Monday, February 29, 2016

a love supreme - part two...

NOTE:  On Friday, March 25, 2016 - Good Friday - we'll be using Coltrane's masterwork, A Love Supreme, as a way to explore some of the spiritual wisdom of this moment in time. I am currently crafting my working understanding of each movement.

“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
Ralph EllisonLiving with Music: Jazz Writings

The more I listen carefully and critically to Coltrane's, A Love Supreme, the more I know that it is his soulful homage to the blues saturated in prayer.  As Ellison writes elsewhere, back in the day "it was either live with music or die with noise and we chose rather desperately to live." Such is the fate of African-American artists in the United States - then and now - and 'Trane's fierce desire to live and redeem his life with beauty and truth, blasts through each of the four movements of his "blues" masterwork. Writing as a jazz critic in the early days of this emerging genre, Ellison challenged the performers of his day to make certain that jazz remained connected to both the dance floor and the blues. For "the blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one's own human failing." 

Like many young white hipsters in the 60s, my first encounter with Coltrane left me confused: I knew Delta blues and Chicago blues; like many visitors to the Fillmore East, I knew English blues and psychedelic blues, too. I was turned on to the music of Leadbelly in 6th grade. In the early days of the folk craze, I listened to Mississippi John Hurt's Southern-fried country blues and came to relish the rowdy bravado of Muddy Waters and Little Walter electric urban blues as well. I was stone cold gaga over Peter Green's earl;y work with Fleetwood Mac and adored every incarnation John Mayall and Eric Clapton came up with in their extended careers. But I found Coltrane impenetrable. Sure, Roger McQuinn of The Byrds said his guitar break throughout "8 Miles High" was inspired by Coltrane - and I loved that song - but I still didn't know how to hear what was taking place.  "Favorite Things" was more accessible, but A Love Supreme left me in the dust.

And that's where Coltrane's masterpiece remained for me until this summer: in the quiet of an extended sabbatical - with time to practice, listen and meditate - I started to hear where the master was pointing - and I discovered his creative tribute to the blues. I noted in yesterday's posting, that the first movement of this A Love Supreme, "Acknowledgement," is built upon a free form blues bass groove in F. The second movement, "Resolution," steps beyond an obvious blues sound with its opening descending bass line. But, if you listen carefully, a modified blues form provides the songs inner structure as this movement (mostly) moves from Eb to Gb and F before being resolved in Bb.

In his insightful and challenging, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, Scott Saul observes that Coltrane interprets his blues foundation in this second movement by reworking the sax solo melody from "Acknowledgment." But instead of playing it in F he does so in C against a Bb foundation. 

Thus does Coltrane recall A Love Supreme's original motive while placing it out of 
joint; and remarkably, his improvisation remains on this raised path, his explorations of the pentatonic C scale set against the B-flat ruminations of Tyner and Garrison. It's as if Coltrane were operating in a universe parallel to Tyner and Garrison—one that allows him to mimic them but keeps him from a richer identification. Here Coltrane uses the suite form to test the limits of unity—both the unity that joins past and present (the first and third movements, joined by the three-note cell), and the unity that joins self and other (Coltrane and his bandmates, joined by the improvising in the pentatonic scale. (NOTE: The pentatonic scale is at the heart of the blues.)

Why this matters, of course, is open to vigorous interpretation among jazz purists and those creating experimental liturgies: for my purposes - as a part of a Good Friday experience - it goes back to both Romans 8 ("all things work for good for those who love God" - including I would add all notes) as well as the evening's Scriptural lament in Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
   and by night, but find no rest. 
Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
   they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
   in you they trusted, and were not put to shame...
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
   you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
   and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
   for trouble is near
   and there is no one to help.

Coltrane opens A Love Supreme with his "Acknowledgment" of a love that guides, shapes and inspires all of creation. He then shares what his inner "Resolution" sounds like by expressing both joy and lament within a form grounded in trust.  The blues, it would seem, born of the Lord, is big enough to hold the totality of life - even that which doesn't fit the traditional scales of our expectations.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

a love supreme - part one...

NOTE:  For the next few weeks, I will be sharing thoughts and interpretations of our
emerging work with John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. This is the first in a series based upon our liturgy for Good Friday.

