Wednesday, September 30, 2015

I'm ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen...

NOTE:  Here's what came out when I sat down to put together this week's worship
notes... hmmmm.

All of the lessons offered to us today for prayerful consideration are monsters! They are tender and subtle monsters, to be sure – wise and wonderful in an under-stated way – but monsters none the less.  But we have to be listening – really listening – as the Master says to the people:

The Father has given me all these things to do and say I ask you: are you listening, really listening? This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does, but I’m not keeping it to myself: I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. So come to me… and I’ll show you how to take a real rest.

It is the type of rest we sang about in Psalm 131:  I still my soul, O Lord and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother's breast; my soul is quieted within me.

It is the type of rest we are encouraged to practice in Romans 14: Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do; don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with… that’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.

It is the type of rest I experienced in a unique and healing way during our four months of sabbatical – a blessing I am NOT going to give up or forsake even though we have now returned to the working realm. You see, while in Montreal I discovered something – something that has been in the grain of my soul and core of my heart all my life – a calling into tenderness.Today’s gospel startled me when I read that even Jesus was interrupted from his rant over the people’s cruelty and selfishness by the Holy Spirit so that when his prayer was over, “he resumed speaking to the people but now… tenderly.”

Tenderness, I believe, is how we make God’s grace flesh in our time and place. It is how we practice being a living blessing to another rather than just another curse. And it is an antidote to the snark and cynicism that is so rampant in our culture. So today I want to speak with you conversationally about tenderness. I think I’ll keep at it for the next few months, too – going over it line by line with anyone willing to listen – because tenderness is so counter-cultural and healing.

And because today is the Feast of St. Francis I thought it would be a great time to start this conversation. You see, when I look back over the contours of my experience, I see that it has been driven by a quest, hunger and thirst for tenderness. It is what inspires the music I make, the art I cherish, the politics I support and the way I encounter God’s grace

In fact, when my life and ministry fell apart oh so long ago, it was the invitation into tenderness that Christ Jesus whispered to me in this text that saved my life: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.  St. Paul was right: that is why Jesus lived and died and lived again…to free us from the petty tyrannies of each other. And I would add that we ourselves are addicted to and our culture reinforces. 

One of my favorite writers, Barbara Brown Taylor, puts it like this:

In the Bible, human beings experience God’s salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human being in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they even know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. It is a way into life and God alone knows how it works.

It is why Christ lived and died and lived again – it is the way into the unforced rhythms of grace when we are tired and worn and burned out – it is how we are set free from the petty tyrannies of each other, ourselves and our culture. But we have to cultivate it – practice it – discover how much we need it and then nurture it.

In the old translations of this passage of Matthew 11 Jesus speaks of wearing a yoke:  at midday Eucharist this week we talked about a variety of yokes and how they help our work.  And as I was doing some Bible study in preparation I came across a Jewish commentary that was stunning. It said that for faithful Jews the yoke of faith was keeping the commandments – AND – if you honored and kept the Sabbath – if you rested deeply and trusted God fully – the Sabbath fulfilled all the requirements of keeping the commandments.  Are you listening carefully: rest and trust, beloved, are the key to salvation!

So to keep it all real – with no BS or vague generalities – just earthy, gritty, incarnated truths, like the Word become Flesh within and among us let me ask you a question I stumbled upon that cuts to the chase: What is saving your life right now? Not what do you think about God? Not how is your prayer life? Not are you a member or a Christian or anything abstract? But rather “what is saving your life – making it whole and free and satisfying – right now?

So how ‘bout it – can you say out loud some of what is saving your life right now – without deceptive spiritual language or vague generalities? Can you talk about the holy in intimate, earthy human terms? Let me give you two examples – and then I want to hear from you about what is saving your life right now – ok?

·        Playing music with Carlton again is saving my life…

·        Having dinner each night in candle light with Dianne…

So how about for you:  What is saving your life right now?

Today’s Psalm gives shape and form to what salvation means to me these days when she
sings about three blessings:  trust and tenderness in real time. You might also speak about these blessings as the practice of compassion and contemplation in community. 

I do not occupy myself with great matters or things that are too hard for me:  what does that say to you? It is the recognition that God is God and we are not, right? Trust might also be called hope embracing humility – part of the unforced rhythms of grace – letting go of burn out.

For I still my soul and make it quiet like a child on its mother’s breast: what strikes you with these words?

