Thursday, March 31, 2016

searching for the wounds of jesus...

NOTE: This coming Sunday marks the start of Eastertide, a liturgical season I have long neglected. I am starting to grasp its deeper significance, however, and look forward to going deeper. This Sunday also marks the time 9 years ago when I first preached at First Church. My, my how quickly time moves...

When I was a very young clergy person serving a large congregation in Michigan as their
Associate Minister, I became enchanted with the stories of the Hasidic Masters:  these 18th century mystical Jewish rabbis of Eastern Europe loved to dance and feast, weep in sorrow and celebration, study and pray.  It was their deepest desire that “compassionate love would be shared from their mouths, hope might become incarnated from their hearts, songs of holy mystery might saturate human solitude and all of life would become a living Sanctuary to the Lord.” Some 35 years later, I still find Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, to be a source of inspiration.

One of my favorite Hasidic stories – from the Maggid of Mezertich – speaks to a new insight I am discerning con-cerning the wisdom of Eastertide.  The story tells us of a young Hassid who was married to the daughter of a fierce but brutally conservative man who demanded that the young Hassid make a choice:  either follow your mystical Rebbe, or, marry my daughter – but you cannot do both.  The soon to be son-in-law swore that he would not return to the Maggid and so the wedding took place.

·    But after a few months, or perhaps it was a few years, the young man could not resist the impulse to join his companions and their Master in their ecstatic prayer and song. When he returned home, however, his angry father-in-law marched him to the local rabbi for a judgment.  The rabbi consulted the Shulkhan Arukh - the mostly widely respected compendium of Jewish law since the 1500s – and issued this verdict:  since he had broken his promise, the young man was to give his wife a divorce at once.

·     Overnight the young man found himself on the street. He had no means of his own, no relations. Inconsolable, refusing all nourishment, the young Hassid fell sick. And with no one to care for him, died shortly thereafter.

Well, as the tradition continues, the story concludes like this:  When the Messiah will come , the young Hasid will file a complaint against his father-in-law as well as the local rabbi, charging both with the guilt of causing premature death.  Standing before the Messiah, the father-in-law will say:  I only obeyed the rabbi. And the rabbi will say: I simply obeyed our legal tradition.  And the Messiah will say:  Yes, yes, the father-in-law is right and the rabbi is right and certainly Torah is right. Then the Messiah will embrace the young plaintiff with a kiss and say:  But I, what do I have to do with them? I have come for those who are NOT right

That is my increasing hunch about what Eastertide is all about: what it proclaims about God’s grace, what it encourages us to nourish in our own spirituality and what it challenges us to oppose in our culture of control and bottom line thinking.  You see, this is a liturgical season in the Church that has long been ignored or misunderstood in our tradition.  It begins with the sayings of St. John who tells us a story about Christ’s resurrection and Doubting Thomas’ reaction.  And truth be told, because this story always follows our celebration of Easter, and so much of our culture emphasizes empirical proof, we have probably missed the whole point of this season – and certainly this story.

Like most preachers of my era, I have emphasized the incredulity of Thomas who tells us that he won’t believe that God’s love has raised Jesus from the dead until he can put his hand in the Lord’s wounded side and see the print of the nails that had pierced Christ’s flesh. But this year, I don’t care what Thomas says or believes or comprehends: he isn’t Messiah.  He isn’t the first born from the dead who comes back to breathe peace upon my life and yours. He isn’t the one who has come for those who aren’t right.

So, this year I find myself much more interested in what Jesus says and does in the story that kicks off Eastertide. Not Thomas – or Peter – or Mary Magdalene or any of the other disciples. For the first time in decades I sense that the spirituality of Eastertide has nothing to do with how the disciples initially react to Jesus; and everything to do with the wounds Jesus carries with him as the Resurrected Lord and how God has healed them.  Christian educator and author, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, gave me a clue when she wrote:

While the season of Lent means to teach us to engage our guilt, our sins against ourselves and each other, and t accept our guilt as an incentive to suffer for a change, Easter inspires us to get on with our work of becoming whole for a change and offers us the reality of joy to help us reach for and claim it… By knowing our fears and our wounds – and how they block us from growing in love – the joy of Christ’s presence in the resurrection leads us towards a healthy and holy transformation.  

+  Are you with me here?  Do you sense how the presence of the Wounded but Resurrected Jesus tells us much more about the spirituality and commitments of Eastertide than the doubts of Thomas? 

+  Doubts are ok – they have their place – and we all have them. But who wants to remain in the darkness with Thomas for the rest of your life?  Don’t you desire some joy? Some healing? Some connection with Christ’s new life?

One of the insights I am starting to grasp this season is that Eastertide has its own unique blessings and acts of spiritual maturation just like every other season in the calendar of the Church.  If, for example, our quest during Advent is to listen, watch and wait in patience so that we might discern where the Christ Child is coming into the world with innocence and joy – and our holy discipline during Christmas has to do with feasting and generosity – if Lent asks us to empty ourselves by fasting and prayer so that we might be filled with our need for God’s grace – then the spiritual practices of Eastertide are far more profound than simply singing “Alleluia” again and not kneeling in prayer for seven weeks. No, they point us towards naming our personal wounds and the suffering of our Lord in the world.  In a word, that the arc of discipleship we are being asked to practice during Eastertide begins with God’s transformative healing of Christ’s wounds on Easter but moves out into the world to the transform our inner suffering and the agony of those wounded by fear, war, greed and disease.

