Monday, October 31, 2016

a community of humility and solidarity...

As our sisters and brothers stand up in loving opposition - yet again - to the oppression of our
greed and the violation of their faith and land in North Dakota; as my faith community wrestles with how to become a place of hope and compassion for the 21st century after being a church of the powerful for 240 years; as this American political travesty of unbridled power and selfishness grinds to a close on November 8th:  I have been wrestling with a way to speak of God's invitation to our congregation about our calling.  Here is what I sense is currently true. Thoughts? Reactions? Concerns?

In community, we have been called by God to bring a word of hope and trust to the people of First Church, Pittsfield. We have been inspired by God’s grace to participate in the renewal of our own inner spiritual journey as well as the healing of our wider community, too. The time is upon us to lay anxiety aside and nourish a new vision born of God’s steadfast love. In truth, we are no longer a large and influential congregation. Rather, given both resources and personnel, this is our season for true humility and collaboration. As John the Baptist taught those who would later follow Jesus: Now is a time for me to decrease so that Christ may increase. In a similar fashion, our legacy in privilege and power has come to an end so that we might mature in servanthood and solidarity. Starting in 2017, therefore, we sense a renewed calling in four areas of mission and ministry:

· Strengthening our community of love and radical hospitality to be a resting place in a harsh and fearful culture.

· Celebrating God’s grace in worship through the arts, critical reflection and holistic contemplation.

· Renewing grassroots mission and fundraising for healing in God’s world in a manner that honors the realities of 21st century living.

· And sharing resources for pastoral care and acts of compassion that empower our laity.

This is an era for partnership, not control. Perhaps that is why it was necessary for me to "retire" - even as I serve a part-time ministry of transition - so that we might fully break from our past. I needed to experience the ending of one experience before starting another. I think the same is true for our church. To be sure, we must not forsake our history, but we can no longer afford to remain addicted to our past either. This is a new day. As Brian McLaren writes: let us become a 'school for love' in this strange and beautiful times.


My precious, wise, creative, beautiful and generous daughter had a milestone birthday this weekend - and it fills my heart full to overflowing. She is a gifted and skilled teacher - a gracious and loving wife - a brilliant, tender, compassionate and insightful mother - besides being drop dead funny, so smart, an attentive and kind daughter and the kind of person I would want for a friend even if we weren't related. We were at Louie's birthday party in Brooklyn last weekend and the way she managed 12 three year olds blew my mind: a well-conceived schedule, great food and tons of fun for everyone involved. Adults included! I don't know how I could be so blessed but I am grateful it is true.
When she was born in Los Angeles, after her home delivery when I knew she was safe and well, I went into a small bathroom and wept as I felt the presence of the Lord in my heart. That was the day I became an adult believer. Like Job said, before I had heard but now I KNOW from the inside out. And what was true then, continues to be true for me now.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

waiting upon the Lord is NOT passive...

As part of my intermittent work on an emerging spirituality of tenderness ripens (something I
intend to devote greater attention to after February 2017 when I begin a season of retirement and part time ministry) - as well as my current task of assisting our congregation in transition from an old way of being the Body of Christ into something new - I want to research and ponder the Biblical origins of "waiting upon the Lord." It is my experience that a gap exists between what contemporary people consider "waiting" and what the Judeo-Christian heritage of discernment actually instructs. Simply, it seems to be the difference between casual resting and/or passivity rather than the intense listening, thinking, trusting and praying required to live in pursuit of doing "Thy will on Earth as it is already being done in Heaven." 

Quietude and inactivity are quite different from wrestling with the Living Word of the Lord be that
Jacob wrestling with God's angel, Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane or the way of the Virgin after receiving Gabriel's news that she would bear the Messiah by the presence of the Holy Spirit. As I explore this more thoroughly - and disconnect from the limited wisdom of popular piety - it strikes me that waiting upon the Lord involves contemplation, meditation, analysis and also acceptance. Two initial Hebrew texts warrant deeper consideration for me:  Isaiah 40: 31 and Psalm 37.