Wait upon the Lord, O Israel, from this time forth and for evermore:  any thoughts or reactions here?

One of the truths I experienced in Montreal is that I needed to trust God’s presence in my life in real time. Not as an abstract promise – not as something that might take place in thy kingdom come – but right now.  In real time – and in order for that to happen I had to rest.  And let me be explicit with you about what this rest meant for me because it probably won’t mean the same thing for you.

·    I had to let go of any notion of being the pastor. Being a pastor is a role – a public identity – and wearing masks or taking on another's expectations burns me out. In fact, I have mostly come to hate being defined by that role. 

·    And here’s why:  it is so limiting and incomplete! I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a writer, a musician as well as a pastor. But as one wise soul put it: when you are defined by the role of pastor it means that everybody treats you like you’re the holiest person in the room.

·    That is agony not freedom – constriction - not the spaciousness of God’s salvation and liberation – a role shaped and defined by other people’s expectations rather than the grain of my own soul. So before I could rest I had to let it go.

The Quaker writer, Parker Palmer, writes that the way we experience God’s salvation is to live as the person God created us to be – not someone else’s expectation, not a role, not a mask – but as the one imprinted by the holy to the fullest of our humanity as God intended for us to be.

So for four months I learned to live NOT as a pastor – yours or anyone else’s – but just as James.  I wandered jazz clubs late a night, I slept until 11 am most mornings. I wrote when I felt inspired. I practiced my new bass a lot. And I laughed and wept with Dianne everyday about the joy and freedom we both experienced living outside of our roles. That’s where I got that question: what is saving your life right now because it was God touching me in my flesh in real time.

On sabbatical I learned in my flesh that “self-care is NEVER a selfish act” – it is as Parker Palmer writes: “simply good stewardship of the only gift I have to share upon this earth.”

·    Letting go my role as pastor didn’t mean I didn’t pray – it doesn’t mean I’ve quit the church – and it has nothing to do with the love I have for you in my heart. I simply had to find a new way to trust God and be tender with myself in real time so that I could be saved.

·     And it begins… with rest. Deep rest. Rest beyond expectations and roles.  Rest that is soul healing and heart cleansing. Rest that sets us free from burn out and fear and snarky, selfish speech and all the rest.

Jean Vanier, one of Canada’s humble and simple spiritual giants, puts it like this:  All prayer begins in a place of rest and quiet (contemplation.) When we love someone, don’t we love just to be with each other, to be present in real time with and to one another? (trust) We may say a word of affection, but mostly we become attentive to each other and listen to one another (community.) Love is essentially a place of silence.

Let me ask you to join with me now for a bit of loving silence so that our trust and compassion might mature in real time… as we practice being God’s humble people in community.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Onward to choir practice...

Fall is clearly upon us in the Berkshires. Here is a shot looking out my study window...
Two quick thoughts before a nap and then choir practice:

+ If pastors spoke to the people in their congregations the way congregants sometimes speak to their pastors... well, let's just say there would be blood in the streets. My wise predecessor used to say: If pastors want to be appreciated, get a dog. I mention this only because some people confuse speaking the truth in love with cruelty. Or else they are completely clueless about the delicate inner balance many clergy wrestle with every day: putting yourself out there as an introverted mystic in an extroverted utilitarian world. Granted, being a minister beats heavy lifting, but come on now people, smile on each other everybody get together, try to love one another right now, ok? Words can wound or heal - even critical words that are essential - so before nailing your pastor, ask yourself: would I want to be addressed in this manner? My hunch is probably not.

+ In Parker Palmer's small but sacred book, Listening to Your Life, he writes about his own
angst because "the experience of darkness has been essential" to "coming to selfhood. Telling the truth about that face helps me stay in the light." Then he adds this:

But I want to tell that truth for another reasons as well: many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives. When I was young, there were very few elders willing to talk about the darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had ever known. As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure. I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.

On this shadowy, cloudy fall afternoon in the Berkshire hills, another Parker Palmer essay (about the seasons) comes to mind.

When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off. Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation. But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing. Autumn constantly reminds me that my daily dyings are necessary precursors to new life. 

Onward to choir practice!

Monday, September 28, 2015

what is saving your life right now...?

At the close of Barbara Brown Taylor's memoir, Leaving Church, is a collection of comments
constructed upon the question: "Tell us what is saving your life right now?" A most excellent question, I daresay: What is saving your life right now? She offers five clues about practices that are saving her life ranging from leaving being an official holy person, teaching school and living in relationship with creation to observing Sabbath and encountering the sacred in ordinary human reality. "Salvation," you see, "is so much more than many of its proponents would have us believe."