Think about it:  St. John tells us that Jesus entered the Upper Room on the evening of Easter and shared with the disciples the Holy Spirit of forgiveness.  These were the same people who had earlier abandoned him and now he blesses them with a sense of the Lord’s peace – and (gulp) forgiveness, for God’s sake – I mean he knows how he has been hurt and betrayed – and he not only gives that wound over to God – but lets it no longer guide how he interacts with these people.  That is why I have come to believe that during whatever took place between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Christ’s heart – let alone his flesh – was healed by God’s grace. ”Peace be with you,” he tells his friends – and then shows them his hands and his sides.  I don’t know how I missed that connection between Christ’s wounds and God’s peace for so long, but there it is. And we read this story every year on the Sunday after Easter:  Peace be with you – see my hands and my side.  There is clearly a promise of healing and transformation born of joy in however we understand Easter resurrection.  Because like the Hasidic masters said:  The Messiah has come with love for those who are NOT right.

But something else going on here, too:  Not only does Jesus share the gift of the Holy Spirit’s peace with his disciples – forgiving them – he also instructs them that the whole point of resurrection forgiveness is to help spread God’s grace around the world:  Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and if you bind them, they are retained.”

+  Let me be blunt:  we cannot and will not spread grace, peace or joy to anyone until we have tasted and trusted this peace within ourselves.  We cannot give what we don’t have – we cannot lead others to a place we have not gone – because we cannot show what we do not know.  That’s why Lent comes before Easter and Good Friday before the resurrection:  we have to own our brokenness – own it and learn from it – so together with God’s grace, it can lead us through the pain.

+ Fr. Richard Rohr cut to the chase in his book Learning to Breathe Underwater: Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If your religion is not showing you how to transform your pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?

Without owning our wounds – getting treatment, help, counseling, prayer, discipleship, worship and community – the old wisdom of the Hebrew Bible continues:  the sins of the mothers and fathers are passed on to the children of the third and fourth generation. Until we are set free – until we have been fed on resurrection love and joy – we do not know the peace that passes understanding.  And until we know joy, we will always want to be right. We In control.  The boss rather than Christ’s servant.  Rohr concludes with this zinger that rings true to me:

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure or security: Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of "Christian" countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I'm afraid.

Which brings us back to the start of Eastertide:  this is a season to become whole by letting go – by trusting the Crucified Lord, not some over-inflated, ego-centric, loud mouth obsessed with winning. But one who was executed as a criminal.  The great English evangelical preacher, Oswald Chambers, once said: Jesus rarely comes where we expect Him; He appears where we least expect Him, and always in the most illogical connections. The only way a person can keep true to God is by being ready for the Lord’s surprise visits.  Eastertide takes this one step farther:

All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are
not. Only when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough will you find that the little place where who you really are is ironically more than enough and all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God and such people can connect with everybody… because they don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .

When Jesus says, “Peace be upon you – see my hands and my side?” He is telling us as the Resurrected Lord what he taught when he walked among us in human form:  When did we see, Thee Lord and feed thee… clothe thee… visit thee and love thee?  Whenever you did such unto one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you did so unto me.”  The spirituality of Eastertide sends us out of the Sanctuary and into the world to see Christ’s wounds in the scorched earth, the polluted sky, the war-torn nations, the broken hearts, the frightened children, the unemployed mothers and fathers, the sexually abused and abandoned, the addicts and all who are forgotten and cast off by the so-called winners of our world.

We go out both to share a measure of resurrection joy with them…

… And to meet the Lord in God’s love -- especially in those places and truths where we least expect him. This is how we love the Lord in this season, beloved. May Christ’s peace be upon you all. 

+ RefuJesus - Naked Pastor -
+ Easter Morning -

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Jesus appears where we least expect him...

"While the season of Lent means to teach us to engage our guilt, our sins against ourselves and each other, and to acct our guilt as an incentive to suffer for a change," writes Gertrud Mueller-Nelson in To Dance with God, "Easter inspires us to get on with our work of becoming whole for a change." There is another linkage that warrants comment, too. Namely if our quest during Advent is to listen, watch, wait and discern where the Christ is coming into the world with innocence and joy, then our watching, waiting and discerning in Eastertide invites us to discover the Crucified and Risen Lord in both the simple realities of our days as well as in the injustice and pain of the broken and alienated. A member of the faith community recently sent me this quote from Oswald Chambers that cuts to the chase: Jesus rarely comes where we expect Him; He appears where we least expect Him, and always in the most illogical connections. The only way a person can keep true to God is by being ready for the Lord’s surprise visits. 

This evokes the upside down wisdom Bonhoeffer spoke of, too: Discipleship is never limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension and God will help you to comprehend… for bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. In this holy comprehension transcends (anything we can imagine.)

Mueller-Nelson continues by observing that the readings for the first few Sundays of Eastertide are all about Jesus showing us his wounds:  "As the risen Christ shows us the wounds that brought him to death, we remember our own woundedness. Brought to consciousness by our own hard work during the Lenten seasons of our lives, our wounds are now transformed in the resurrection to become for us a source of Christian joy." Note the connection between consciousness and resurrection: yes Christ's resurrection is a gift - an unexpected and incomprehensible blessing from God -  that we neither control nor understand. The healing and transformation of our wounds, however, do not initially come as a gift. They come, like the Lord's own resurrection, by consciously coming to the Cross.

That is a truth all too easily forgotten - and without the transformation and healing of our wounds we keep passing on their pain.  How did Richard Rohr put it?

Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If your religion is not showing you how to transform your pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?

