libel" charges that have been embedded in scripture and liturgy since the earliest days of Christianity, we still often misrepresent first century Judaism. And this misrepresentation perpetuates a veiled mistrust of Judaism in a variety of ways.  

Think of the Christian designation of the Hebrew Bible as the "old" testament and the way of Jesus as the "new" testament: the former has been rendered complete and outmoded by the later, grace has now replaced law, gratitude now rules our hearts instead of rules and regulations, God's love has been given to us as a gift rather than a set of commandments we must obey in order to earn favor with the Lord, the God of wrath has been replaced by the Lord of love. Whether the Jesus Seminar is making the case that Jesus challenged the purity codes of his day or stood in bold opposition to the politics of the Temple, the results are the same: Jesus has replaced Torah. To which Dr. Levine (and Carroll in Constantine's Sword) replies:

Jesus himself was halakhically obedient: he wars fringes (tzizit - see Numbers 15: 38-39 or Deuteronomy 22: 12) to remind him of the Torah (Mt. 9: 20, Lk. 8: 44, Mk 6: 56); he honors the Sabbath and keeps it holy; he argues with his fellow Jews about appropriate observance (one does not debate something in which one has not investment). It is from Torah that he takes his "Great Commandment" (Mt. 22: 3640): love of God (Deut. 6:5) and love of neighbor (Lev. 18: 19.) 

In four brief pages, Dr. Levine points out how much of the Jesus Seminar critique ignores the
living pluralism within first century Judaism. Further, their binary worldview tends to celebrate the supposed exceptionalism of Jesus without grounding him in his religious and cultural context.  For years I, too, followed suit:  Jesus embraced the outcasts while Judaism did not, Jesus was more sensitive to the needs of women than the Jewish authorities of his day, Jesus brought to the world an intimate relationship with Abba God that stands in stark contrast to Judaism's transcendent, distant king, etc. Please don't misunderstand: I have benefited and grown from the works of Borg and Crossan. Their appropriation of the ethics of Jesus have given rise to a powerful critique of contemporary consumerist culture. But too often for my tastes, they advance an unintended supercessionist theology (i.e. Jesus came to replace Judaism) in pursuit of social justice for the 21st century. I prefer the more rigorous scholarship of Walter Wink, Walter Brueggemann, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Phyllis Trible, Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr. These scholars are equally bold in their call to live in opposition to Empire for they honor that the "steadfast love of the Lord" of Israel is the guiding light in Christ's heart, too.

Carroll summarizes what is at stake here: "It is impossible to understand the disclosure Jesus offers without knowing that the One being disclosed is none other than the God of Israel." The coming of Jesus was not to die, but to offer us revelation; his life, death and resurrection are not about ontological salvation. As Richard Rohr puts it:  God's mind did not have to be changed about sinful human beings, rather Christ came so that our minds might be changed about the heart of a loving and creative God. The foundational story for all people, therefore, is not the crucifixion, but creation. 

There is more to say about this in relationship to the quest for justice between Israel and Palestine, but that will be for another time. Suffice it to say that it is clear to me that without a deep repentance of our historic antisemitism, we will continue to misunderstand how to be allies for peace in that troubled region of the world.

credits: Robert Lentz icons

Monday, April 27, 2015

everybody knows...

One of the challenging and complex truths about my evolving Christian faith is how saturated it has been - and clearly still is - with antisemitism. The same could be said, of course, about my racism and sexism, too with one jarring exception: Christian antisemitism is both theologically ubiquitous and nourished by our culture of worship. I came of age during the cultural revolution of the 60's and embraced its call to liberation.

The sounds of freedom filled the airwaves of my formation. Sometimes it was Joan Baez, other times Marvin Gaye; often it was Gil Scott-Heron and always the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Jefferson Airplane. I watched the March on Washington as a child on TV. I read Tom Hayden and MLK. I was moved by the speeches of RFK and Julian Bond and voraciously consumed the essays of Dave Dellinger in LIBERATION. A few years later my young world was transformed by the writing of Germaine Greer and Robin Morgan. I was listening to Holly Near, Laura Nyro and Dorie Previn. The political and cultural critique of a consumerist society hellbent on control guided my aesthetics, career choices and spirituality. 