In the Bible, human beings experience God's salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God's name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life and God alone knows how it works.

So how does a pastor - and I specifically mean this pastor - help a faith community name and claim the gift of God's salvation in our ordinary experience? How do I move away from the traditional notion of Protestant worship as a constellation of powerful and interesting ideas to a celebration of God's liberating grace? How do we reinvent worship, administration and service as part of a sacramental way of being in the world rather than a commodity requiring an immediate use? How does all of this faith stuff move beyond disembodied intellectual concepts - or crass utilitarianism - to something more like trust in the Lord's mysterious presence? A lifetime process rather than a discrete product?  

The more I ask myself - and you - these questions, the more I discover small clues. This morning during tea and prayers I spent 45 minutes with Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Just like Taylor's Leaving Church, I've had this book on my self for years, too. Tomorrow I'll share a few insights about  how he suggests  we practice listening to our lives - Palmer's wisdom is time-tested and clear - but for now let me note that he insists it begins with silence. Contemplation. A long, loving look at what is really happening in our hearts, minds, souls and flesh. "How we are to listen to our lives is a question worth exploring."

In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not  work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal - tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing tow walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

We will discover what is saving our lives right now through contemplation, compassion and community connections and action. These three truths - contemplation, compassion and community - came to me over the course of last night when I couldn't sleep. That's one of the things my soul HATES about how I do pastoral ministry: I fret. I fall asleep and then wake up in a dither only to get up and pray. And fuss. And read and then go back to bed. Where I sleep for another 45 minutes only to wake up filled with anxiety and do the whole damn thing over and over again until a measure of grace or exhaustion claims victory. I haven't done the anxiety, fretting and sleepless dance for five months so I was pissed when it raised its surly head in my heart and soul last night. Some clergy drink themselves back to sleep. Others become cranky and cynical. I've tried those antidotes - and they work for a spell but are never satisfying. So, I surrendered to the dance and kept at it until those three words took root and led me back into sleep.

Contemplation - compassion - community: these are the things I not only know how to share
most deeply but also feed my soul. It is has taken me nearly 35 years to own this truth, but when I listen to my body it tells me: go there. Like the poet May Sarton said, "Now I become myself. It's taken time, many years and places. I have been dissolved and shaken, worn other people's faces.." So reinventing worship in a more contemplative, conversational way is essential for me - and for others trying to unplug from the madness. That is one clue.

Another comes from NOT being a part of the institutional church for four glorious months where I started to see what God is already doing in our midst rather than trying to name a NEW thing we must create. Taylor helped me claim some shape and form for this insight when she wrote:

A friend of mine, who was for a time in charge of continuing education at a seminary in lower Manhattan, challenged the idea (that the church is the center of all God's creativity) by reversing the usual polarity between the school and the city. Instead of inviting people to General Seminary to learn about God, Harry invited them to stay at General Seminary while they learned what God was already doing in the city. After days on the streets and nights at the theater, the pilgrims returned to the seminary to process their encounters with the divine. The clear message was that God did not live at the seminary. God lived in the world.... So what if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing int he world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if the church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church's job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?

My calling - my work and my soul - point towards practicing contemplation, compassion and community in action. As I've noted on other occasions, contemplation is "taking a long, loving look at what is real." It is not quietism nor personal piety. It is resting, trusting and looking at what is real in all of life with the eyes of love. Compassion is sharing God's love with human words and deeds and prayers and actions; it is cultivating a life of tenderness. And community action is moving beyond the confines of what is safe into the world as it is - with all its wounds and all its joys. I believe that I have both enough energy and wisdom to live into these three C's, but not a whole lot more. Last night in prayer - and fretting - I surrendered trying to manage bullies, soul vampires and those who reek of self-importance. I not only hate that part of the job, but my body tells me I can't do it any more. (I don't know who will manage them, I just know it ain't me, babe! I also know I will keep surrendering this to the Lord until I no longer serve a church!) And, ironically, I sensed that God can use even my fretting and ponderous anxiety attacks in the middle of the night for grace if I am willing to feel them and trust God. 

Parker Palmer also shared these words in this morning's quiet time - and they are a good place to stop.