Now that is revolutionary thinking - not just in American culture - but for all trapped in an adolescent way of living. Pain hurts so we want to get rid of it. Sometimes we blame others, other times we self-medicate, and often we deny its truth for decades. In this, the sins of the mothers and fathers are, indeed, passed on to the third and fourth generations. 

Small wonder that the Reformed tradition in the West has not fully celebrated the season of Eastertide. We honor a sanitized Christmas and a cute albeit anemic Easter, but do nothing for the 50 days between the Feast of the Resurrection and Pentecost. Yes, there were profoundly important reasons for the Reformation, but so much of the spirituality that resulted remains rooted in adolescent rebellion that we are now drifting in a morass of uncertainty . And as so often happens during wild acts of rebellion, deep wisdom is discarded. In our obsession with "being right" truth is often lost as we tear down the external symbols of our discontent. Iconoclasts, it seems to me at this point in my journey, revel in the energy of destruction while missing entirely the deeper insights of the images they have smashed. 

Back in the 80s, when so many people fled the once mainstream churches of the USA, they did not quit religion. Rather they went on a search for a spiritual center. Think of the spiritual autobiographies of Kathleen Norris, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott or the exodus out of our buildings into retreat centers. Some 35 years later, the Reformed tradition is finally realizing that a nourishing faith tradition requires both head and heart. People are hungry for nourishing and healing wisdom and imagery and symbolism that leads to life, hope and wisdom.  And so, in perhaps a new way for me, I am excited by our entry into Eastertide. It is counter cultural in all the best ways. Fr. Rohr is spot on for Eastertide:

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of "Christian" countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I'm afraid.


Monday, March 28, 2016

an ever-changing way of sharing...

So here's an odd question:  do other preachers radically change the way they share their
messages during worship over the years - or not? Are you essentially preaching the same way as when you started? What has changed - and why?  I realize these questions apply to only a handful of people in all of creation - and probably even fewer care - but I am curious.  Because, you see, after over 35 years of proclaiming the gospel I have found my preaching style has been transformed in significant ways.

When I was a young clergy person under the tutelage of James Forbes, professor of Homiletics
at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ray Swartzback, supervisor of my urban ministry apprenticeship, working from a manuscript was essential. Swartzy came out what he called the "confrontational preaching" style born of post-WWII American culture. As women and men came home after living on the edge in combat - and confronting enormous evil - they found a self-absorbed, suburban America content to leave segregation, civil rights and social justice to someone else. The joke of that era was that people wanted safety, so you could stick a cross in the ground at any suburban crossroads and within hours a homogeneous church would gather.

Such spiritual isolation and selfishness, however, created an assertive backlash in both an
Anglo drive for radical ecumenism and an African-American push for civil rights. Soon both White clergy and Black church leaders were embracing a coalition of the committed when it came to injustice, racism and greed.  And as Caucasian preachers experienced the verve, courage and verbal audacity of their African-American colleagues, white preaching began to change into what Swartzy called "confrontational proclamation." The goal of such preaching was to "confront" individual and collective indecision and sin in ways that would impel us to make changes in the world informed by the radical inclusive love of Christ Jesus.  Brother Forbes, coming out of a Southern Pentecostal background without ever experiencing the "gift of glossolalia" (or tongues) during the early days of the civil rights movement, was equally sophisticated, challenging and passionate in his homiletics class. And even more so in whatever pulpit he was able to proclaim the word of the Lord. Listening to and learning from both men gave me a foundation and structure for preaching, but it took me years to find my own voice.

After each sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, NY, for example, Ray and a small advisory team wold meet with me to discuss, dissect and critique my message. It was in this loving but brutally honest circle that I learned about "box car" sermons - a string of separate ideas linked together with only the thinnest connection - or the dangers of slipping into "isogesis" - reading my own conclusions into the Scripture and then forcing the Bible to say what I wanted rather than letting the holy texts speak to me the word of the Lord. Thank God this was all done with affection and trust - Ray and his elders wanted to help shape a young preacher, not break him - but still their words were humbling and often devastating. Thank God, too for the 90 minute subway ride home after such encounters: by the time I got back to UTS and my children, I had mostly gotten over the collapse of confidence.

One of the working truths in my early sermon construction was the rubric: The Spirit can inspire you just as much in your study as in the pulpit. This was permission, of course, to do vigorous exegesis (bible study in context and syntax) and to construct eloquent and impassioned messages for Jesus.  We all agreed that the white preaching of suburban America in the 50s and 60s was wooden and mechanical. Another joke of the time was that preachers in that world used the formula of three hymns, a poem, a joke and a blessing before sending their flock back out into the world. And the confrontational preachers certainly created a measure of challenge and balance to an anemic homiletics.

But by the 80s, I was finding this style equally incomplete:  "It's like sermons have become the Democratic platform spewed in prayer language" said some of my contemporaries about what was taking place in so many pulpits. And as millions of once mainstream Protestants fled their sanctuaries for Roman Catholic and New Age retreat houses, it became clear that the quest for "spirituality" was beginning to trump confrontation. I know that after immersing myself in a variety of liberation theologies - and having my heart and eyes opened - I still needed to find an authentic voice for preaching. 