Never once, however, did I read or hear a challenge to Christian antisemitism during these formative years. There was a quiet awareness of the Jewish holocaust at the edges of my schooling - we read The Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school and I sometimes played with children whose parents had survived the camps - but there simply was not a creative, public conversation about this reality in my world. I read Man's Search for Meaning my freshman year in college, but it wasn't until my time in seminary that I discovered Rosemary Reuther's Faith and Fratricide. This sparked a personal journey into the works of Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstien and Jurgen Moltmann. Reuther also encouraged a rereading of Bonhoeffer and then my decision to write my Master's thesis with Dorothee Soelle.

In the early 80's I was able to visit Poland - and some of the death camps - with Fellowship of Reconciliation. We spent time in conversation with Christians in the GDR, too - people of faith who not only lived through the Third Reich but chose to remain after the war - in the hope that they might aid in rebuilding German culture. Still, I could find no sustained movement within Christianity that was willing and able to address the linkage between Auschwitz and the New Testament.  Perhaps three years ago this changed with the publication of The Jewish Annotated New Testament - Amy-Jill Levine's essay are essential - and my reading of James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. Working with a local rabbi on the question of justice for both Jews and Arabs in Palestine was another vital step in my quest for understanding and healing alternatives.

As I settled into this first day of pre-sabbatical living - we don't leave for NYC until Friday and have a host of assorted cleaning and packing tasks to accomplish - I am aware that I am being encouraged by the Spirit to wrestle with my own deeply ingrained Christian anti-Semitism. One of the actions that Carroll, a former Roman Catholic priest, urges is for a Third Vatican Council to be called that specifically - and honestly - addresses and repents of our legacy of viscous and violent anti-Semitism in all its forms. His point is clear: without teshuva - the radical turn around we know as repentance in all of its embodied and public forms - the sins of our fathers and mothers in the Church will continue to infect their children unto the third  and fourth generations.  Jesus clearly calls for the faith community to be continually in such a repenting mode at the start of his public ministry:  Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near repent, and believe in the good news.  In Carroll's analysis this would include a cleansing of the anti-Semitic theologies embedded in the New Testament, a thorough and public confession of our history of sin and a commitment to use our institutional power to redress the evil we both birthed and nourished.

As the Psalmist sang, for me I don't have such lofty notions or concerns I don't fillmyself with thoughts too grand or big for my small life. (Psalm 131) Rather what I am going to think about during parts of this sabbatical - and explore theologically and practically - is what such a return to the values of Jesus might mean on a local level.  I sense that being an ally for real justice in Palestine demands nothing less. I believe that being a faithful partner with my spiritual cousins in Judaism requires a new level of cooperation, compassion and community from me and my faith community. And I don't have any idea what that might look like... and so the time for sabbatical reflection begins.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

My soul thirsts...

Already it is VERY odd not to be pastor: no commitments to follow-up on, no liturgies and music to consider and rehearse, no... nothing except to be. After a bit of anxiety and a LONG, deep nap I roasted a chicken with butter/wine sauce and sat with my honey.  It was good. It IS good. And very, very odd. Earlier this day I had the chance to play some sweet jazz with my man Andy and Carlton. I am so very grateful.

So now we have entered the sabbatical and it is a blessing even as my soul turns to Psalm 42 and so I share it in French:

Comme une biche soupire après des courants d`eau, Ainsi mon âme soupire après toi, ô Dieu! Mon âme a soif de Dieu, du Dieu vivant: Quand irai-je et paraîtrai-je devant la face de Dieu? Mes larmes sont ma nourriture jour et nuit, Pendant qu`on me dit sans cesse: Où est ton Dieu?

My last sermon for a two whole seasons...

What I had hoped to say at worship... oh well. I give thanks to God for this day and all the goodness we shared. There was some gentle kidding today that I have mentioned "I am going to sabbatical" a LOT over the past year. And at first I was thinking, "Well, yes, I've probably overstated the case." But then it hit me: it is so very, very important to help all of us respect the boundaries of this sabbatical. It is a retreat for us - not a vacation - it is time away in the wilderness for reflection. So, because respecting these clear boundaries is often complicated for people in a church, I have been extra vigilant over this past year - and there are still folks who just don't get it. Alas... here is what I had written to say and I think it still rings true. Now, we are truly ONWARD into Sabbatical 2015!