+ Isaiah 40: 31 reads: those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. The Hebrew verb qal (plural) from qavah (to wait) evokes a few fascinating  possibilities including: the twisting tension that binds the strands of a rope together, dancing as well as trembling and/or writhing in fear. There appears to be nothing passive about such waiting in this type of anticipation anymore than there is as a woman labors to bring forth a child in birth. To wait upon the Lord, it seems to me, is to actively engage the fullness of God's promise in your mind, heart, body and soul even as you explore the material and spiritual implications of such waiting. Such discernment is grounded in grace, to be sure, trusting that God's will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. And, at the same time, it is creatively engaging the Spirit in pursuit of how best to live into these promises.

+ Such is the challenge of Psalm 37: 1-9:  that advises people of faith not to fret, but to trust, be still and wait:  Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,  for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act... Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.  Do not fret - charah - involves choosing not to burn in anger or letting distress kindle a fire within. It suggests a meditative move away from resentment towards the serenity of acceptance.  Trust - batach - encourages a bold commitment to God's love that is greater than our ability to comprehend. As the Serenity Prayer suggests, it has to do with our powerlessness in the presence and acceptance of God's ultimate grace. Rest or be still - damam - is to cease activity and be silent for a time. And wait patiently - qavah - is to trust the inner tension and struggle for clarity even while releasing our discernment into the majesty of God's love.

Is there prayer and silence in waiting? Of course. Is there a stepping away from activity for a season of discernment? Beyond a doubt.  And is there a trusting acceptance that God's will and love is greater than our ability to comprehend? Always. AND... not IF but AND... and there is the hard work of listening, problem solving, twisting, praying and experiencing even angst in pursuit of grasping the will of the Lord. Like the parable of the 10 maidens teaches:  we must be ready and alert, not asleep, passive or bewildered - as Matthew 25 makes clear.

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.  And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It is not surprising to me, therefore, that Matthew 25 concludes with a word of judgment concerning those who are so "asleep" and/or self-absorbed as to be unable to see the presence of Jesus in the least of these our sisters and brothers. I will be playing with this notion more in the weeks to come.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

and so it begins anew...

And so it begins anew: the first snowfall of the season. The predictions are for 50F this weekend but right now it looks like a winter wonderland. There is a sacred silence within these snowstorms that envelopes the town in muffled tones and slows everything down to a crawl. If you don't have to travel, such times are truly gifts - and that is so for me today. (My concern and prayers are with those, however, who must make a journey because then the snow becomes a potential adversary. Traveling mercies, my friends.) 
Later this evening we will gather for supper with dear friends in one of our town's new farm to table eateries. We'll talk of our move into retirement and part-time ministry. And Di's calling to help new refugees learn English and make their way through the challenges of living in a new land. She was just fully accepted into the January 2017 study course for accreditation. Come tomorrow, we'll hunker down for a Sabbath rest, too. 

Clearly their is a change in the air and the snow evokes the promise of deeper introspection. Thomas McGrath put it like this in "Beyond the Red River."

The birds have flown their summer skies to the south,
And the flower-money is drying in the banks of bent grass
Which the bumble bee has abandoned. We wait for a winter lion,
Body of ice-crystals and sombrero of dead leaves.

A month ago, from the salt engines of the sea,
A machinery of early storms rolled toward the holiday houses
Where summer still dozed in the pool-side chairs, sipping
An aging whiskey of distances and departures.

Now the long freight of autumn goes smoking out of the land.
My possibles are all packed up, but still I do not leave.
I am happy enough here, where Dakota drifts wild in the universe,
Where the prairie is starting to shake in the surf of the winter dark.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

a clarity beyond knowledge...

Three quotes have resonated with something deep within in the past few days and they are worthy of sharing. The first comes from M. Craig Barnes:

I've been working on a writing project about gravitas, which describes a soul that's weighty enough to attract others. Most of us know people who a gravitational pull on our lives. We go to them when we're confused, hurt, or spiritually dry. They aren't therapists or even spiritual directors. They may not be leaders, but we don't trust leaders without gravitas. Most people with these weighty souls are scarred up a bit, and that's part of what makes them attractive. But I'm trying to figure out how gravitas is developed beyond being wounded by life.

This quest of Barnes' is vital.  Being wounded is essential, of course, but it is by no means a 
guarantee that gravitas will ripen and bear fruit within and beyond our lives. We all know too many broken souls who remain the walking wounded or even bitter, mean-spirited beings because of the harsh realities and anguish they have endured. No, there clearly is more to attractive wisdom than pain.