On Good Friday 2016 (Friday, March 25, 2016 for most folk) our small band of artists, vocalists and instrumental guests will share a public reflection on God's mysterious love based upon our take on "A Love Supreme." For the jazz cognoscenti, this is Coltrane's masterwork - a living testament to his genius - and we will use it as our foundation. But this evening will not be a mere recreation of Coltrane's composition in honor of its 50th anniversary. Rather, we are treating it as the creative scaffolding upon which we will construct additional layers of vocal compositions, poems, prayers, scriptures and extended silences - a night of spiritual aesthetics formed by the via negativa - as befits a liturgy shaped by the ancient prayer: 

O happy fault that earned for us so great and glorious a Redeemer!
O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O necessary sin of Adam that has been destroyed completely by the death of Christ!

My understanding of Good Friday has certainly morphed over the decades - and our experiments with this liturgy have gone through wild permutations, too. Currently, in addition to the obvious lament saturating the death of Jesus on the Cross, I sense that Good Friday invites us to explore:  1) the mystery of God's steadfast love even in the midst of suffering; and 2) the relentlessness of grace. Two portions of Scripture guide my hunch both from the experiential wisdom of St. Paul:

+ First Corinthians 13: 11-13:  When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see as in a mirror darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. For now these things abideth: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.  This is at the heart of Christ's ministry and the very kernal of truth out of which the rest of the gospel bears fruit. Without trusting in the mystery of love, Good Friday is agony and abandonment without redemption.

+ Romans 8: 26-39:  The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And the One who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. Therefore, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to God's purpose... That is why I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  The testimony of those who trust - and trust is the heart of faith - know that when we relinquish our control, God's love can work in and through us in ways beyond comprehension. This, too, is part of the "love supreme" of Good Friday spirituality.
Consequently, this year's journey into the emptiness of Good Friday will be filled with quiet time as well as extended jazz improvisation. But here's the truly fascinating truth that has slowly taken hold of my heart: ALL of what we'll be exploring is rooted in the blues. Coltrane's fascinating music starts with a grace-filled romp through the blues as a musical form but then moves two or three steps beyond. Our vocals and poems will take up this methodology using various forms of lament as a reference point but moving well beyond the obvious, too. Because that is where faith carries us on Good Friday:  it is not a destination locked away in the tomb. It is a descent into Hell that keeps moving back into Life towards the blessings of Heaven.

Here is an example from the first movement of A Love Supreme called "Acknowledgment." After the opening fanfare that announces the start of something important, the bass plays a free form "blues riff" in F that provides the firm foundation upon which rhythms and melodies are created, improvised upon and relinquished.

The chords that are played in and around this riff - the varying rhythms created by the drums and the soaring melodies of the saxophone - are all born of the blues. I sense this is true throughout the other three movements of this composition, too. Coltrane starts with a form - and a melody - and then plays through it and around it to evoke the vastness of God's gracious love. There are NO limits here; there are no constrictions either: All is God. And the only way into this incomprehensible freedom - even in the midst of suffering and lament - is to start with a familiar form (the blues) and then let it be shattered by love. Like St. Paul on the Damascus Road, Coltrane is saying: "I once was blind... but NOW I see." Or he is paraphrasing the gracious parent in the parable of the wayward child: "I can only rejoice because once my child was lost, but now she is found." 

Listen to the completely unstructured way Coltrane plays the opening riff over and even through our traditional understanding of scales at the climax of "Acknowledgment." He is mirroring in a dark way the opening bass groove. This is his aural invitation into the steadfast love of the Lord. And then, just so that we're not left completely in a realm beyond human comprehension, he concludes this composition with a chant.  "A love supreme" is sung/spoken/ chanted over and over using by the now familiar opening riff as our point of reference. And it is all about tenderness. It is our hope that as we play with this song, our vocalists will take up Coltrane's prayer and both sing this chant with harmonies but maybe even play with other parts of the song using their voices as yet one more instrument of ecstatic praise.

This type of spiritual aesthetics is soul food for me. I take the traditions of the church very seriously. At the same time, as Heschel notes, when they become an heirloom rather that a fountain of living faith, religion becomes meaningless. Our era is one where cruel Christians (and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists, too) render religion ugly and ridiculous every day. But even their atrocities can not blot out the steadfast love of the Lord. It is my hope that our work in this vein opens some hearts and minds to God's grace.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

when love comes to town keeps on truckin'...

