Thursday, December 31, 2015

at the close of the year...

I love this day in the great circle of days: the closing of the year. It organically evokes melancholia in me as well as wonder and quiet awe. Who knows where we will be lead as the New Year ripens? I could never have predicted where 2015 would take me personally - to say nothing of our world collectively - with all its anguish and delight. One of my spiritual and artistic mentors, the incomparable Carrie Newcomer, recently wrote:  

In a year that has brought us so much news of tragedy and concern, it is easy to walk around with feelings of vague unease, nagging worry and fear. This is human. But, remember, my friends, that this year has also brought brilliant and consistent acts of goodness. They do not always get the front page, because right now our media mistakenly believes that what sells is the worst and most salacious bits of human nature. Often the commercial news gives greater time (and therefore weight) to ugly ideas, and so we begin to believe there is more shadow than Light in the world. But again, remember: The best of what we are is still alive and present in every community. Acts of decency and kindness are happening every single day. We know this, because we have seen this with our own eyes and hearts. There is still something fine and sacred in the world.

That insight is certainly pulling at my heart as I periodically watch the PBS News Hour and scan the stories on the NYTimes website (we gave up cable and our Times subscription after the sabbatical.) Given the magnitude of suffering and cynicism, even the Times felt compelled to write a reflective editorial reminding us that not all is going to hell. Their "Moments of Grace" recalls Christmas Eve 1968 when some of us came home from midnight worship to watch live shots from the Apollo 8 mission to the moon.  As Frank Gorman read the opening words from Genesis, "In the beginning..." a hush fell over our usually calamitous house.  And when he offered a benediction, "Good night, good luck, Merry Christmas and God bless all of you on our good earth" I was filled with something like the peace that passes understanding. (check it out @

I felt something like that again on my way home from a last minute shopping errand: there were too many last minute shoppers buying too much stuff - like me - on a day that had already become too busy. There was too much anxiety and expectation in the air, too. So I asked myself to simply walk around the store as if I were on pilgrimage.We had just talked about both the blessings and surprises of going on pilgrimage at midday Eucharist yesterday so it was still close to my heart. And I wasn't in any authentic hurry. I had all the time I needed to buy some mezze for tonight.  We are not planning anything significant for marking the close of the year except eating by candlelight, sipping some French wine and maybe recalling some of the surprises of 2015. We'll get our Christmas/New Year's letter out electronically this afternoon and make sure Lucie gets to run in the frozen scrub, too. But nothing extraordinary so why not let the supermarket become a holy place?

Walking slowly through the fury I was able to smile, hold some doors open and lift a pork roast into someone's crowded basket.  More surprising, however, was the flood of thoughts that became prayers for me as I walked.  I thought of the venomous words I've recently read about Bill Cosby. There is no excuse or pardon great enough to cover over the monstrous acts he  committed on women caught within those twisted and broken relationships built upon power and degradation. He must experience the consequences of his cruelty - that is the karmic wisdom of justice - and the modest gift it brings to the victims. At the same time, I can't help but notice how so many seem to revel in their condemnations of Cosby. There is an insidious self-righteousness flying through the media that celebrates the ugly collapse of this tragic and brutal man because he had once been the face of humility and humor for America. This is troubling to me.

I am equally troubled by what sounds like sanctimonious belligerence from both those who are grieving the death of Kamir Rice in Cleveland and those who refuse to own the racism, fear and brutality that too often trumps respect and reason from our police departments. I think columnist Connie Schultz hit the nail on the head in her widely heralded piece, "How Racists Talk about Tamir Rice." She is spot on in calling out the racist excuses so many of us use when talking about violence to people of color in the USA. 

White English is a state of mind. It turns words into weapons to dehumanize an entire population of people, and it is bubbling up like pus in a dirty wound after Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty convinced a grand jury that the police were justified in killing a black child playing with an air gun. White English casts Tamir Rice, for the first time in his short life, as an equal among men — rather than as a 12-year-old boy limited by the judgment of his years. He "should have known better." He should have "listened to the police," as if there's no reason to doubt their claim that they yelled three warnings to this child in less than two seconds.

White English repeats, over and over, that this child was "big for his age."

He's not 12-year-old Tamir; he's "Mr.
Rice." Even in his grave, he grows.

He is no longer 5 feet 7 inches tall.

He was 5 feet 9.

He was 5'11".

He was 6 feet tall.

He was a man.

He was a menace.

He was a thug.