Enter the books of Henri Nouwen and later Kathleen Norris - as well as a Latin American liberation theologian I heard one night at the Catholic Worker in NYC (whose name I cannot recall) - because they gave me permission to explore a conversational style of preaching and a language to comprehend the emerging quest for authentic spirituality. In time, I found Elizabeth O'Connor and Clarence Jordan, too.  These preachers and teachers showed me how story telling was a more honest way of preaching for me - and I embraced this with gusto. And while I stilled prepared manuscripts - and used them - I was also learning to trust the arc of the Biblical story and let it lead me into periodic bouts of spontaneity

By the early 1990s, the lure of preaching without notes or manuscripts grabbed me and I worked that vein for nearly 15 years. I think there were two reasons:  first, I was doing a lot of campaign speeches for my school board work - many times in Black Cleveland, OH - and in order to keep my message fresh and connected, I started tossing away my prepared remarks and letting the Spirit carry me where she would. And second, I felt a need to connect with the people in my congregation more intimately - in a conversation - so I started leaving the pulpit and having structured conversations instead of sermons.

The first time I did this, using Psalm 37 as my text, convinced me that serious Bible study plus
honest pastoral conversation during worship was a winning combination.  So the more I practiced and learned how this style worked for me, the more organic it became. All through our years in Tucson (10) and into our time in Pittsfield (9) this was my go to style. But over the past six months I have found myself changing yet again. Now I am working hard each week on a manuscript and preaching back at the pulpit. Oddly, this wasn't a conscious choice. It just seemed that whenever I finished my sermon notes, the gravitas of the hour and the message required a more formal presentation. I had intended to be more informal after our sabbatical only to find the Spirit pushing me in another direction.

And in ways I could never have predicted, this shift is resonating with the folk in worship. In fact, it is starting to draw others from beyond our regular fold, too.. Clearly there is a need for carefully considered public theological in our era of fear-mongering and demagoguery.I find I am drawing clarity and sustenance from both Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer these days- maybe even a bit of William Sloane Coffin, too. But I think there is a nuance worth mentioning: while this is an hour that requires clarity, courage and moral conviction, the anxiety of this age also demands a message of mercy and tenderness, too. From time to time, I still step away from the pulpit and simply chat from the heart - there is a place in these harsh times for that, too - but I am truly astonished that this new/old style has become so central to my vocation.

I wonder if other preachers have experienced something similar over the year? I would love to hear your story...


Sunday, March 27, 2016

doubt, trust and hope being poured into our hearts by the spirit...

NOTE:  It was noted after worship today that nine years ago next Sunday I first preached at
First Church - and was called to be pastor. My message was taken from Peterson's reworking of Matthew 11:28:  learn the unforced rhythms of grace. So I will be away from writing and blogging for a few days to let that sink in.  Blessed Easter.

Easter Sunday is a hard one to preach – always has been and always will be – fundamentally because it was and is and always shall be so unexpected.  Even though Jesus spoke of his own death and resurrection a number of times according the Scriptures, it still startled, perplexed and even terrified those who were first on the scene.  One old preacher put it like this:

No one greets the news that God has raised Jesus from the grave and defeated death and the devil by saying, “Praise God!” No one shouts “Hallelujah” when they first hear that their friend and Lord has been raised to life. And absolutely no one, upon hearing the news that death itself could not hold the Lord of Glory captive, says, “I knew it – just like he said – I knew it!”  (David Lose, Working Preacher)

It doesn’t happen – in scripture, in tradition, in our ordinary lives of faith – because no one expects resurrection. And, at first, no one believes it. The women in the gospel of Luke had no expectation that Christ would be raised from the dead by God. They didn’t go to the tomb with any such anticipation, right?  They went to care for and cleanse a corpse. It took two angelic strangers dressed in dazzling white garments to remind them of what Jesus had already told them and still they were incredulous.  

And in their bewilderment, when they rushed back to tell the brothers about what God had done, they are greeted there not with joy but with profound skepticism. In fact, the text tells us that the women’s words were considered an “idle tale.” Scholars say that “an idle tale” is a rather generous translation of the word leros in Greek from which we derive the word delirious. In reality the male disciples first thought these women were nuts – crazy – bonkers – hysterical women filled with utter nonsense. Which probably rings true for many of us when it comes to trusting, believing and living into the promise of Christ’s resurrection, right? Not only does it call into question almost everything we know about how the world works, but it also tells us that God’s love is not bound by any of the rules or limitations that we depend upon nearly every day.

That’s why throughout the 40 days of Lent I’ve been saying: the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is control.  I’ve needed to hear that over and over and you’ve needed to have it reinforced, too because at the heart of our faith is something that turns everything upside down.  And the upside down kingdom of God is lovely and cherished when it comes to the forgiveness of our sins.  But start spreading that grace around to everybody in the form of resurrection – including our enemies all the while insisting that God’s love can break ALL our rules, upset every apple cart and make ALL things new including a new life for the crucified Messiah – then we aren’t so certain.  Then this whole grace and Easter business becomes more complicated and uncomfortable, profoundly harder to fathom.

Small wonder that what the Bible tells us – and the first witnesses proclaimed – happened in the dark.  Have you noticed how each of the four gospels are not entirely clear what occurred in that Easter darkness? Think about it:  in Matthew there is a rolled away stone – and an earthquake.  In Mark, Mary Magdalene and another Mary flee in pure shock and awe after a single angelic visitor speaks to them. In Luke, it was two angels and a whole group of women. And in John, it is Jesus who appears speaking first to Magdalene, then Peter and John, and later all the disciples locked in the upper room and a week later to Thomas and then again to Peter out by the Sea of Galilee.

And all of it takes place in the dark causing Frederick Buechner to ask:  What the devil DID happen?