For nearly 10 years, this blog has served as a forum for my reflections, essays, rants on ministry, travel pictures, explorations into spirituality and music, sermons, prayers and so much more. The time has come, however, to make some changes. Mostly, after 35+ years of serving congregations throughout the United States, I don't have much more to say about ministry. I am still committed to the work - albeit in vastly different ways than when I was first ordained - and probably have a few more years of creative service left. But I've said my peace. My hunch is that it is best for me to be still now when it comes to matters ecclesiastical. A new church is coming to life from within and beyond the old - like Lazarus being raised from the dead by Christ - and I am only tangentially a part of that effort. Discretion suggests to me that now is the time to keep my own counsel on these affairs.

Over the years I have rediscovered my love of the essay - quite a different animal than a blog post even when I've blurred those lines)- so that's one of the new directions I am going to explore. The other involves renewing my commitment to theological considerations on culture - especially, but not limited to, music. I am currently working on a new experimental liturgy fusing John Coltrane's masterwork, "A Love Supreme," with other music and poetry to evoke the heart of Good Friday, so that will become my next featured project here.

And there is a slow but up-and-coming new project that Dianne and I are starting to create that has to do with travel, photography, jazz and getting to know the soul of a place beyond mere tourist consumerism.  Right now we're call it "cherchez le jazz." In time it may become our rolling record of jazz clubs, interviews with proprietors and performers, insights about the people and neighborhoods we cherish in places like Montreal and the importance of learning to listen and savor the soul of a new place. We are starting to dream - and research - how to kick off this endeavor. And we hope it will give shape and form to our retirement (whenever that comes to pass) when we sell everything and take to the roads for a few years.

Rick Steves, travel guide and bon vivant of PBS, writes in Travel as a Political Act

Travel connects people with people. It helps us fit more comfortable and compatibly into a shrinking world. And it inspires creative new solutions to persistent problems facing our nation. We can't understand our world without experiencing it... Ideally, travel broadens our perspectives personally, culturally and politically. Suddenly, the palette with which we pain the story of our life has more colors. We realize there are exciting alternatives to the social and community norms that our less-traveled neighbors may never consider. Imagine suddenly realizing there were different genres of music. Imagine you loved books and one day the librarian mentioned there was an upstairs.
Both Dianne and I believe that in addition to travel being a political act, it is also is a form of prayer and pilgrimage. Being together with others can elicit selfishness or generosity, fear or trust, consumption or sharing. Once, while traveling to the former Soviet Union with a cadre of "peace activists," we found ourselves standing in stunned silence as some of our colleagues barked orders at the wait staff in Cracow like they were serfs. The presenting issue, during a time of Marshall Law in a Solidarity-challenged Communist Poland, was the lack of morning coffee available to tourists. I appreciate the need for caffeine in the morning being a voracious black tea consumer myself. But the way some carried on in the cafe when told that rationing allowed for only one small cup of java each day exposed a way of being in the world that was ugly, self-centered and abusive. So much for peace-making and compassion, damn it: give me my Joe!

I sense that there is a "witness" to travel - a public role as unofficial ambassadors - that we both honor and want to nourish. There is a mystery to travel, too: a way of learning to live into the rhythm of trust, listening for the deeper truths beyond our differences, and going with the flow rather than controlling and "owning" every experience. This suggests that our journeys have a moral wisdom to be discovered as much as a political component to celebrate.

So, onward to cultural and theological explorations here - and when the groove is ready for "cherchez le jazz," too.  I'll make sure you get an invite.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

the fast that I choose...

One of the challenges I face doing ministry has to do with encouraging the community of faith to nourish their spiritual lives.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard this refrain over the past 40 years:  If I get hit with one more surprise - or demand on my time or disappointment - I'm going to collapse (or explode or quit or...whatever!) It doesn't seem to matter how old or young the person is nor is race, class or gender a factor in this lament.The people I encounter in love and service are stressed out -- and it would seem that they haven't been taught, encouraged or shown how to use the time-tested tools of the journey inward to assist them on life's journey of challenges. They neither know the stories of Scripture as paradigms of the human experience nor how to tap into the peace of the Lord that passes all understanding. They are often committed to the work of social justice, but are woefully ill-equipped when it comes to caring for the soul. 