My deepest hope for you, the congregation and leadership of First Church, all of the time, but
especially during the next four months of our shared sabbatical, is that you would rest:  rest in the grace of God, rest from worry and fretting about our finances, rest in the promise of the Sabbath that teaches us that God really is in charge and rest from the usual work we share that is so important but also so draining.  I’m not very good at always practicing what I preach about this resting thing – but it is clear to me the time has come for me to practice and embrace it more thoroughly deep within – and I sense that is true for us as a congregation, too.

As the prayer/song we just shared says:  Deep within, I the Lord your God will plant a new spirit within you – and become your strength. Notice what this prayer doesn’t say – such is one time tested path to real spiritual wisdom, you know – listening to the via negativa – what isn’t said.  And this prayer song taken from the prophet Jeremiah doesn’t say that God will give us more work to do, it doesn’t say that the new spirit written on our hearts will leave the work of justice and compassion up to us alone and it doesn’t say that we have to figure it all out all by ourselves all at once.

Rather the promise is that if we return – that is, change our direction and come back into community and trust – God will become our strength.  The Spirit of the Lord will both spiritually and physically refresh us from the inside out – and hope will be restored within and among us.

When I asked Church Council to join me in applying for a Lily Foundation grant so that I might take a sabbatical for the first time in my ministry, the old ghosts of previous sabbaticals decided to pay us a visit and inform our conversation that night. The good and holy ghosts said out loud that First Church had a proud and long honored history of pastoral sabbaticals. Indeed, I was reminded that my contract made provision for sabbatical rest as a part of an extensive, venerated tradition.

In the same room with those holy ghosts, however, were some other spirits – the spirit of fear and frustration, the spirit of anxiety and fatigue -  for no sooner had our sabbatical tradition been articulated and celebrated than the stories began.
And the stories I heard that night – and have heard often in the two years we’ve been working and planning for this experience – included two broad themes that helped me understand why THIS sabbatical had to be different:

First I heard people speak of cherishing the pastor who left them behind for study and renewal.  This included both my immediate predecessor as well as those who preceded him. There was unanimity in the room about how important sabbatical time was for both clergy and spouse – and there was not one iota of resentment present at all. But in the very next breath, I how tiring it was for the lay leadership to be without the settled pastor for an extended season. I heard strong and respected souls speak of their own frustration and anxiety: we were holding on by our fingernails was the chorus repeated over and over that first night.  Not because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but rather because when the preacher is away some people stopped attending Sunday worship. Others quit contributing to the financial well-being of the church. A few had to shoulder the burden that often falls upon the pastor to carry.  And a few others decided that with the pastor away, it was time for the church mice to play. Believe me when I tell you, there were holy ghosts in the room that night along with some spirits of fear and frustration.

Second, after we listened to what the spirits of the past had to tell us, I also heard our leadership say that they wanted and needed this time of sabbatical to be different. Now, when people tell stories there are always multiple levels of truth, right? There is the obvious literal narrative, there are the emotions just below the surface, there are value judgments implied but rarely made explicit and there is a hidden hope that needs to be teased out into the light if a new experience is going to become reality. Two stories shared that night are illustrative. The first had to do with the marching orders that the pastor gave to the congregation – things to be addressed, worked on and accomplished while he was away – and as it was told, these marching orders were extensive. No one said just what was supposed to happen – and to this day I still don’t know the details – just that it was decreed that during this sabbatical the congregation needed to do some serious work.  The second had to do with how little of that work actually took place while the pastor was away. There was a lot of nervous laughter about this – and a bit of frustration, too – because it was clear that there was some disappointment involved after the sabbaticals were over.

Now I tell you these stories not to disparage or denigrate anyone involved in the past. I have too much respect for all involved to be that shallow or small-minded.  No, I recall these experiential stories of First Church around sabbatical to make a point the Lilly Foundation insisted upon in our grant application. THIS sabbatical experience is to be shared. It is NOT the pastor going away for a time of rest and renewal – although that is essential and believe me that will happen – rather this is to be a time when the congregation also participates in a season of rest and renewal, too. Those who awarded us nearly $50,000 were quick to quote St. Paul in his letter to the Romans:  Do NOT conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewal of your minds. (Romans 12)  So from the outset, there was not simply an implementation team for the pastor’s sabbatical, there was a planning team that spent more than a year talking, writing, discerning, challenging and finally applying for a shared sabbatical grant.  Conceptually this sabbatical has been planned cooperatively.  