Confusion was clearly everywhere and there is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself (in these stories.) Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom? What did he say? What did he do? If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell this story in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. But here there is no skill, no fanfare for they seem to be telling a story simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete and dark as life itself. When it comes to just the facts, there can be no certainty

Except to say that something totally unexpected happened that led them from the darkness into the light.

So here’s what I want to tell you from my heart:  we can’t prove that God raised Jesus the Christ from the dead by reading the Bible alone; nor can we verify what took place on that first Easter by appealing to science or human reason.  So if you are having a hard time getting your head around all of this – if you find the resurrection story hard to believe – please know you are in good company.  All of Jesus’ first disciples had an equally difficult time with “this new reality for the resurrection overthrows death, triumphs over sin and declares once and for all that life in God’s love is more powerful and enduring than any and all tragedy.”  (David Lose, Working Preacher)

For way too long Christianity has insisted that authentic faith casts off all doubt, right?  But the testimony of our story suggests that faith and doubt are woven closely together, so skepticism and questions are vital not forbidden.

Faith, as the book of Hebrews announces, is the assurance of things hoped for: it is not the absence of doubt, but rather the relinquishment of control – a willingness to be inspired by hope so that we can live more fully into this new and blessed gift from God.

+ You know that old rabbi Saul of Tarsus got it right when he spoke about the link between trust and hope in Romans 5.  He told the early church that they could endure suffering and shame once the Spirit had poured hope into their hearts because hope is not manufactured by human beings. It is not bought or sold either; he said: we can even boast in our suffering knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And once God starts to fill us, there is nothing that can stop us.

Trusting the truth of Easter took me a long time to come to grips with. As a young man, I came 
of age when it was de rigueur to question everything:  don’t trust anyone over 30, don’t trust institutions, don’t trust the church. And I know I didn’t want to look like a fool, so I didn’t buy this stuff at all.  After all, there are plenty of good reasons not to trust the resurrection.  It violates the natural order of life as we know it. In fact, the only two things that are certain in this world are… what?  Death and taxes.

But preacher, David Lose, has reframed all of this by asking: what would be possible if it were true?  Can you think about that?  What would be possible if God’s love was, in fact, greater than our ability to comprehend? 

Death would not have the final word. Love and life would be stronger than fear and death. We could expect to see those we’ve loved and lost again. In fact, we could trust that God has a future in store for each and all of us because in the resurrection anything is possible with God.  (Lose, Working Preacher)

That may be hard for some here today – I think imagining the possibilities of hope is always hard – but here is what I have experienced on my own journey of faith:  when I am open to trust, all things become possible. In my lifetime, I’ve seen down and dirty junkies get clean – and stay clean for decades.  I’ve seen arrogant and mean-spirited politicians give up the BS and become humble servants of the poor.  I’ve seen soldiers advance the cause of peace and bigots learn to love their Black, Asian and Hispanic neighbors as part of their own family.  I’ve seen those who have been scarred by sexual abuse learn to love their bodies and trust their lovers with vulner-ability. I’ve seen the staunchest Southern segregationist and bigot, Strom Thurmond, change his heart to become an advocate for HIV/AIDS research in African. I’ve seen Jews love Muslims and Muslims love Jews.  I’ve seen the strong become weak and the humble become leaders. I’ve seen homophobes come to trust their gay and lesbian sisters and brothers as kin, I’ve seen those scandalized by the church’s historic hatred come to trust their straight allies, too. I’ve seen people of all races breaking bread – and marching together in Black Lives Matter rallies across America – I’ve seen bodies healed, minds opened and hope restored because with God all things are possible. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…

There is a story Harry Belafonte tells about MLK and the days when the Civil Rights movement seemed to have hit a brick wall. Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General and he would not budge when it came to supporting action that would expand or protect African American voting rights. So some of Dr. King’s lieutenants began to disparage and denigrate RFK during a strategy session. And after a short time, MLK called the whole thing to a close: we can not and will not continue talking about Mr. Kennedy in this way – with hatred rather than love. So this conversa-tion is over.  Dr. King went on to charge his aides with finding a way built on love to change the Attorney General’s heart while making it explicit there would be no more Kennedy bashing.

Chagrined, these civil rights leaders sulked at first, but later strategized and came to realize that Kennedy was a devout Roman Catholic who went to Mass almost daily. So, they started meeting and talking with his Bishop. In time, the Bishop’s heart was changed – and that led to some deep conversations with RFK. And over the course of a year, there was a change of heart born of repentance that helped move Kennedy into an alliance with the civil rights movement. And in time, RFK became an advocate - and by the end of his life Kennedy was known to be totally committed to the cause of caring for the poor and marginalized with justice and compassion.

So what I’m trying to say is that through the eyes of faith, the power of God’s love at work in ordinary human lives has compelled me to trust that this same love was at work raising Christ Jesus from the dead. I don’t control this love. I don’t comprehend how it works. And it certainly wasn’t persuasive to me all at once – it never is.

Resurrection faith comes slowly to everyone including Christ’s first disciples:  the women ran away, the men dismissed their sisters as delusional, the soldiers stood in fear and no one grasped what love was doing in the world. But when you, like the first disciples, start to see amazing grace in action – when you have experienced your own release from the bondage of sin and the oppression of fear – then you know from the inside out that the Easter proclamation is the most important truth in all creation – and it is NOT idle talk.

On that first Easter Sunday, after “dissing” the women, Peter ran to the tomb for now he starting to imagine what might be possible if God’s promise were true.  And stooping and looking into the empty tomb, he saw some resurrection evidence in the linens lying on the floor. So he went home puzzled – puzzled but amazed – letting God’s hope be poured into his heart by trust. And at just the right moment, in God’s time not Peter’s, he too encountered the Risen Christ. And then from the inside out he knew the Christ was risen indeed. 