Fr. Thomas Keating once spoke about this dilemma from the perspective of a monastic. He tells of a time after Vatican II when the institutional Church was once again opening itself to the wounds of the world. This was also the time when many of us who were young were checking out Eastern spirituality and meditation. Keating's concern was clear:  there is a Western way of inward wisdom, too that offers equally beautiful resources for the inward journey, but it has long been locked away in cloistered retreat centers. Consequently, as many local church leaders were unable to assist their congregations into a mature prayer life, more and more people jumped ship. They knew they needed but could not find resources in contemporary Western Christianity. Pope Paul, therefore, encouraged monastics to make the wisdom of the ages public to both those inside and those beyond the Church. It was then that the Centering Prayer movement came to life. 

If you were a part of the Reformed tradition (like me) it took another 20 years before we, too began to reclaim the inward journey of the soul. Think of the writing by Kathleen Norris or the countless young Protestants who were drawn to Roman Catholic retreat centers. Nearly 40 years ago an entire generation of social activist clergy in both the Roman and Reformed worlds started to reconnect with prayer, fasting, meditation and the beauty of liturgy. My hunch is that this renewal made an impact upon young adults in the late 80s and early 90s, but then the momentum was diffused and diminished.

One consequence of this is the current culture of confusion when it comes to care of the soul.
 How do I maintain equanimity? What does it take to cultivate a non-anxious presence in the midst of a hyper-anxious culture? How can I be a person of peace in the world when my emotions and thoughts are on a roller coaster ride nearly every minute of the day? In addition to this uncertainty, there seems to be a new albeit odd hesitation to nourishing new sacred habits. Sometimes I hear it expressed as mistrust, other times as resentment, and often it sounds like the ubiquitous complaint:  I just don't have the time to do anything else! 

And therein lies the challenge of this moment in time; we already have all the time there is, yes? None of our time saving devices have extended the hours of the day and many may have increased our addiction to the very sources of the stress we clearly resent.  I experience it in myself when I can't seem to put down my IPhone. Last night, as I was watching a brilliant new British mystery on ACORN TV (Fortitude for those who are curious) I discovered that I was also checking my email and Face Book account every 7 minutes, too. Totally unnecessary because at 10 pm most everything that showed up on my little screen could easily have waited for the new day. But it was almost as if I couldn't help myself.

Today at midday Eucharist, two portions of our Psalm spoke to our collective quandary:

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

During our time for lectio we spoke together of what this thirsting and parchedness feels like. We have all known it - and we have all tried different ways to slake our thirst with distractions, busyness, possessions, obsessive relationships, substance abuse and more - and none of it lasts. Because, as one soul noted, we have an inherent disposition for God. And if we don't move into intimacy with the Lord, we live a life of perpetual emptiness and dissatisfaction.

I think of you on my bed and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you.

This verse led to a discussion of how important it is to remember God's presence in our lives during adversity and trial. So I asked:  how do you remember? What do you do to keep the flame alive and lit? Comments about spiritual discipline followed including insights about tools that we've outgrown, rituals that have become empty as well as resources like gathered Eucharist and quiet time together as assets that help us go deeper and sustain our quest for peace. Practicing breathing prayers so that we are open to "aha" moments was also mentioned. I thought of the "affirmation" I printed out for myself last night so that I might renew my own Lenten journey. These words come from Christine Valters Paintner at the Abbey of the Arts:


I am called to fast from being strong and always trying to hold it all together, and instead embrace the profound grace that comes through my vulnerability and tenderness, to allow a great softening this season.

I am called to fast from anxiety and the endless torrent of thoughts which rise up in my mind to paralyze me with fear of the future, and enter into the radical trust in the abundance at the heart of things, rather than scarcity.

I am called to fast from speed and rushing through my life, causing me to miss the grace shimmering right here in this holy pause.

I am called to fast from multitasking and the destructive energy of inattentiveness to any one thing, so that I get many things done, but none of them well, and none of them nourishing to me. Instead my practice will become a beholding of each thing, each person, each moment.

I am called to fast from endless list-making and too many deadlines, and enter into the quiet and listen for what is ripening and unfolding, what is ready to be born.

I am called to fast from certainty and trust in the great mystery of things. And then perhaps, I will arrive at Easter and realize those things from which I have fasted I no longer need to take back on again. I will experience a different kind of rising.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Is not this the fast I choose...