A clue comes from the second quote that grabbed my attention. Christine Valters Painters, the abbess of the on-line Abbey of the Arts ( recently wrote in an article entitled, "The Soul's Migration" that:

Autumn is the time of transition, of the earth's turning, with the balance of light and dark in the northern hemisphere tilting toward the dark season and the invitation to release the excess we carry and rest into growing Mystery. It is a season of initiating these great movements across the globe of birds, fish, and mammals following an instinctual call. I am taken with the mysteries of migration, the inner knowing that rises up in them to embark on a journey, the impulse to swim and fly across great expanses of earth and sea in search of a feeling of rightness that season. think of the ancient desert monks who each knew that one day they would have to leave behind the familiar and venture out into the wilderness to seek a space of radical encounter with God. Or the Irish monks who felt called to a particular kind of journey called peregrinatio, which was a pilgrimage for the love of Christ without a destination in mind. The practice was to step into a small boat called a coracle, without oar or rudder, and let the current carry them to the place of their resurrection.

Truth be told, my soul feels much like it is on a migration - and oddly I have no real need to try and control it. I rather cherish the rudderlessness of this current pilgrimage towards resurrection. Now that I have announced my retirement - and we are stumbling together into a transition of sorts - I am free to wait. And wander. Or create in new ways as the Spirit stirs within. Dr. Painters adds:

In the Book of Isaiah (48:6-7) we read: "Now I am revealing new things to you, things hidden and unknown to you, created just now, this very moment. Of these things you have heard nothing until now so that you cannot say, Oh yes, I knew this." In the Christian contemplative tradition, we are invited to rest more deeply in the Great Mystery, to lay aside our images and symbols, and let the divine current carry us deeper, without knowing where, only to trust the impulse within to follow a longing. As autumn tilts us toward the season of growing darkness, consider this an invitation to yield to the mystery of your own heart's desires. You do not need a map or agenda, simply a willingness to swim in the waters carrying you back home again.

Which leads me to the third quote, this one from Walter Brueggemann in his recent book of essays, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, concerning the importance the challenge of being a person of faith in the 21st century. He opens his reflections noting that once, perhaps 250 years ago, the Christian preacher "could count on the shaped premises of the listening community." Now the prevailing wisdom of the hour not only assumes a-theism, but denigrates faith as naive in a realm where only might makes right. I certainly affirm the ambiguity encountered in the "dangerous task of reimagining the world with Yahweh as its key player." Then, in a delightfully paradoxical way, Brueggemann offers these words as bread for the journey: the midst of (various) evidences and testimonies, what the preacher has (to go to) is this old text - the Hebrew Old Testament - so remote, so difficult, so misleading, so problematic, so unintimidated. It is the enduring sound of a thousand unclear witnesses offering a cacophony of truthfulness, the script for our own dangerous, primitive reimagining... It is in Hebrew, not Latin... and Hebrew, even for those who know it much better than do I, is endlessly imprecise and unclear. It lacks the connecting words; it denotes rather than connotes; it points and opens and suggests, but it does not conclude or define. That means it is a wondrous vehicle for what is suggested but hidden, what is filled with imprecision and inference and innuendo, a vehicle for contradiction, hyperbole, incongruity, disputation. Now the reason this may be important is that in a society of technological control and precision, we are seduced into thinking if we know the codes, we can pin down all meaning, get all mysteries right and have our own way, without surprise, without deception, without amazement, without gift, without miracle, without address, without absence, without anything that signals mystery or risk. In such a society as that, the church and its preachers practice another mode of speech, so that the way we imagine is congruent with who it is we imagine.

Ain't that just IT!?!? We need guides who open and take us deep without insisting upon a one size fits all answer to each and every problem. I know I do. Maybe that is why at the near close of full-time ministry I have fallen in love again with the Hebrew text. It holds such nuance and possibility for our pilgrimage.  Lady Wisdom can be, for example, a master craftsperson or a delightful playmate in life - or maybe both!  The trees wave and sing. The rhythm of creation keeps breaking into the tragedies born of human greed and violence with flowers beyond anxiety and the steadfast love of the Lord that endures forever. I need such primal mystery to be a part of my head and heart these days, not just because autumn has arrived, but also because I am entering a new wilderness of creativity that needs encouragement and gravitas more than prefigured answers.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

no more road trips for now...