It takes time, beloved, God does not expect us to grasp the magnitude of this blessing all at once or overnight. So be tender and gentle with yourselves on this day of days.  And also consider what all the saints have come to trust from Peter and Paul, to Mary the Mother of our Lord and Mary Magdalene: that faith is the assurance that Christ has been raised from the dead by the uncontrollable love of God being poured into your heart as hope.  He is risen, sisters and brothers, he is risen indeed!

credits:  John Levesque, Banksy, Dianne De Mott, Karen Schlitz

Saturday, March 26, 2016

reflections the day after good friday's love supreme...

(photo: Leo Mazzeo)

Last night we accomplished one of my deepest dreams as we shared our interpretation of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" in a Good Friday setting. There were three hopes for this event - and they all came to pass - for which I am grateful.

+ First, artistically and theologically, I wanted to share Coltrane's music in church in such a way that its beauty, paradox and promise were experienced on Good Friday. This is not a simple composition to accept: it is musically complex, melodically challenging and wildly passionate in rhythm and vibe. As sax man, Charlie Tokarz, said after the presentation: "This is not just jazz (by which we both knew he meant easy listening, Kenny G-type music). No this is JAZZ in all of its intricate creativity."  Wynton Marsalis sometimes speaks of jazz as North American classical music born in an African American context. And it is certainly that - and probably more, too. Just as Good Friday is theologically paradoxical - a liturgy saturated in the reality of human suffering and hope - so too "A Love Supreme."  When the idea came to me while on sabbatical in Montreal this past summer, and I shared it with my colleague and collaborator Carlton Maaia II, we both thought:  "YES, how totally excellent" and simultaneously, "OMG this is completely crazy to be even contemplating!" Both/and which was my clue that it was the right next step. And as Carlton said at the close of the evening, "We did it... we carried it from concept to completion like you imagined from the beginning. Incredible!"

+ Second, I yearned to play this jazz suite with the three other jazz musicians in our area with whom I share a deep respect, love and sense of camaraderie:  Carlton Maaia II, Charlie Tokarz and Jon Haddad.  I have been working with Carlton for five years at church. We have done a number of rock and soul shows together as well as weekly jazz meditations for Sunday worship. Things went deeper as we explored, planned and implemented a shared clergy/congregational sabbatical last year - and we've continued to build on that connection. Through the graciousness of another local musician, Andy Kelly, I met Charlie and Jon:  we played together in Andy's ensemble and even travelled to Istanbul, Turkey together on a music and peace-making mission six years ago. Since then, I've had the chance to work with these two masters in other settings - including some Christmas Eve and Easter events - that have allowed us to take some time and musically explore the spirituality of this holy days. We've done some big concerts, too. So, professionally and aesthetically, it was vital for me to find a way to keep the creativity moving. Investigating the meaning of "A Love Supreme" for us both personally and as an ensemble was fascinating:  we took the time to rehearse, we each practiced vigorously on our own and we built in time for conversation and questions about what the music was communicating to each of us. Those conversations cracked open more meaning for me about the blessings of this composition. And it drew me closer to these three men in ways I will cherish forever. What a privilege to share beauty with these guys!

+ And third, I ached to incorporate our folk/rock musicians from church into the fabric of this tapestry, too.  They were never an after-thought but always integral to "A Love Supreme" in three key was:  a) Our four vocalists - and two guitarists - are strong, solid musicians in their own right who can carry a song without leaning too heavy on the accompanists. Let's just say that this is not always the case with other vocalists. So knowing their gifts and abilities, I wanted to see what would happen if they were empowered to improvise with their voices the way Coltrane encouraged his instrumentalists on "A Love Supreme." What they collectively created was stunning and exciting - especially on William Billings' "When Jesus Wept" and Ann Heaton's "Prayer of St. Francis."  b) Each vocalist knows how to blend and support his/her mates - we've been working together in one form or another for 7+ years - so I wanted them to show the gathered congregation what trust looked and sounded like. They were an embodied sermon in song whether they realized it or not. Like jazz instrumentalists who have played with one another long enough to read their band mates minds and anticipate beyond comprehension how to support them, so too these sings. Eva Peri, Elizabeth McCarty, Dianne De Mott and Jon Grenoble not only have musical reading skills, finely honed instincts about blending together but they also have a deep affection for one another - and in this season of political fear-mongering the more we can do to advance the cause of love the better. Add to this mix the guitar/vocal work of Dave McDermott and Brian Staubach, brilliant players in their own right, and the whole becomes greater than the individual parts. And c) I sensed that for a congregation made up of people of faith, jazz heads, people of no faith as well as all types of curious souls in between, this presentation needed what I thought of as "oasis of beauty and form in the midst of an extended jazz improvisation." The singers and guitarists were essential in helping the congregation find their place - and they did it with subtly and grace.