In a recent letter from Abbey of the Arts ( prioress Christine Valters Painter wrote about fasting from the obsessions of 21st century living. She also posted a stunning photograph that speaks to my heart:
Christine writes: "The kind of fast drawing me this season isn't leaving behind treats like chocolate or other pleasures. This season I am being invited to fast from things like 'ego-grasping' and noticing when I so desperately  want to be in control, and then yielding myself to a greater wisdom than my own." This so resonates with my heart at this season in my life and at this stage of Lent.  Then Painter gets specific - and let me share her insights with you: hoping that they speak to you as profoundly as they did to me:

I am called to fast from being strong and always trying to hold it all together, and instead embrace the profound grace that comes through my vulnerability and tenderness, to allow a great softening this season.

I am called to fast from anxiety and the endless torrent of thoughts which rise up in my mind to paralyze me with fear of the future, and enter into the radical trust in the abundance at the heart of things, rather than scarcity.

I am called to fast from speed and rushing through my life, causing me to miss the grace shimmering right here in this holy pause.

I am called to fast from multitasking and the destructive energy of inattentiveness to any one thing, so that I get many things done, but none of them well, and none of them nourishing to me. Instead my practice will become a beholding of each thing, each person, each moment.

I am called to fast from endless list-making and too many deadlines, and enter into the quiet and listen for what is ripening and unfolding, what is ready to be born.

I am called to fast from certainty and trust in the great mystery of things. And then perhaps, I will arrive at Easter and realize those things from which I have fasted I no longer need to take back on again. I will experience a different kind of rising.

This week as I walk towards the Third Sunday of Lent I realize I need both encouragement and clarity in my fasting. And Painter's words were just what the Great Physician ordered. She has given me a vessel in which I can carry and utilize the promise of Isaiah 55: 

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;

and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price. 
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. 
IIncline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Hooked on a feeling?

About five years ago, during the worst of the anti-Obama battles initiated by the often cruel and
crass politics of a Republican Party enmeshed with the reactionary and often racist Tea Partyers, I gave up my membership in the Democratic Party and registered Green. Not only did I want to be free from any hint of bias in my public commentaries re: politics and moral ethics, but I also needed to step away from the barrage of fund-raising emails that Move-On and other groups kept sending. Now, as the squabbles between Bernie and Hillary supporters heats up, I continue to be glad I am outside the official fray. In my opinion, David Brooks got it right when he observed that most people get "hooked on a feeling" about a candidate. They like the way a person makes them feel. If their policies make sense, all so much the better. But only wonks and googoos (good government geeks) pay attention to the specifics of a platform. And then, mostly just to point out their opponents inconsistencies.

Here are a few unrelated thoughts about the current state of affairs in American politics:

+ First, I dig Obama:  I like his style, I like his class, I like the way he works his own inter-racial reality with verve and nuance. I like Mrs. Obama and their children. I like his policies (generally) all though I recognize the moral fuzziness of the drones and war on terror. I wish he had worked more of a "three cups of tea" campaign in Afghanistan, but I don't question the ethical ambiguities he wrestles with every moment of every day. If I could, I would gladly vote for his third term in a heartbeat.  And that would be partially driven by his achievements, partially fueled by his groove and a bit by the fact that he is a theological realist in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr.

+ Second, I always have an initially favorable feeling when Bernie comes out on the stage. But after about 10 minutes - and always when he starts up his inadequate foreign policy comments - I tune out. I resonate with his economics. As a white guy from the lower middle class, I am sickened, challenged and angry at the way the rich get richer and I accrue more debt just to pay our medical bills. If it was possible, as many know, I would bolt for Montreal in a New York second because it is a place that works: a true social democracy with a heart. So, if I just watch Bernie's commercials, DUDE I am so down with his vibe. But when I listen to him speak for more than a sound byte, I tune out.

+ Third, I have never been much of a Hillary fan. She comes across wooden most of the time and snarky, too. Her rhetoric doesn't move me. Her public persona is too ethically slippery for my tastes most of the time. And she is the smartest person in this ugly, messy and weird race. What I like about her has nothing to do with feelings. At this moment in time, I believe she has both the best people around her helping shape policies that will help working people, poor people and middle class people. And if she could find a few trusted souls to kick her ethical shadow side from time to time, that would be golden.