I once heard Alan Watts observe that a Chinese child will ask,"How does a baby grow?" But an American child will ask, "How do you make a baby?" From an early age, we absorb our culture's arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere "raw material" that lacks all value until we impose our designs and labor on it. If, however, we accept the notion that our lives are dependent on an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control, we run headlong into a culture that insists, against all evidence, that we can make whatever kind of life we want, whenever we want it. Deeper still, we run headlong into our own egos, which want desperately to believe that we are always in charge. We need to challenge and reform these distortions of culture and ego - reform them towards ways of thinking and doing and being that are rooted in respect for the living ecology of life... we are here not only to transform the world, but also to be transformed.

Time for me to head off to the hospital for a visit before meeting with some young people and their parents. Then I need to spend an hour with my bass playing some scales and arpeggios for that will REALLY show me I am not in control of anything!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Being fully present and fully alive...

Earlier this summer I read something in Richard Rohr's examination of the 12 Steps - Breathing Under Water - that continues to challenge, encourage and haunt me.

After trying to teach the Gospel for over forty years, trying to build communities and
attempting to raise up elders and leaders, I am convinced that one of my major failures was that I did not ask more of people from the very beginning. If they did not turn outward early, they tended never to turn outward, and their dominant concern became personal self-development, spiritual consumerism, church as 'more attendance' at things, or to used the common phrase used among Christians 'deepening my relationship with Jesus' (most of which demands little accountability for what you say that relationship is...) Until people's basic egocentricity is radically exposed, revealed for what it is and foundationally redirected, much religion becomes occupied with rearranging deck chairs on a titanic cruise ship, cruising with isolated passengers, each maintaining his or her personal program for happiness while the whole ship is sinking.

I couldn't agree more - I've wrestled with this failure of ministry over the years, too - and am still trying to make sense of it. It is discouraging when congregations apply the symbolism and methodology of the workplace to the healing of our soul. Small wonder so many churches in the West are dying: grace is NOT about a quid pro quo. There are two other insights Rohr offers , however, that provide some perspective and purpose as well as a plan for sticking with this thing called church:

+ First, he notes that, "All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it to those around us." Without an encounter with a love greater than ourselves - and that love's ability to absorb our brokenness and even heal it - none of us know what to do with our shadow. Most of the time, we deny or ignore it - and hurt people right and left as a consequence. Our acts may be unintentional, ignorant or willful - I've seen them all - but the result is the same: increased suffering because we refuse to be set free from our own agonies.

+ Second, we cannot find liberation by ourselves - it requires both the crash of failure (so that true humility has a fighting chance to take up residency in our hearts) and the grace born from above. "The path of descent is the path of transformation: darkness, failure, relapse, death and woundedness are our primary teachers rather than ideas or doctrines." When we truly know that there is no other option but God's grace, some of us surrender to the Lord and start to become whole while others turn their despair and pain into a fetish, becoming mean-spirited, arrogant and cynical.

When religion does not move people to the mystical or non-dual level of consciousness, it is more a part of the problem than any solution whatsoever. It solidifies angers, creates enemies and is almost always exclusionary of the most recent definition of "sinner." At this level, it is largely incapable of its supreme task of healing, reconciling, forgiving and peace-making. For when religion does not give people an inner life - a contemplative life - a life or real prayer, it misses its primary alternative conscious is the only freedom from ourselves and the lies of our culture.

The way of the heart - compassion and connection - doesn't come from a book, a doctrine or an idea. "Heart space," Rohr has learned, "is often opened by right brain activity such as music, art, dance, nature, fasting, poetry, games, life-affirming sexuality and of course the art of relationship itself. Mass murderers are invariably loners who participate in none of these things but merely ruminate and retreat into their head and their own explanations." Our hearts are filled when we empty the mind - when we let experience rather than our own selfishness or pain shape our response of compassion - when we become vulnerable and tender. 

Please know that I am not advocating a foolish anti-intellectualism. Rather, I am affirming what I have seen over 34 years of ministry: we cannot think our way into a life of compassion, hope and trust. Those who insist on simply acquiring more facts and knowledge as the key to transformation are delusion and become people of the lie. The way of the heart demands that you let others actually influence and change you. Pope Francis told his American bishops as much when he said: Look at the person in front of you - not an idea, not your expectation of what they should be, not a doctrine - look at the person in front of you and let love guide you. In this, you will be changed. In this, the way of the heart is strengthened. In this, God's tenderness becomes flesh in our midst.