One of the band said to me afterwards, "You know that you made this selection much more 
accessible for people than just an encounter with listening to it on a CD allows, right? It wasn't dumbed down in any way, but the way it was presented brought people into its heart rather than perplexed them." And for that, kudos go to our musical director, Carlton Maaia II, who told me something like this after one rehearsal:  "Because "A Love Supreme" is so nuanced and elaborate as music, we must do two things consistently to help the gathered crowd "get" it. First, we must play the "head" - the opening melody" a few times at both the start of each movement and the close so that people have a reference point. Not everyone is able to bring closure to a song, so we have to help them by giving them musical landmarks. And second, when we are improvising within the body of each song, playing a set of notes twice - repeating them right new to one another - also helps the listeners find some grounding." What he was saying speaks about the tender relationship between improvisation, personal creativity, respect for each individual and the spirituality of compassion we want to share in our music. A barrage of sounds might be fun for the player, but it is rarely of any value for most listeners. Same goes for rehearsal: just showing up and throwing a bunch of notes together may be fun for the one making the noise, but it rarely edifies an audience - and never strengthens a congregation. 

I personally learned so much about how compassion must consciously be built into my music through this encounter - and I suspect it was felt and confirmed by the over 100 folk who gathered. At least half the crowd had not formal relationship with First Church.  And as I spoke with some afterwards, they told me they had driven 50+ miles to experience "A Love Supreme" in a church on Good Friday. I heard this over and again from people I had never met. And, they expressed thanks to me. My hunch back in our Montreal summer sabbatical was right: there is a group of people aching for a place to nurture their hopes and dreams and music helps them come together in ways most of us cannot articulate - yet most of us know is true, too.

NOTE:  Some have emailed me that they would like to reread my remarks from last night, so here we go... Thanks be to God we raised $1000 for Syrian refugee relief, too.)

Good evening and welcome.  Tonight we will be sharing our interpretation of both John Coltrane’s masterwork and the essence of this sacred day in the Christian tradition.  It is my contention that “A Love Supreme” and Good Friday are exquisitely nuanced meditations upon the blessings of the blues in our everyday lives.

For those who appreciate jazz, you know that the very essence of this art form is constructed upon the blues tradition:  experimenting, improvising, honoring as well as pushing the limits of the blues evokes simultaneously mourning and celebration.  Wynton Marsalis, director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, once observed that: Everything in jazz comes out of blues music: joy, pain and struggle for the blues is affirmation with absolute elegance. It's about a lovers and the human condition. So the pain and the struggle in the blues is that universal pain that comes from having your heart broken. 

Throughout “A Love Supreme” I hear the artist, John Coltrane – and our musicians – reverently beginning with a blues form and a blues soul, but never resting upon either in a static way.  For this is not a recital – a recreation of a 50 year old composition – but rather a living, breathing, melodic pilgrimage in prayer that invites you to rejoice in your inner journey even as you recognize your wounds.  Guided by the musicians, this is a time to listen carefully to whatever your journey is saying to you and follow wherever it may lead.

That is why we have set this encounter within the wisdom of Good Friday:  of all the holy days in the Christian liturgical calendar, this is the most paradoxical.  There is fear present as we consider the suffering of the Cross, but trust as well: sorrow alongside of song, darkness as well as illumination, despair, betrayal and bleak emptiness in addition to human solidarity and divine hope born from above.  Because when the Cross is embraced in its essence, it is not about punishment, penitence or even judgment as we normally imagine. No, the Cross rightly conceived points to the place where the holy intersects our humanity.  The Cross graphically that there is NO place exempt from God’s grace:  not addiction, not abuse, not war, exploitation or even death.  The mystical truth of creation that Coltrane tapped into – and Good Friday honors – is that the Holy mercifully meets us in all our human experiences – including shame, abandonment and our experiences with hell – in order to set us free.

You may know that Coltrane himself was once a heroin addict, yes?  The junk got him fired from the Miles Davis band back in the day and was about to devour his life. But after nearly 10 years of shooting smack and drinking to excess, ‘Trane had an inner spiritual awakening that empowered him to get clean.  An apocryphal story says that while playing his saxophone wildly and beyond all traditional sounds and scales, Coltrane was given a gift of love in sound that so nourished his core with beauty that he was liberated from his cravings. The story goes on to say that in response to this grace he gave the rest of his life to sharing beauty with the world in the hope that his music would inspire healing in other wounded souls. No longer a junkie, the artist himself said

In 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

Coltrane never named his spirituality as Buddhist or Christian, Muslim, Jewish or earth-centered; he just played and shared the sounds of love born of the blues.  We know from his biography that both of his grand-fathers were Baptist preachers – and that his soul was saturated in the old gospel hymns of the South – but ‘Trane’s message cut deeper than any denomination. One of the wisest spiritual teachers of the Western world, Richard Rohr, once wrote:

All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Only when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough will you find that the little place where who you really are is ironically more than enough and all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God and such people can connect with everybody… because they don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .

Part of what we’re exploring with you tonight is precisely how the liberating power of love is often revealed to us through our wounds.  The power to break down barriers – to trust that when we’re fortified by grace we can challenge tyrants and bullies, embrace those who have been excluded and feast together with former enemies in hope rather than fear – all of this has its origins in owning our own pain. That’s where the blues becomes sacred prayer: until we’re honest with ourselves and feel our own need for a love greater than ourselves, we’re just play acting – and nothing changes. But when we’ve been touched within by love – and start to trust it by living into its freedom – then our humanity is allied with the holy.

And as St. Jerry Lee Lewis noted, “Then we gotta whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on” because now we’re spirit-fed. Now we trust that God’s love looks beyond what the obvious, beyond the comfortable, beyond even what is even comprehensible. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his opposition to Nazi hatred in Germany, said:

Discipleship is never limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension and God will help you to comprehend… for bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. In this holy comprehension transcends (anything we can imagine.)