+ Fourth, I am stunned and horrified that a clown like Trump has gained this much traction, but I take him very seriously these days. Same goes for Cruz who strikes me as a snake in the grass walking around on recently formed hind legs. He is creepy and mean-spirited with a weird apocalyptic theology that he wants to impose on us all that is truly frightening. Trump evokes a 21st century, media savvy Fuhrer albeit with lots of money. Rubio is much more attractive - and vastly smarter - than the rest of the pack, but he holds no middle of the road credentials on social policies. What's more, he has sold out his principles on immigration given the wild publicity that the Donald has garnered with out right hatred and racism.  And the rest of the circus really doesn't count any more.

I once thought the age of Nixon's "silent majority" was as polarized as American politics could get. But those days seem like a trip to Disneyland when compared to the vitriol and deep hatreds rising to the surface in campaign 2016. For the first time in generations, I am genuinely afraid for my country and my grandchildren.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

closing thoughts on lent II

Throughout Lent, I am encouraging our faith community to explore the practice of pilgrimage -
and I am loving it. Each week, assisted by Fr. Ed Hays' guide (The Pilgrimage Way of the Cross), I share a few landmarks and related Bible stories as if we were walking from Jericho to Jerusalem towards the Via Dolorosa. Then, accompanied by a quiet jazz meditation, people are free to "pray with their feet" as they walk around the Sanctuary. We've set up five prayer stations for candle lighting. We've put together a "pilgrimage prayer book," too that can be used at each station. 

Two parts of this experiment interests me a great deal:

+ First, not only are we following the Common Lectionary readings for the Lenten season, but we are talking about the context in which Jesus made his decision to take up his Cross.  This pilgrimage give me the chance to explore the different ways that Jesus expresses his solidarity with the prophets of ancient Israel. Today we spoke not only of Elijah - making the Transfiguration Sunday connection more vivid as I retold his story - but also the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Luke's gospel, Jesus shares 24 parables and 17 take place on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.

+ Second, this series gives us ways to link the practices of silence, solidarity and self-emptying - prayer, compassion and fasting - with the traditional Lenten disciplines. As I have noted elsewhere, I was so ready for Lent to arrive this year! I needed the encouragement of our pilgrimage to regroup and let my heart be saturated again with God's promise of hope. As we played a reflecting setting of "Passion Chorale" arranged by our musical director, people walked silently throughout the Sanctuary praying the Lord's Prayer as they travelled. As one person said to me, "I kept getting lost in the prayer as I walked." My reply? "Sounds like you need more practice, man - for that's ALL Lent is about - practicing ways to help us stay awake and present to God's love and acts of human tenderness."

After worship, my band mates joined me for a time of practicing for Good Friday. Their vocal and instrumental work is always moving and beautiful and today was no exception. And then it was off to Second Congregational United Church of Christ's 170th Anniversary. As the first African American church in the Berkshires, it was a blessing to join the gathered faithful for 2+ hours of great song, fiery preaching and sweet fellowship. And, praise God, then I got a chance to skype with my beloved Louie before supper. It has been a full and satisfying Lord's Day. Now its onward to the close of "Downton Abbey."

Saturday, February 20, 2016

beauty and worship redux...

Let me continue today a riff I began yesterday re: "returning beauty and art to worship."   A poem by Rumi includes the verse, "Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." I was captured by that idea and used it to conclude a song I wrote about our then newly adopted town of Pittsfield, MA.  It still rings true to me nearly a decade later (perhaps I can get an audio copy of this for posting soon?) Annie Lennox makes much the same point in her composition: "A Thousand Beautiful Things."

This quest, hunger,and thirst for beauty regular breaks through our news cycles - albeit in masked and mysterious ways - reminding us of Carl Jung's insight that whenever human beings forsake healthy rituals, ceremonies and encounters with life-giving symbols for mere work and self-absorbed pleasure, our souls recreate shadow rituals that are pathological.  Gertrud Mueller-Nelson points to this in To Dance with God

Rites and ceremonies will release, make conscious, affirm, and celebrate our most human feelings: anticipation, waiting, longing, hope, receiving, giving, wonder, surprise, joy, gratitude. The also take into account our most painful human experiences of loss, grief, pain, sickness, jealousy, guilt, and sinfulness. Slowly and in good time, ritual time, our painful feelings are transformed into the feelings of reparation, repentance, hope and salvation. Ritual acknowledges contradictions and allows the ambiguous. When we have touched or been touched with mystery, we will always find ourselves at the point of paradox because we have a seen a whole truth. We cry at weddings because we witness the end of an era. We rejoice at weddings because we witness the beginning of a new era. The core of celebration is at once bitter and sweet.