My hunch is that this truth necessitates a worship and pastoral strategy quite different from  the status quo. We all need space to slow down. We all need encouragement to trust God rather than ourselves. We all need right brain encounters to help us let go of fear, arrogance, shame and sin. We all need to be led into a new life that has transformed our pain through grace.  So we played with a new style of contemplative worship today - more music, more silence, more conversation and story-telling - as I asked, "Where were you fully present, fully alive this past week?" I know I was totally connected to heaven and earth when my grandson, Louie, threw himself into my arms, hugged me and laughed heartily from his little belly on Friday night. "This is where God is calling to us," I confessed. "To life... to tenderness... to being fully present and absorbed in grace."

I want to live more fully in the present moment - to be fully present to those aching in their pain and to embrace our beautiful deep joys, too - and after all these years I know it won't happen without practice.  And so a new journey begins...

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Discarding and cherishing clothes, roles and ministries...

And so the sorting continues... this time with shirts. How many shirts, tops, blouses, etc. do two modestly middle class, professional  people need? We obviously crossed over the line at some point in our past because we now have BAGS of shirts to give away. No fooling - and I'm talking GARBAGE BAGS people!

A part of this sorting includes the conscious act of selecting: just as there are things to discard
in our closets and lives, there are also things to embrace and treasure. Jesus made the observation that "where your treasure is there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6: 21) Most of the time I have heard this quoted inversely - where your heart is, there will be your treasure also - but that is not what he said. Rather, Jesus asked us to be clear about where we gave time, attention, possession, attitude, action, money and all the rest in our real, ordinary, walking around lives. If we might look at all of this honestly and entrust it to God - wounds, failings and sin alike - then a healing change of heart and direction might take place. 

This change of both heart and direction - this quest for integrity and congruence between our deepest values and our lived expereince - is what the Scriptures call repentance in both Greek (metanoia - (μετανοέω) and Hebrew (shuv - שוב). Apparently we cannot accomplish authenticity without a change of direction. A return - a renewal - a reorientation of possessions, thoughts and activities is a requirement for right living and right relationships. It makes me think of Psalm 51 in the King James language I learned as a child.

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

Part of this sorting for me - this discarding and selecting - has to do with roles. For those who are not ordained clergy I might sound like a broken record. (I might sound that way to my clergy colleagues, too.) But it is clear to me that to live into a clean heart - to live with authenticity and congruence in my post-sabbatical incarnation - requires both the letting go of some roles and expectations and the cherishing of others. In this, Barbara Brown Taylor's book, Leaving Church, continues to be instructive. She writes: " Both as a priest and as the rector of a parish, I had been given my identity for so long that I hardly knew how to start making up one on my own (after her departure from serving the local church.)" 

My quest for the time being is slightly different: I share Dr. Brown's desire for passionate living but want to see if a re-invention is possible within parish ministry. Like her, some of this has to do with letting go - dying and grieving - as well as reclaiming - being born again to new life. She writes:

The vocational crisis that put an end to my wearing a collar every day exposed the pale neck of my lunar soul. My real human texture came out of hiding for the first time in years and I had so much catching up to do that I was not always pleasant to be around. I rode my mood swings as far as they would go instead of trying to get them to stop. I yelled a lot and practiced colorful language. I went to the grocery story in blue jeans and spent too much money on red clothes...

Then, at least for me, she nails the crux of this challenge: "I know plenty of clergy willing to complain about high expectations and long hours, few of us (however) speak openly about the toxic effects of being identified as the holiest person in the congregation." Ouch - but all too true! The atrophy of her soul after 20 years of being treated as the holiest person in the room drove Taylor from the ecclesiastical  fishbowl to a gig in academia. She didn't leave God. She didn't forsake Christianity. Nor did she urge others to jump ship. As I prepare to re-enter worship leadership this Sunday - and resume a more full-time work week - I am asking God for clues: is it possible to be fully alive as a person of faith AND serve a local congregation?  Is it honest to discard outdated roles like the clothes we are bagging and find news ways of being together as God's fully alive human beings? Is renegotiation of how we do church able to happen between pastor and congregation? My trust and faith point towards the positive - repentance is always on the table - especially if we're willing to trust God like St. Paul urges in Romans 12 (and Peterson's reworking speaks boldly to me right now.)

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you... Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Prophetic poetry and trust...