White English is the language of the Superior White Parents club, where perfect children raised by perfect parents now raise perfect children of their own who would never jump around in a park and pretend to be shooting a toy gun. They know this because they have special powers that allow them to see what their perfect children are doing every minute of every day. If you dare suggest this is not possible, they will turn on you in a hot minute. How dare you question their parenting as they pick apart Tamir Rice's mother? White English has no words to acknowledge that Samaria Rice loved her son. That she banned toy guns from their home. That she didn't know he had his friend's air gun that day.

Compassion guides her words - even when truly mean-spirited readers craft vile responses that question Ms. Schultz' integrity and safety, she still is guided by a profound sense of solidarity that carries her beyond her safety zone. She is outraged and wounded as are all people of the heart, but Schultz let's her anger move her into words that build community, understanding and maybe even action. Not so with too many church and/or social justice advocates who are quick with petitions and demands but have rarely (if ever) walked our mean streets with our police forces. Not so with those who leave the dirty work of safety and crime prevention to people they never even notice.  Not so from those who choose to pontificate from the comfort and security of their wealth and privilege. 

My mentor in urban ministry used to tell me over and again, white allies need to earn their street cred NOT by what we say (unless invited and/or asked) but by what we DO. Trust is never portable, it must be documented and earned by showing up and joining the cause of justice as servants not leaders. Would that many of us would be still right now and listen to the broken-hearted cries of "Rachel weeping over her children" in Cleveland and Chicago rather than offering our well-intentioned but all too privileged words of rage or advice. Indeed, when our progressive words sound as nearly inflated and irrelevant as those from the likes of Trump et al, something is out of balance.  

Ms. Newcomer offers an important corrective at the close of the year for all of us who want to help our community move towards greater love, hope and compassion:

 Acts of decency and kindness are happening every single day. We know this, because we have seen this with our own eyes and hearts. There is still something fine and sacred in the world. Remember my friends... The things that have always saved us will continue to save us. The things that have consistently tripped us up, will continue to trip us up. Yes, greed, injustice, fear and hate are present in this world. But, love, kindness, truth, justice, intelligence, grace and hospitality, presence, compassion and humor are still here, and completely available to us each and every moment of each and every day. No, we cannot change the whole world, but we can change the spirit we bring to the world we know. Look around, rest in knowing that you can be the love you want to see in the world. It is human to be afraid sometimes...but we do not have to "be" the fear.

BE the love you want to see in the world. BE still more often than not. BE slow as you walk around. BE connected and then BE in quiet solitude for a season. BE still... and know what is true, loving, broken, hard, sacred and real.  Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem he calls "Please Call Me By My True Names," that gets to the heart of deflated the rhetoric of self-righteous indignation so that we might move toward the more honest and humble work of love and healing:

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second 
to be a bud on a spring branch, 
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, 
learning to sing in my new nest, 
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, 
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, 
in order to fear and to hope. 
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and 
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time 
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, 
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, 
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, 
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, 
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to 
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, 
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, 
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, 
so I can wake up, 
and so the door of my heart can be left open, 
the door of compassion.

Happy New Year...

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

on the fifth day of Christmas...

Nothing touches my heart more than being with my grandson.  I think it was Barbara Brown Taylor - but it could have been Lauren Winner - who wrote that holding a newborn or small baby teaches us more about sacred love than any catechism or confirmation class ever created. I second that emotion in spades!  I certainly felt that way with my own precious daughters when they were infants. And this sense of sacred contentment continued as they matured and grew into women of wisdom, humor and grace. It is holy ground to be with them - and when my little man, Louie, comes into the mix:  man, it is truly heaven on earth.

Such is the charism of being a grandparent, yes?  Finally, we can cherish our children and
theirs with tenderness in a quiet and slow-moving manner. We can nurture a sense of wonder and hope in their hearts, an awareness of awe and compassion, too. For now we can take all the time they are with us to do so, because grandparents aren't in a hurry to get to work, school, play or the latest important event. No, now we understand that we already have all the time that there is so we must use it wisely. When our beloved  offspring are away, we ponder the blessings of this love deep in our hearts like the Virgin Mary; and when they come home to visit for a spell, we share the abundance of mercy with them with exuberance and gratitude. Never too much, of course, as no one likes being smothered; but thoroughly, honestly and respectfully.My own father used to tell me that one of the greatest joys of his heart was becoming a grandfather - and now I get it.