In the past 10 days we have...

+  celebrated the wedding of two dear souls in Kentucky
+  ravelled 2200 miles together in our 14 year old Subaru
+  submitted my intent to retire from full time ministry letter to our church community
+  gone and returned to Brooklyn, NY for our grandson's third birthday
+  led worship in the wake of our retirement announcement
+  and dealt with a nasty stomach virus

... no freakin' wonder we're both wiped-out!  Feeling blessed and grateful, but also totally rung out and hung up wet to dry.  After worship today I met with about 20 people to clarify and answer questions about my retirement announcement. It is a hard time for us all. As one person said:  we always knew this time was coming... and now you have made tomorrow become today. We're all still kinda stunned.  Me, too - but bringing a measure of focus was essential for my well being. Now we can negotiate a satisfying part-time job description and see where that leads us.

As another long-time member said:  I have been grieving the death of our church. But today I know that it is good for that old corporate church to die and now I'm DONE with grieving. Let's get on with a new day. Exactly right, my man. This is an exciting and Spirit filled time for our faith community. Filled with anxiety, to be sure, but also filled with God's promises and presence. I have received incredibly tender notes of love and support throughout this past week. But better still were the shared embraces and tears I experienced today with special souls who have shared ups and downs with me in this weird life of ministry..Later this afternoon we kicked off our community CROP Walk, too (which I had to bow out of for health reasons) and then I got some work done for tomorrow morning's graveside service. 

As this new week unfolds, there are LOTS of forms to fill out in anticipation of retirement and some other part-time job conversations to have, too. I'll also make the time to hoist a few pints with dear souls so that we stay connected. Then, next Sunday after worship I am honored to be included in Robert Hyde's installation service as associate pastor where I will bring the charge to the congregation (the spiritual challenge they are to embrace in this new shared ministry.) 

Life is full and I am grateful to be at this stage in the journey. But there are no more road trips planned for the time being: it will be wonderful just to stay home and soak in the joy. Here are a few pictures from this whirlwind week that make my heart sing.


the insights of the prophet joel for our community...

NOTE:  My worship notes from Sunday, October 23, 2016.  This is one attempt to put
my transition from full-time ministry into retirement and a part-time ministry into context.

The message I am going to share with you today is NOT the one I anticipated when I did my worship planning for this season back in August. Back in the beauty of late summer I expected a sermon about how we might respect BOTH the Pharisee and the tax collector. For far too long, Christian anti-Semitism has demonized the Pharisees who were serious people of faith striving to live in peace with God’s holiness in a vicious and vulgar culture.

Did they make mistakes? You bet! Did they get carried away with themselves? Without a doubt. Did some of them lose focus and start to celebrate the rules more than the spirit? You know they did – just as some Christians abandoned the love of the Lord in Hitler’s Germany or some white evangelical believers are doing so in this year’s presidential race. Nobody – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, Republican or Democrat – has a monopoly on purity. In fact, we ALL get it wrong at LEAST as often as we get it right. Such is the nature of our broken humanity.

So I had planned to talk with you about this truth: the humanity of the Pharisees, what they genuinely believed and practiced, how Jesus was probably closer to them than anyone else in ancient Israel rather than the caricature the gospels too often give us that perpetuate anti-Semitism.

But guess what? I’m not in control! Like John Lennon once sang: Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. And while I was busy planning worship, church council had commissioned a small group of wise souls under the leadership of Jon Grenoble to come up with a way to solve our history of deficit spending – a problem that has plagued us for over 50 years and caused way too much anxiety – and set into motion a new visioning process for our mission together as a congregation grounded in the 21st century. In response to their hard work, it became clear to me that now was the right time to announce my intent to retire after our annual meeting in the New Year. I have laid out my prayerful thoughts about this already so I’m not going to revisit it here. I will remain in the Sanctuary after the closing music though if you would like to ask me questions or just to check in, ok? What I’d rather address with you now is what I sense the prophet Joel could be saying to our congregation 2,600 years after his first prophecy in light of the challenges facing us as a community of faith.