Tomorrow we sneak away to Brooklyn for an early birthday party with grandson Louie. We will
return on Saturday so that we're both ready for Sunday worship, but don't want to miss being with this special young man on this holy day. It is part of our sabbatical commitment to make certain that we honor family connections for they not only nourish our souls, but also strengthen the bonds of love we share.

Today I experimented with a new practice when it comes to worship preparation. It, too, was born during our sabbatical and involves simplifying my Sunday message. So, at least between now and Christmas, I am going to take the afternoon and evening after midday Eucharist each Wednesday for Bible study and prayer. Today I made some hand written notes for myself, but I am not going to prepare or use a manuscript any longer. I need to be set free to simply rest with the text, walk around with it and then share a few insights and questions with my faith community in a deeper dialogue. We have also dramatically simplified our liturgy so as to encourage deeper silence, more contemplative music and serious conversation and prayer. I will keep you posted.

This week's text in the Season of Creation is all about embracing the good news from God's holy mountain. The prophetic poetry of Isaiah is our starting point but the visit and teaching of Pope Francis is also woven throughout the fabric of this reflection. Two thoughts in particular are important to me:  1) you can't give what you haven't got - including an experience of God's grace that you can trust when life is at its worst; and 2) once you've experienced the blessing, it is essential to share it. This is how things work on God's holy mountain: we are loved and then set free to multiply the miracle of love in our own unique ways. And when this happens, the blessings are unlimited. The entire encyclical rests on the fact that God's praise is to be shared by those who have experienced it.  

“Pay close attention now:
    I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
    are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
    Anticipate what I’m creating:
I’ll create Jerusalem as sheer joy,
    create my people as pure delight.
I’ll take joy in Jerusalem,
    take delight in my people:
No more sounds of weeping in the city,
    no cries of anguish;
No more babies dying in the cradle,
    or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime;
One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal—
    anything less will seem like a cheat.
They’ll build houses
    and move in.
They’ll plant fields
    and eat what they grow.
No more building a house
    that some outsider takes over,
No more planting fields
    that some enemy confiscates,
For my people will be as long-lived as trees,
    my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work.
They won’t work and have nothing come of it,
    they won’t have children snatched out from under them.
For they themselves are plantings blessed by God,
    with their children and grandchildren likewise God-blessed.
Before they call out, I’ll answer.
    Before they’ve finished speaking, I’ll have heard.
Wolf and lamb will graze the same meadow,
    lion and ox eat straw from the same trough,
    but snakes—they’ll get a diet of dirt!
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
    anywhere on my Holy Mountain,” says God

The words of the prophet resonated with a poem my friend Martha shared on FB yesterday by another wise and inspired poet,  Alla Renée Bozarth, in honor of the Equinox.

by Alla Renée Bozarth
Bridge of Grace
To smell the morning air
redolent with autumn
while sipping your version
of Grace in rare Flowering
Jasmine Tea Before Rain
creates a bridge of mercy
between sleep and waking,
summer and autumn,
a season of fire and
a season of crisp air
and the music of rain
At the beginning of day
upon rising, avoid newspapers
for another hour. Ready yourself
for their trembling question—
“Are we the people
at the end of our world?”
Forget it. Throbbing stories must wait
for an hour and not rob you of the prayer
that bridges your being from unconscious
regions into the world with its needs.
Stretch out in every direction, bow
before Creation and say,
“God bless you. I am so glad
that we’re all here today.”
Let your pores fill with light
so the wind shimmers against your skin.
and your inner being is also transformed.
You will need to remember this holy time
and not ask about the end of time
while moving through your love duties today.
Remember, also, the scent of jasmine
that now lingers on your fingers
from spring flowers and leaves
you crushed into your tea pot
ten minutes ago.
Every second, things happen
that change everything, and
sometimes bring redemption.
This is the beginning of time,
and the birth of our world.
© September 21, 2015 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Scattering seeds of peace...

We have started - and I mean just started - to cull our belongings and start a process of discarding, selecting and simplifying. In truth, we've only done a little bit - coats and jackets - but that produced a garbage of gifts for someone who might use them better than we. Still, it is a start. So for the next few months we'll be gradually whittling our way through financial debts, clothes, dishes, furniture, records, CD's and... books. While on sabbatical, we not only had to limit our wardrobe to one suitcase a piece, but we made a serious effort to pay down most our maxed-out credit cards. The result being a new found desire to let go of a variety of things that weigh us down and keep us from living more freely.