She goes on to note, however, that when common rituals and ceremonies are either 
abandoned - as has become common place throughout post-industrial  Western societies - or rendered sentimental - as has become the norm for American churches - paradox, ambiguity and any sense of a shared spiritual destiny are tossed into the dustbin of history.  Life is only about the bottom line - ourselves - or as Marcuse said, "a one-dimensional man (or woman.)" Balance and patience are no longer virtues to be nourished and beauty, truth and goodness no longer serve as guides for our ethics. When fasting is forsaken for a life of perpetual feasting, dieting becomes our new obsession - along with purging, bulimia and anorexia nervosa. When exhausted workers trade in worship for another hour or two of sleep on the Sabbath, some take solace in binge watching TV stories of adventure, drama and glory. Others slip into any of the popular addictions of our era - opiates, alcohol or sex - while the intelligentsia cue up for hours outside art museums aching for a hint of meaning and beauty. Mark Kingwell, writing in the February edition of Harper's Magazine, puts it like this in "Outside the White Box: Can art make anything happen?"

Despite the monstrous self-absorption of the art world and the philosophical dead air, people today crave and experience art in numbers unknown to previous eras. Block-buster exhibitions at MoMA and the Tate generate long lines of patient, eager patrons. We well might wonder what these people are looking for. The works they queue up to view, whether they are small Warhols or Martin Puryear installations that can exist only in gallery settings, are either beyond collecting or uncollectible. I think the best explanation is that people want to look at art so that they can feel the way Rilke felt when looking at the archaic torso of Apollo. They want to be told: You must change your life!

For the past two summers, we have encountered record numbers of people flocking to the Van Gogh exhibit in Ottawa and the Rodin show in Montreal. It was exhilarating to be up close and personal to some of my favorite Van Gogh paintings: they were vibrant and even transcendent in all their material glory. I felt much the same way as a wildly diverse audience experienced the music of Bad Plus Joshua Redman. As Canada's Oscar Peterson once noted:  when you are playing music with another - and doing it with joy and verve - you have to love your associates. That means that at least for a time all divisions and barriers are broken down. Clearly art in all of its forms has been embraced as a viable alternative to shared spiritual ceremonies and rituals. I get this.

What's missing from art - and clearly absent from additions and obviously pathological habits - is community, sacrifice and an experiential commitment to the common good. The late author, John O'Donohue, wrote: "In a sense, all the contemporary crises can be reduced to a crisis about the nature of beauty."

This perspective offers us new possibilities. In parched terrains new wells are to be discovered. When we address difficulty in terms of the call to beauty, new invitations come alive. Perhaps, for the first time, we gain a clear view of how much ugliness we endure and allow. The media generate relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness in talk-shows, tapestries of smothered language and frenetic gratification. The media are become the global mirror and these events tend to enshrine the ugly as the normal standard. Beauty is mostly forgotten and made to seem naive and romantic. (The Invisible Embrace: Beauty)

Plainly, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, there is a spiritual hunger in America (and in the West) that is palpable. It gives shape and form to our exaggerated politics that scream for a renewal of meaning and joy. It guides the wounded aesthetics of popular culture that confuses
 adrenaline infused pyrotechnics with transcendent art. And it highlights an ethical emptiness that has  become so desiccated by a degraded imagination that many have given up hope. The editor of IMAGE Journal, Gregor Wolfe, nails it when he observes:

STRANGE AS IT MAY SEEM, beauty needs to be defended. In the history of the West, beauty has played the role of Cinderella to her sisters, goodness and truth. I don’t mean to say that beauty in art or nature hasn’t been appreciated throughout history—though there have been times when beauty has been the subject of frontal assaults—but simply that when we start getting official, when we get theological or philosophical, beauty becomes a hot potato.