So let me outline for you the three broad areas that you are invited to participate in – and
please note that this is NOT a marching order. We will have to write a summary of our experiences for the Lilly Foundation at the conclusion of the sabbatical, but there is almost nothing in what we have planned that requires or expects you to DO anything. This is to be a season of being, not doing – an extended encounter with Sabbath rest – a shared sabbatical. And here is what our team came up with:

First, starting May 1 and running through the middle of September, our music director, Carlton Maaia II, will move into a full time ministry.  He will be the source of continuity during my absence. And he will be working to make sure three things happen:  1) Worship continues to be creative and rich.  2) Our planned jazz for the journey trips to Tanglewood are satisfying. And 3) that a variety of experiential learning about jazz, music and liturgy takes place throughout the summer.

Now let me speak specifically about the Tanglewood trips:  we have two trips planned – and sign-up sheets for them both – and each concert has been under-written by the Lilly Grant. If you can pay for yourself, or a portion of the ticket, that ‘s great; but if you cannot, there is to be no barrier to your participation. Just sign up – and away we go. Each Sunday before the concert, Carlton will hold a “preview” event during which the artist’s music will be introduced, various insights given and questions answered. For example, Diana Krall is touring to promote a new collection of songs that come from the NEW American songbook born of the 60s and 70s.  She is taking tunes like “California Dreamin’” and others and reinterpreting them much like the jazz artists of the 40s and 50s did with Broadway show tunes. So, there will be some preparation – then the concert – followed by a debriefing and discussion the following Sunday after worship. The same thing will happen for the Wynton Marsalis show in July.  This part of the sabbatical is about fun – about being open to new insights in a gentle and relaxed way – and about taking in the beauty of God’s creation, too.

Second, during the first three Sundays in May we will have some guest preachers. And if you are here you will experience three new insights about how the Holy Spirit is calling us into the deeper work of inter-faith and ecumenical relationships both in Pittsfield and abroad.  The first preacher is Joyce Sohl from the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, TN.  She coordin-ates the jazz liturgy experience that Cartlon continues to resource – a new way of doing jazz vespers – designed for people of all or no faith traditions. The second week Fr. John Salatino, the presiding priest at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church will bring the message – and I am thrilled to be making this connection with our Catholic sisters and brothers. And for the third week of May, my friend and colleague, Rabbi David Weiner of Knesset Israel will be in the pulpit – or wherever he chooses to speak from.  To me his presence symbolizes an important part of the sabbatical:  being open to what the spirit of God is saying in the real world regardless of our spiritual tradition.

And third, from Pentecost Sunday – or Memorial Day – through Labor Day my friend and colleague Bob Kyte will be here to lead worship and support our pastoral ministries.  Some of you know Bob from when he was the pastor in either Lenox or in Dalton. He and his wife, Stefie, love the Berkshires – and love First Church – and will bring that love and long history of pastoral sensitivity to you during my absence.

THAT is the heart of the congregation’s sabbatical: No marching orders – no expectations save showing up – and no demands and no tests, ok?  This is to be a time NOT to start new programs or make new demands on our interim staff, but rather to rest and let the Spirit speak to you from deep within.  In the gospel reading from St. Matthew, some of the disciples of Jesus were angry when a woman crashed the men-only party in the house of Simon the Leper and poured an alabaster jar of perfumed oil over the Lord’s head. 

“We could have used the proceeds of that oil to care for the poor,” some complained. To which Jesus replied:  My friends, you will ALWAYS have time and need to care for the poor and broken.  But you must also learn to take time out for rest and renewal.  As an Orthodox Jew, Jesus celebrated Sabbath in his soul. Which is why he went on to say about the woman: Wherever my story is told, what she has done for me will be told in remembrance of her.  Did you hear that?  Did you get it? There is an essential place in the ministry of Jesus for compassion AND Sabbath rest – action and beauty – engagement and extended retreat.  This is to be our time for beauty and rest and Sabbath.  For when we are rested and awakened to God’s beauty even in the midst of pain and suffering, then we, too can live as those who share mercy not mere religion.