So because so many of us are usually so busy, so worried, so anxious, so distracted, so
conflicted and so confused, we have set aside about an hour of musical meditation mixed with the wisdom and ambiguity of poetry for you – this is your time to let the Divine speak to from within the finely tuned vocal harmonies and extended silences – so that you might know, from the inside out, that blessings can be born from your blues. Coltrane testifies to the efficacy of the blues throughout “A Love Supreme” albeit in ways that those who aren’t familiar with jazz may not realize. And the more we have played this sacred composition in four movements the more I believe it to be a testimony of the blessings God aches to share with us if only we would learn the wisdom of our wounds so that we could sing the blues with conviction and verve.  We don’t need more Fox News or CNBC spin control - and we don’t need more cable/satellite/direct TV schlock to clog our hearts and minds either – how did Springsteen put it: 57 channels and nothings on… No, sisters and brothers, what we need is more blues people who have learned the wisdom of their wounds. 

That’s why Good Friday is ideal for considering Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”  Like the old rabbi Saul of Tarsus told us:  All things work for good when we love and trust the Lord. Not all things ARE good, mind you, but they can be used for good if we are open and nourished by love.  Coltrane tells us this in four musical movements.

Acknowledgment suggests the wonder of discovering that we are God’s beloved even in the midst of pain:  it starts with a fanfare announcing that something important is about to happen in the key of E – the quintessential guitar blues key. Then it moves to a blues riff on the bass in F to remind us that this journey of faith is about the marriage of the human and the holy, a song of hope and love even in hard times. And dig this:  with 3 notes, Coltrane provides us with a penetrating, audible historical overview of Black history. The bass note riff that grounds “Acknowledgement” references a time-tested blues riff made popular by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (play:  I’m a Man.) And the Chicago blues giants are referencing the folk and Creole music they heard in both New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta – and that music harkens back to the Caribbean slave trade and then to the grooves of West Africa.  All in three notes! But the lesson doesn’t end there as there is a recurring theme that ‘Trane opens this movement with that returns later over and over again, but now in every different key possible. He wants to show us through music that God’s love not only transcends every key, race and religion, but that it works in every situation. And just so that we don’t fail to miss his message, he closes the first movement by chanting: a love supreme.

Resolution, the second movement, reminds us that holy love is all about compassion. When our wounds have been touched, when our broken hearts have been honored, when the violence and fear of the world is challenged, blessing does not take place through brute force but… through compassion.  All true mystics know that the sacred is a lover not a judge – and Coltrane is among them.  He communicates this with an aching melody that he lets his band improvise on however their hearts feel inspired.  This shared freedom, you see, is all about listening carefully to one another, helping one another take the music to a new place in real time, respecting one another in love and celebrating the joy of being creative in community.

Pursuance, movement three, is about dancing to a love that is greater than our imagination. Its form is pure blues but Coltrane sets it to such a wild be-bop beat that unless you saw the chord changes in front of you, you wouldn’t know it was the blues: it feels too joyful.  But that’s part of the mystery:  even in disaster there is love and hope and tenderness.  To me this sounds like the old preacher saying: Hold on, it may be Friday but Easter Sunday is coming!

The closing movement, Psalm, is a saxophone mediation based on a love poem/ prayer:Trane wrote this prayer to return thanks to the Lord; and we will actually say it and pray it out loud at the close of this liturgy.  It is both a celebration of a love supreme as well as the start of a new pilgrimage in faith, too.

The other music we are sharing tonight, the vocal selections, have been chosen to give you a firm foundation in the beauty and diversity of the blues. They are an oasis on this jazz pilgrimage that lift up the paradox of sacred tenderness in a world of pain in more traditional styles.  We opened with a tune from the early American composer, William Billings, who born in Boston and raised in the Congregational tradition. It is a traditional Good Friday theme that I’ve come to think of as a blues song born of colonial Boston; because Billings was not only a man who knew physical pain – he was born with a deformed leg and only one working eye – but he fought a lifetime addiction to snuff.  Nevertheless, the love of God raised him from his working class roots to become the father of American Choral Music.

The second vocal offering comes from the incomparable American indie artist, Ann Heaton, who lived for years in Cambridge, MA. Her reworking of the Prayer of St. Francis is a love lament if ever one existed – and at the close of this song our singers do what Coltrane did as they improvise and see where the spirit leads them. We close with George Harrison’s stinging song of sorrow:  While My Guitar Gently Weeps. For me this is rock and roll blues saturated with sacred sadness – and the electric guitar that wails and weeps takes on the voice of the holy crying over the pain and brokenness we have created.

It is, perhaps, a fitting conclusion in the aftermath of yet another wave of terrorist bombings in Ankara, Brussels and Istanbul. Just 6 years ago, some of the musicians on our stage were in Istanbul bringing a message of peace- making through music.  I remain steadfast in that commitment – as do all the performer’s here tonight – trusting that beauty can save the world even as the forces of hatred spew violence and death. More than ever we need to nourish the promise of a love supreme.

That’s why in addition to the music and poetry and prayers, we will take up an offering to assist our sisters and brothers fleeing the violence and terror of Syria.  When you come forward to light a candle of hope, if you are able to make a donation, it will all go to Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey or Jordan awaiting relocation. We are using the interfaith organization, Church World Service, to make certain that more than 95 cents of every dollar goes to direct services. So, please share what you can and strengthen the spirit of a Love Supreme.

And now let me encourage you to enter the music, poems and silence as a pilgrimage of prayer. You don’t have to be Christian to take this journey – you just have to be honest with yourself – and let the blues connect you to all that is sacred in the human experience…

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:...