The ambivalence about beauty at the heart of western culture begins at the beginning.
In Jerusalem, proscriptions against idols and graven images coexist with paeans to the craftsmanship of God and Bezalel, the artificer (described in Exodus) of the desert tabernacle. In Athens, Plato celebrates the divine madness that the poet experiences when the muse descends, but he also kicks the poets out of his ideal republic as unreliable, disruptive sorts. In theory, goodness, truth, and beauty—traditionally known as the “transcendentals,” because they are the three qualities that God has in infinite abundance—are equal in dignity and worth. Indeed, in Christian thought there has always been a sense that the transcendentals exist in something of a trinitarian relationship to one another. But in practice it rarely seems to work out that way.

In this, I contend that many of our religious institutions are as much to blame for our confusion about beauty - and its hibernation in our culture - as is the marketplace - perhaps more so, too. Certainly in what remains of the Reformed Protestant tradition in America, utilitarianism or blatant sentimentality drives the aesthetics of worship. In other forums, performance has replaced intimacy and style has crowded out content and emotional depth. Rarely is paradox a part of the journey in American religion in the 21st century. Thus it is no wonder the masses have revolted and traded in church/synagogue/mosque for the movies, the juiciest scandals on reality TV, running, sports or another chance to sleep late. I did much the same during sabbatical, too.

Which brings me back to the importance, power and vitality of music, art and a renewed commitment to a spirituality of aesthetics in worship. Time and again, people who have not been in worship for decades - or ever - tell me things like:  "OMG I've never heard that before in church" or "All I could do was weep - tears of joy mind you - and I don't know why?" After the jazz Eucharist at 11 pm on Christmas Eve, a young man said: "I am full to overflowing. I did not expect anything more than a lot of Protestant preaching and empty words. But your music gave me space and safety to listen to God's call in my soul." He, too was weeping. After our interpretation of Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia" another person told me: "This is what I've been aching for...and didn't even know it."

I am not trying to sing an ode to myself. Really! Rather, what I'm pointing towards is what happens when small congregations take the time to think, pray, plan, practice and implement worship that is saturated with beauty. It creates space for our souls to breathe. It embraces disparate people with a sense of safety. And it opens up our hearts to a love greater than ourselves. A love that many have never known and many more have lost touch with. The poet, Becca J.R. Lachman evokes this longing - and some of the ways we can be nourished by grace -in her new collection, "Other Acreage."  A lapsed Mennonite, Lachman still "craves a life in which she might 'cry at the beautiful / God looking out of a stranger, make my life / from something sung / out of joy, not out of training." (IMAGE Update, Jen Hinst-White)

A series of poems in which St. Francis is relocated to the modern day United States intimate that this life might not be so impossible as it seems; the transported Francis does things that any of us might do: read Rumi to a dying man; offer comfort at a car wreck; listen compassionately to strangers—in this case, customers at his burrito buggy. (Conversing with polar bears at the zoo might be out of our reach, but we can dream.) Lachman inches her way to joy with tiny rebellions—getting a tattoo, for example, but an ivy leaf so tiny that the tattooist scoffs, “you / don’t want a tattoo, you want a birth- / mark, lady.” Meanwhile, on the land where her family has dwelt for generations, the past falls away more dramatically. The farmhouse is sold, the mother church trucked to another location as “condos went up on Shawnee / burial mounds.” Old ways crumble. Snow melts. Hope sprouts in grief. We might pray, along with Lachman: “O / holy armor, please, please be orange: poppies’ / warm lanterns led out from the grave each May.” 

Our generation is starved for beauty. Our theology has sacrificed paradox for 
marketplace  metaphors that reduce life to the bottom line.  Our liturgical habits have become wooden or so casual as to be without nuance or depth. When the very core of life has been reduced to the vulgar and brittle, worship must offer an alternative. And this alternative must be prefigurative; that is, it must embody and embrace the very truth it is encouraging. "Coarseness," writes O'Donohue, "is always the same relentless chafing; it makes every texture it touches raw and rough."

There is an unseemly coarseness to our times which robs the grace from our textures of language, feeling and presence. Such coarseness falsifies and anesthetizes our desire. This is particularly evident in the spread of greed, which to paraphrase Shakespeare 'makes hungry where most she satisfies.' Greed is unable to envisage any form of relationship other than absorption and possession. However, when we awaken to beauty, we keep desire alive in its freshness, passion and creativity. Beauty is not a deadener, but a quickener!

And so, for the time that remains, I am an advocate for the radical, bold transforming integrity of beauty in worship. "Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance." (O'Donohue)

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:...