The prophetic poet of Israel’s exile, Isaiah, said that once upon a time he believed that God’s will was best done by rigidly enforcing certain rules and rituals. It brought order and certitude to his life.  But after his time in exile, after living through suffering and fear, he had a change of heart and came to sense that the essence of Torah was Sabbath:  blessed is the one who keeps Sabbath, not profaning it, who holds it fast and honors it with their whole being. Like Jesus he never stop being an Orthodox Jew after exile – he kept and maintained his commitment to holy living by observing the Law for the rest of his life – but he had a new realization:  from  deep within the sacred wisdom of Sabbath nourishes our ability to share both justice and compassion.

      And we know this because once Isaiah had excluded foreigners and eunuchs from his welcome circle, but now – after exile - he senses that God is calling all the outcasts to the mountain of shalom:  for now the house of the Lord shall be called a house of prayer for ALL people saith the Lord God who gathers up the outcasts of Israel. There will never be a time when we don’t have work to do – the poor and outcast will always be among us – but without trusting and resting in God’s Sabbath promise  we will probably miss our deepest calling.  So take a moment now to practice resting as we share this hauntingly beautiful song “Sanctuary.” I wanted to hear this one last time before we departed – and I think it captures the essence of God’s Sabbath promise to us all…

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Unplugging for a season (well, sorta...)

Yesterday I asked Dianne to make a "sabbatical logo" for me. I posted it on Facebook as I plan to disconnect from there for a season. This blog, however, will continue to be linked to FB but I won't be checking for comments, posting pictures, etc. Rather, I am going to honor the intent of my sabbatical retreat and truly go silent.
That said, I will be posting my sabbatical reflections during this time in two places:

+ First, most obviously, will be here. This is a weird blog in that it is part spiritual journal, part billboard for important personal events, part clearing house for the issues that touch my heart and part public prayer house via the ether-net. I don't think that is going to change. So, if you would like to stay up-to-date, check in here from time to time. 

+ Second, is the "Jazz for the Journey" site we've created to be a record of the sabbatical. In addition to my own posts, there will be insights from our music director, interim minister as well as others involved in making this sabbatical work. You can get to it here - and I hope you will take a look.

I have three reasons for unplugging - and I trust you will appreciate and honor them.  First, when I leave worship on Sunday - yes, that's right, THIS Sunday - I am going to experience an odd sense of withdrawal. For 33+ years I have been engaged in preparing for public worship; and, save vacations, have been in worship leadership for all of that time, too. Not so for the next four months. So, in order to enter the rhythm of being rather than doing, I don't want to interact in any way with my worshiping community. Not because I don't love them, but rather because I need to let go for a season. 

Second, in addition to letting go of the worship life of my community, I am also relinquishing any input into the administrative life of the congregation, too. That means, it would be best if I did not see - or hear about - the decisions and/or choices shaping the ordinary life of the church during this time. Unplugging gives me the chance to NOT see; it is a techno way of honoring the via negativa or apophatic spirituality of emptiness.  And while that sound uppity, I am serious: if I KNOW about things - or get notes about decisions - I will fret and want to interact. So, like the ancient monks, I'm headed for the desert silence (even if that includes NYC, Nashville and Montreal.)

And third, I want to break away from some of my internet obsessiveness.  Like some, I find this resource addictive. I love parts of it: throw back thursdays almost always make me laugh out loud as well as smile with affection and some of the jokes are drop-dead funny. But I give too much time to sitting in front of this screen. I sometimes feel like Leonard Cohen in "Democracy" where he sings: 

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean 
I love the country but I can't stand the scene. 
And I'm neither left or right 
I'm just staying home tonight, 
getting lost in that hopeless little screen. 
So some of the time I would ordinarily give to the computer, I am going to share with Di. Other time I am going to practicing my bass chops. And for most of the time, I am going to be wandering without a plan seeing what the Spirit presents to us during this "twilight time." I rather like the way twilight time was recently described by two rabbis who wrote:

In the Journey of the Soul, we have identified the wilderness as uncharted terrain.  Not only that, the wilderness is a place that is “in-between.” William Bridges in his book, Managing Transitions, identifies what we are calling the wilderness experience as the neutral zone -- time and space in-between ending and beginning - “a nowhere between two somewheres.”
Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner coined the term “liminal” for the times of transition when one is “betwixt and between.”  He noted that ritual helps us navigate the territory of “in-between states.”  Ritual allows us to transform in-between time into sacred time. (Victor Turner, Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de PassageIn Jewish tradition, the ritual of Havdalah marks the transition from Shabbat into the week.  This ceremony helps us move from holy time into ordinary time. We mark the power of the moment in that space in-between. Tonight, we offer this beautiful prayer for the liminal moments of sunset.
Twilight People 
As the sun sinks and the colors of the day turn,
we offer a blessing for the twilight, for twilight is
neither day nor night, but in-between.  We are
all twilight people.  We can never be fully labeled or
defined.  We are many identities and loves, many
genders and none.  We are in between roles, at the
intersection of histories, or between place and
place.  We are crisscrossed paths of memory and
destination, streaks of light swirled together.
We are neither day nor night.  We are both, neither,
and all.
May the sacred in-between of this evening suspend
our certainties, soften our judgments, and widen
our vision.  May this in-between light illuminate our
way to the God who transcends all categories and 
definitions.  May the in-between people who have
come to pray be lifted up into this twilight.  We
cannot always define; we can always say a blessing.
Blessed are You, God of all, who brings on
the twilight.
(Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco: 2009)
So, that's where I am with all of this - I hope you will join me when you can.

Friday, April 24, 2015

As far as it depends on you... live for peace

Earlier this week I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper, The Berkshire Eagle,
celebrating the virtues of our small city. Pittsfield is large enough to have some interesting eateries - brought to life by some creative young entrepreneurs willing to invest their resources and wisdom  - but small enough to know your local and regional politicians by name. At 40,000 people, this is an ideal size community that works hard to balance natural beauty and agriculture with the sophisticated tastes of a well-educated population. There is a community college in our town, a few strategic, modest-sized employers who are on the right side of the technology curve to remain competitive into the future and a thriving arts community. Further, within a 50 mile radius are first class art museums, private liberal arts colleges, the summer home of the Boston Symphony to say nothing of hiking, skiing, biking and bathing venues. 

My letter was born of a commitment to take St. Paul's wisdom re: civic society seriously. In Romans 12/13 where he advises the young Jesus movement to mostly make peace with the political authorities of the day. In his context of  Pax Romana in the first century CE, this made sense.  (NOTE: another Christian text, Revelations 13, offers some insights re: an oppressive and unjust civil context and deserves careful consideration, too.)  For most of my public life I have been influenced by two parts of Paul's teaching from these chapters.

Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

For me this means building up the common good.  Those who follow Jesus are not simply critics, we are those who contribute to the repair of our world. We are not just takers, but creative citizens who are fully IN the world while remaining not OF the world. In this two things occur: our witness is clear and our neighbors learn to trust us.  When clergy and laity only show up at protests, I believe we lose some of our credibility. We must be present and active in the ordinary activities of the communities we live in. We must know and build trusting relationships with the people in power - offering respect and love when appropriate as well as clear and compassionate critiques when that is deserved - lest we become irrelevant and shallow caricatures.of our best selves. Paul was clear in Romans 12 that our engagement with reality is never to be compromised by the lowest common denominator of our culture, but rather transformed by the Spirit's renewal so that we "do not conform to the world, but present our whole beings as a living sacrifice to compassion and love."

Another small sentence from Romans 12  is persuasive to me, too: So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. My hunch - and certainly my experience in both church and the wider community - is that this is the key to authentic and faithful citizenship as a person called to follow Jesus.  We have to make an effort, yes? We must be engaged - and our engagement is to be about peaceful social relationships. Paul continues:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

The spark for my letter was ignited last week while speaking with on of the young movers and shakers in our town. She knows everything that is happening - and about to happen - in the arts scene here and is committed to helping the town strengthen its economic and cultural renewal. When one of the leaders from my congregation mentioned in passing that "Pittsfield has a deep inferiority complex about itself," she quickly replied, "And I refuse to accept that everywhere I go. We not only have great potential here, but great and committed people making real changes already." I wanted to honor her refusal to give in to our historic pessimism while offering my commitment to the work of ordinary renewal in a place I have grown to love. My letter reads:

Letter: Sabbatical prompts thoughts on Pittsfield

The Berkshire Eagle

To the editor:
As I prepare to leave Pittsfield for four months on a sabbatical from my congregation, I wanted to write a word of gratitude to The Eagle and the people of Pittsfield. All communities have their problems — and we have our share — that is part of the human condition. Simultaneously, there is a spirit of quiet compassion alive in our town, too that is sometimes forgotten or overlooked.
Today (Patriots Day), for example, as I left the pharmacy on my way to the grocery store, a woman waiting in the parking lot called out to wish me travelling mercies. She is not a member of my congregation nor someone I know well. But she read the story Derek Gentile wrote about the sabbatical two weeks ago and wanted to wish me well.
Thirty minutes later at the supermarket, both the check-out clerk and another shopper stopped to ask me about the upcoming trip. They, too had seen the Easter pictures in The Eagle and took the time to offer a word of encouragement. This happens in Pittsfield all the time!
My next-door-neighbor arranged to make certain our driveway is plowed during the winter; another neighbor does this work without cost because, as he told me, "That's what neighbors are for!" Some of my clergy colleagues have made themselves available to help lead worship while I am away, including Fr. John Salatino of St. Mark's and Rabbi David Weiner of Knesset Israel.
From the young entrepreneurs renewing North Street, the hundreds of citizens who support our benefit concerts for emergency fuel needs and/or cleaning the Housatonic, the inter-faith work for justice in the Berkshires taking place through BIO (Berkshire Interfaith Organizing), the countless people who have donated to the CROP Walk to End Hunger to our local political leaders and state officials, it is clear to me that this is a "big-hearted" place to live.
I will miss Pittsfield during my time away and already look forward to getting back to work with my neighbors when I return in the fall.

Blessings and gratitude,
James Lumsden Pittsfield (The writer is pastor of First Church of Christ at Park Square.)

Does this make me a Pollyanna? I hope not, but I am willing to take that risk. My ministry in this place is taking root. I want to nourish those roots on my return from sabbatical. I have long believed that one of the commitments to incarnational theology in real life means that I become a part of the community. Remaining a constant outsider has no juice for me. 

So I am already sensing that this work will include four broad areas of engagement upon our return: 1) Our congregation's commitment to Berkshire Interfaith Organizing; 2) A new effort at men's ministry that includes rites of passage and connecting older mentors with teens; 3) Something I think of as a "Feast for Common Ground" that would be a travelling show built upon music, poetry, food and serious conversation; and 4) deeper initiatives into the contemplative aspects of a spirituality of jazz. These four themes keep rising to the surface of my prayers. They speak both to my passions as well as my sense of what is missing in our community. How did Buechner put it concerning our calling: it is that place where our greatest joy meets the world's greatest need?

One more thought: as I have ached and planned, prayed and prepared for this sabbatical, my weariness has often been the driving force. That is oddly starting to lift already and we haven't even left! As a colleague said to me on the phone yesterday:  please remember that there is a bold difference between sabbatical and retirement. Sabbatical is refreshment grounded in returning - there is hope and blessing for everyone in the return - while retirement means an end to ministry as you know it. Don't confuse the two.

He was right... and my sense of return and re-engagement is starting to give our departure some new shape and form.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Travellin' blues...

This Sunday we're going to open worship with Dave Brubeck's "Travellin' Blues" because... well, you know!  Carlton turned me on to this last year and I've been in love with it ever since. Hi picked most of the jazz tunes - and all the liturgical music - this week. And man is it spot on!
After some pastoral calls this morning, we spent 90 minutes on the phone with our sabbatical interim minister, Bob Kyte, who is wise, experienced, grounded and oh so bright. Towards the end of the conversation, he asked us both "why JAZZ for the journey?" The conversation that followed will become the heart of Bob's first Sunday at First Church on May 24th: a Pentecost Improvisation with Community and Spirit. Just brilliant. It is going to be such a blessing for Carlton and Bob to go deeper into the WHY of Jazz for the Journey. Carlton is a creative and deep thinking as well as a stunning musical artist. Bob, while not an artistic performer, is a wise pastor and a gifted theological thinker. I can't wait to hear what they come up with in helping the wider congregation GET all this jazz stuff!

We will close worship on Sunday with our take on "The Swinging Shepherd's Blues." I never knew what this tune was called until we ran it last week. Waaay too much fun for two guys to keep to themselves so we hope to share with this the whole church and kick off this sabbatical with style. Join us Sunday at 10:30 am if you are in the area. (I hear tell that my musical buddy, Andy Kelly, is going to join us on this one, too!"

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:...