Perhaps this gift is why I feel compelled to challenge the virulent hatred and perpetual fear-mongering that has taken over so much of American politics and social life. Last night, we were watching Billy Connolly's BBC series in which he travels Route 66 in the USA. I love me some Billy Connolly and Di and I used to regularly cruise parts of Route 66 on our vacations in Arizona. He is drop dead funny. The highway is a slice of Americana that is every bit as wild and eccentric as the best and worst of American culture can be. And in this episode, he stops by a swap meet and meets a man selling anti-Obama bumper stickers as well as Nazi paraphernalia.  Connolly quizzes the vendor about his hate-filled merchandise and is told that while Europeans may love the POTUS, many heartland Americans despise him.  Oh yes, and while he doesn't support a Nazi agenda, some people are interested in such artifacts of history.

You can sense Connolly wants to spit, "Bull shit" to the man, but he is a guest in our country and too much of a gentleman. So, with a mild rebuke he walks away in stunned disgust. Then he tells us in a voice-over that this sentiment is all too alive and well throughout the USA. But for those who have experience with Nazi hatred, there is nothing neutral or benign about it. Such cruel symbols only strengthen evil. As Connolly walks away he says that he is stunned and disoriented by this encounter - and we know that  it has only intensified since the bombings of Beirut, Paris and the shooting massacre in San Bernadino.

On Christmas Eve, at our contemplative jazz liturgy, one of the poems I read to help unpack the promise of the Incarnation came from Alice Walker.

May it be said of me
That when I saw
Your mud hut
I remembered
My shack.
That when I tasted your
Pebble filled beans
I recalled
My salt pork.
That when I saw
Your twisted Limbs
I embraced
My wounded
That when you
Rose from your knees
And stood
Like women
And men
Of this Earth –
As promised to us
As to anyone:
Without regrets
Of any kind
I joined you –

Such is the love and solidarity this season is calling for from us:  A remembering of our own anguish and emptiness that connects us to our wider community, a deep reverence for the love we experience unconditionally while holding our grandchildren - or nephews and nieces or sons and daughters - so close to our breast as they slip into a safe sleep upon our chests. This bond evokes a response to strengthen love wherever we can. So we
 closed our Feast of the Incarnation worship with the challenge best captured by St. Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters
To make music in the hearts.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

a bit of quiet time before the new year...

Many, if not most, clergy take some quiet, down time between Christmas and New Year's Day
and I am no exception. We have shared a full and challenging Advent as well as a vibrant and creative Christmas. So now, as I have for a long, long time, I am going to chill for the next week. I will finish our Epiphany letter and get it out to friends. I will write my annual report for the January annual meeting. I will practice my bass, complete my on-line retreat at the Abbey of the Arts, walk with Lucie and rest and read. 

One of my commitments to my staff and colleagues is to do enough advance worship preparation so that we can stay ahead of the game. So, this afternoon, I outlined three series that will take us to Pentecost (May 15, 2016.) The first - with a link on the side bar of this blog to an interview with the author - will take up the challenge of Walter Brueggemann in Reality, Grief and Hope. It is his analysis that there is congruence and wisdom between the prophetic critique of ancient Israel's after its collapse in 587 BCE and the US after 9/11/2001. I suspect as share his analysis and my biblical work, this series will amplify our commitment to challenging the immigrant bashing and fear-mongering so prevalent throughout our country. We will also likely study his analysis of Scripture and the current state of affairs in modern Israel during Lent, too.

At the end of January, BIO (Berkshire Interfaith Organizing) will host its first fund-raising dinner. I will start to work with interested clergy and laity on some public challenges to the growing fear of Muslims, immigrants, and Jews that continues to gain traction during this season of presidential insanity. I am looking at a pilgrimage to the mountains of Lent study series based on an Ed Hays text and then an Eastertide study of the book of Revelations. Somewhere in this mix, Dianne will have back surgery, we will share some rock and soul music to raise funds for heating assistance in the Berkshires and host our take on Coltrane's 50th anniversary of "A Love Supreme" suite.   

And then...who knows? So for the next few days I will be off the grid.  Blessings and Happy New Year as we move towards Epiphany.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

returning thanks...

The momentum for a local inter-faith group to challenge immigrant bashing, Islamaphobia and anti-semitism is growing in our small community. A number of people came to Christmas Eve worship to stand in solidarity. And when I called for volunteers to help, I got a great response from the gathered community, too. Our worship numbers were up this year, there is a growing sense of purpose within the congregation and a deep appreciation for our new/old worship aesthetic. 

Small wonder I crashed on Christmas Day. We had a blast with Louie opening gifts, sharing breakfast and laughter. Later in the day - after another nap - I got to feast with the whole clan.on roasted chicken in French wine with all the fixin's. I am one blessed man. And today I got nap again before playing with my grandson while his momma and daddy had a late afternoon date Tonight it is left overs and conversation and then worship in the morning. Here are a few of the highlights...