In that spirit, I have been rummaging through books I have owned for years but have never read. Last night, a slim volume by Parker Palmer called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation caught my eye. Like the sage once said, "When the student is ready, the Buddha will appear," right? Chapter One opens with a poem by William Stafford: "Ask Me."

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden: and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say. 

Palmer then goes on to note that the very question, "ask me what I have done with my life" is nonsense to some people. We are whatever has happened to us; whatever choices, mistakes, sins and blessings we have encountered and endured. "But for others," he continues, "and I am one, the poet's words will be precise, piercing and disquieting."

They remind me of moments when it is clear - if I have eyes to see - that the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me. In those moments I sometimes catch a glimpse of my true life, a life hidden like the river beneath the ices. And in the spirit of the poet, I wonder: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?

Today is the autumnal equinox. It is also Yom Kippur as well as the start of Pope Francis' visit to the United States.  We hosted a small, ecumenical prayer vigil and Eucharist at noon today to stand in solidarity with the Pope's call for action, repentance, hope and renewal. What we do to Mother Earth wounds the poor of the world profoundly. And what we do to the least of these, our sisters and brothers, we do unto the Lord. About 20-25 people gathered in our Sanctuary. Carlton and I played some contemplative jazz - he is a master of arranging hymns like "All Creatures of Our God and King" in new and creative ways - and we mixed musical meditations like Bill Evans' "Peace Piece" with silent and spoken prayer.Then we gathered around the communion table and shared the Eucharistic Prayer from Iona. 

            Leader: The Lord is with you.
Unison: And also with you.
Leader: Lift up your hearts.
Unison: We lift them to the Lord.
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Unison: It is right to give our thanks and praise.
Leader: It is indeed right, for you made us, O Lord, and before us you made the world we inhabit, and before the world, you made the eternal home in which through Christ we have a place.  All that is spectacular, all the is plain have their origin in you; all that is lovely, all who are loving point to you as their fulfillment. And grateful as we are for the world we know and the universe beyond our comprehension, we particularly praise you, whom eternity cannot contain, for coming to earth and entering time in Jesus.
Unison: For his life which informs our living, for his compassion which changes our hearts, for his clear speaking which contradicts our harmless generalities, for his disturbing presence, his innocent suffering, his fearless dying and his rising to life breathing forgiveness, we praise you and worship him.
Leader: Here, too, gratitude rises for the promise of the Holy Spirit, who even yet – even now – confronts us with your claims and attracts us with your goodness. Therefore, we join our voices with angels and archangels, who forever sing this hymn to your glory.

Holy, Holy, Holy God ruler almighty
Heaven and earth are full of your glory, glory be to you, O God.
Blessed is the one who comes, who comes in the name of God.
Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!

The people may be seated

Leader: Merciful God, send now in your kindness, your Holy Spirit upon this bread and wine and all of us that together we might be filled with the goodness of Christ Jesus. For now we remember that as Jesus gathered around a table among friends, he took bread and broke it saying:
Unison: This is my body, broken for you.
Leader: Later he took a cup of wine and after offering the blessing said: 
Unison: This cup is the new covenant with God in my blood. Take it and drink to remember me.
Leader: In Christ’s presence we pray as he taught us.
Unison: Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. Amen

Quiet prayers for reflection

Leader:  In one voice we pray together:
Unison: Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.
Leader:  Beloved, these are the gifts of God for the whole people of God, so come for all things are ready.

The sweet and sacred irony of this gathering was clearly one of the silent guests at our table as a Protestant pastor and a Roman Catholic lay woman served the elements to a variety of people of varying spiritualities. "THIS" I thought to my self, "this is my life. This is pure grace - sharing prayer and community quietly, humbly, honestly - no bullshit and all in solidarity with the work of justice and compassion."  I had a similar epiphany yesterday while discussing and planning liturgies with my colleague who shared with me a Psalm response he had written based on Psalm 131. Not only is the music stunning in a holy and tender way, but it captures the heart of God's love in an accessible albeit unexpected style. I went home and wept tears of gratitude.

In another writing, Parker Palmer suggests that one of the best metaphors for our unfolding spiritual life is "seasons." 

Seasons is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all – and to find in all of it opportunities for growth... Autumn is a a season of great beauty, but it is also a season of decline: the days grow shorter, the light is suffused, and summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death. Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring – and she scatters them with amazing abandon

And so our discarding, sorting, scattering and reclaiming continues...

gobsmacked and surprised...

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