Thursday, December 24, 2015

tonight's christmas eve message: we are kindred in opposing the fear...

As a rule, I don’t usually share a message or reflection on Christmas Eve:  there are too many social, personal and cultural expectations already flying around the Sanctuary on this night and crashing into one another; so I usually just remind you of God’s everlasting invitation into love and grace and let the music and candles tell you the stories your heart most needs to hear. Sometimes silence speaks louder and more truthfully than any words we might conjure.  And on Christmas Eve, I sense that is the case more often than not.

But sometimes silence implies assent – acquiescence – or alarm – especially when our souls are troubled and fear is in the air. Sometimes silence is what tyrants and bullies count on – the binding of our tongues rather than a shout of solidarity or a call of complaint. Indeed, sometimes the energy of an era aches for songs of protest, hope and opposition but all that is heard is… silence. One of the spiritual elders of the American civil rights movement, the late Howard Thurman of All Souls Church in San Francisco, put it like this:  “When refugees seek deliverance that never comes and the heart consumes itself if it would life; where little children age before their time and life wears down the edges of the mind; where the old soul sits with mind grown cold, while bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly to death and Perfect Love seems long delayed: Christmas is waiting to be born – in you, in me and in all humanity.”

That is why I’ve chosen tonight to alter my usual Christmas Eve habit of honoring the silence and speak to you of the Christmas waiting to be born.  It is clear to me that the dangerous clouds of religious hatred are gathering on our horizon:  in a recent Berkshire Eagle poll it was revealed that 40% of our friends and neighbors in this county support the vicious bigotry and fear-mongering that Donald Trump and others are currently encouraging.  That means that about 50,000 people whom we love and care for in our region have exchanged the promise spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, the Magi and later the disciples of Christ for an idol:  Fear not” the angel proclaimed,  “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of a great joy which shall be to all people: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

I believe God is serious when the promise of peace and glad tidings is offered to all people – not just Jews or Christians, but Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, pagans, atheists and… all people.  Not because of what we believe or the creeds we confess, but because that is who God is – the healer – that is what Savior means – the healer: of our souls, our bodies and our common life. And right now religious snake oil hucksters are peddling fear rather than comfort and joy – and that fear is being manipulated by politicians – so that our deepest hopes and dreams are turning into acts of violence and despair.  So the angel comes to us again to say this fear MUST be challenged: FEAR NOT is God’s Christmas proclamation, a charge to empower our words and deeds with the living presence of all the Lord for this is how the miracle is multiplied within and among us. When God’s word takes up residence within us and becomes flesh, a light breaks forth in the darkness and the darkness cannot vanquish it.

+  You see, without a light shining in our dark streets, without a clear and compelling word of courage spoken at this time, fear thrives in our shadows – meaning more Muslim houses of prayer will burn, anti-Semitism will flourish unabated and immigrants will continue to be demonized and abandoned rather than embraced, nourished and resettled.

+  Did you know that to date over four million people have fled war-torn Syria – half of whom are
children?  Most have taken up residence in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt with about 40,000 in transit to Europe. Our neighbor to the north – Canada – is welcoming 10,000 refugees throughout the next month as part of their commitment to healing what is broken in the world. But given the context of presidential politics, fear and bigotry, our land has only been able to welcome 1,600 sisters and brothers fleeing violence, cold and hatred.  And our Governor, a good man, is on record against allowing the commonwealth to help out in this tragedy.

Beloved, something is wrong – something is broken – out of whack – and this brokenness calls for incarnational acts of compassion to repair the breach in our collective soul.  Some call it tikkun olam, others say satyagraha or soul force, those in this house speak of radical hospitality or deep ecumenism. Whatever our words, we’re talking about is the coming together of Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, Sikhs as well as atheists and all people of good will to say NO to the fear.  We cannot remain silent.

+  We must be clear that we have one another’s backs in times like these. That we will speak with our legislators – write to our papers – open our wallets and checkbooks to those providing emergency services to refugees as winter comes upon the camps – and take a stand against any form of religious hatred or racial prejudice.

+  As I’ve told you before, the way of Mr. Trump is NOT the path to peace, it is the road to hell. The way of fear-mongering and prejudice never leads to the stable on Christmas Eve or common ground on Park Square; it only takes us to the internment or even concentration camps of incarceration and death.

Earlier this week I heard from some of our interfaith partners after my op-ed piece ran in the Eagle, including my friend and colleague Rabbi David at Knesset Israel, and they told me that they want to join us in the New Year in shaping a united public witness against religious bigotry and immigrant bashing.  Unlike some of us, these neighbors know what it means to be excluded and demonized, segregated and stripped of the human rights and dignity the Lord gave to all God’s children.  They have lived through the consequences of a reign of fear and terror – and have vowed: NEVER AGAIN!
So tonight, even as we gather to hear the ancient words and stories and songs of our tradition, we do so in the light of their witness and experiences in history.  You see, not all Scriptures are created equal.  Jesus and other rabbis and teachers before him, understood that we have to do some interpretive work if we’re going to overcome the punitive and exclusionary words that pit us one against the other. If we’re going to sing YES with the angels and encourage honesty, truth, beauty and humility in our community, we must be discerning.  In the Hebrew Bible there is an image – a metaphor for the human condition – which we translate as the vineyard. Sometimes the vineyard flourishes, sometimes it withers; sometimes it is fragile, sometimes it bears good fruit. And sometimes it is so unproductive that it must be pruned or even cut off at the roots.

Vineyards, in other words, are vulnerable – and that is probably why Jesus spoke of himself as a vineyard. It is NOT a symbol of strength or traditional power. Rather, as Lauren Winner writes, the vineyard “tells us something about the perils of incarnation – of making God’s word flesh within and among us – for clearly Jesus has interpreted his Hebrew scriptures and discovered in Jeremiah and Isaiah the most precarious depiction of humanity possible:  To say I am the vine and you are the branches is to confess that he is a fragile healer – an ally with humanity when we are most endangered. Whenever we are producing bad fruit or living in ways that are the farthest from pleasing God, Jesus is already there with us.  Our brokenness is not alien to this vineyard: That’s why He comes to us as a vulnerable baby tonight to show us the riskiness of incarnation.” 

So tonight our own vulnerability and the fragility of our neighbors calls us to interrupt our regular
Christian tradition and do something risky before singing “Silent Night” Tonight we gather to honor God’s call to FEAR NOT. Tonight we embrace one another as kindred, lighting the candle of peace not as souls from separate streams, but rather as family, countless currents flowing together into one great river of life. Tonight we own that our vineyard needs help.

+  The tradition of Judaism says:  You know what the Lord requires, dear people, it is to do justice, love with compassion and walk with humility throughout God’s creation.

+  Christianity is clear: In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

+  And the Qur’an of Islam says: whoever saves one human life shall be regarded as though they had save all of humankind.

On this night of silence, the time has come to share the light of peace in human solidarity. So let me ask you to join with me in two ways:

+  If you are interested and willing to help Rabbi David and I strengthen our interfaith connections and offer a public alternative to immigrant bashing and fear-mongering, leave me your name and a contact number or email in tonight’s collection plate and we’ll make this happen in the New Year.

+  If you sense the time has come for us to stand up for peace – inner peace, peace among the races, peace beyond the divisions of faith – then join with me in singing a song another angel once shared with our people as we light one another’s candles of peace.

We shall overcome – we shall overcome – we shall overcome someday
O deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.
We are not afraid…
We shall live in peace…

O God of new beginnings, who brings light out of night's darkness
and fresh green out of the hard winter earth:
there is barren land between us as people and as nations this day,
there are empty stretches of soul within us.
Give us eyes to see new dawnings of promise. 
Give us ears to hear fresh soundings of birth.
And give us strength to embrace our people’s fears 
with your boundless but vulnerable love.
For we pray in the name of all that is holy. Amen.
(adapted from John Philip Newell)

christ child's lullabye...

Everything is ready...

... the liturgies are done and printed.

... the music has been practiced and refined.

... the Sanctuary has been cleaned and made ready.

... the Eucharistic elements are waiting for a blessing to be shared.

... the prayers are written and the worship notes crafted.

... the gifts have been gathered and the food for the feast purchased.

... the house has been cleaned and decorated.

Now it is time to go to bed in anticipation of the birth of the Christ Child.  This song has been dancing in my heart all day and will continue to do so for a few more days.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

almost here...

Just back from the final Christmas Eve rehearsal with these cats...
We've set up two very different liturgies - both with a time for lighting candles for peace and inter-faith solidarity and Eucharist - that should welcome every soul:

+ At 7 pm we'll do the Lessons and Carols order of worship from King's College.

+ At 11 pm we'll break out of the box and do a "Word Made Flesh" liturgy with ancient readings, poetry from Auden, Alice Walker and others, as well as our jazz reflections on traditional carols.

Both will give us all a time to go within and reconnect with grace among us. Join us if you can.

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 ...