Like one of my mentors in ministry, Professor Walter Brueggemann, I believe that the stories and poetry of the Old Testament are not merely fascinating insights about another time and place; they are salvific – IF – we embrace their sacred wisdom with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Sadly, from my perspective, most modern, middle class white folk in America – you and me, included – are often too harried, anxious and distracted to let this truth transform our lives. As a result, we are mostly clueless when it comes to waiting upon the Lord: as a collection of well-educated professionals we know a lot about problem-solving, we are reasonably proficient at manipulating so-called time-saving technologies, and we are often confident of our ability to manage our resources so that we can weather the ups and downs of a volatile stock market. What I have seen after nearly 35 years of ordained ministry, serving four distinct churches in very different areas of our country, however, is that most of us are bewildered and even afraid of waiting on the Lord.

It is genuinely counter-cultural – it demands that we give up all illusions of control to a love greater than ourselves – it asks us to invest in God’s way rather than the way of the university, the marketplace or our culture. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said: “Seek ye first… what?” The kingdom of God – THEN all these things shall be added unto you – but not until then.

Now this observation is not to blame or shame you: I just want to be clear about one of the challenges facing First Church and MOST churches in America today. As one of my spiritual directors back in Arizona used to say, “When moving towards spiritual health, man, NEVER put whipped cream on BS!”

That’s one of the truths the prophets of ancient Israel offer us today: they NEVER put whipped cream on BS. Take today’s lesson from Joel: we don’t know much about this man except that he probably lived outside of Jerusalem around 400 BCE. He ascribed Israel’s troubles to be the consequence of not loving the Lord and our neighbors with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Those who valued their individuality and personal control more than social compassion, he prophesied, were the root cause of ancient Israel’s plague of locusts. Scientists say that during such a plague over 120 million locusts would descend upon each acre of food, devour the nation’s food supply and cover everything in insect debris and decay. It had to have been disgusting and terrifying in ways we cannot imagine.

So what the prophet Joel told his loved ones is something we need to wrestle with, too. First, he called this miserable plague of locusts the Day of the Lord – not the Lord’s Day for feasting and festivities – but a sacred time of sober confession in community. And second, he assured God’s people that after a season of waiting – and grieving – God would restore blessings upon the people because that is God’s nature. He told them that they could never control nor predict when the blessing would come, but if they waited in faith and emptied them-selves of hubris, the steadfast love of the Lord would restore new life even in the midst of death. “Rend your hearts not your garments,” he said. Take time to grieve what has been lost. Feel it within. Do not distract yourselves by putting whipped cream on BS. Face the hardships and anguish honestly and OWN YOUR PART WITHIN THEM.

Now that’s the hardest thing for all people to do consistency – but especially folks like us! Wait and grieve our brokenness? Trust that God will show us wisdom and new blessings within our pain? Give me a break – and a pill! As a rule, most middle class, white folk not only don’t have much practice in doing this unless we’ve faced serious illness in our lives – we don’t believe it. Most of us have to get fired or end up in the hospital before we realize we’re not really in control and need to wait upon the Lord for guidance. But there are no guarantees we’ll do it. We have too many drugs and distractions to mask our pain – we’re too busy and self-important to pay attention to the day of the Lord – so time and again we miss the chance to ripen in faith and receive God’s gift of new depth and blessing within our emptiness even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Do you know that name Ruby Sales? While Dianne and I were driving down to Kentucky to celebrate the wedding of our dear young friends, Christabelle and Irene, we listened to a podcast by Krista Tippett in which she interviewed Ms. Sales, an African American theologian who came of age during the movement against American apartheid in the 1960s. One of the truths she shared was shattering: there is a spiritual crisis throughout white America that is devouring us rich, poor and middle-class alike:

It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear (much talk about it as a) liberating white theology… but we’ve got to deal with developing such a theology in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where up until now only a few lives have mattered. We have to talk about how to raise people up from disposability to essentiality? She wants to know what God talk has to say: To the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, or starts to change, then they feel as if they are dying or they get caught up in the throes of death, whether it’s heroin addiction… or the cruel politics of this hour?

Ruby Sales is on to something vital here. She is naming the importance of our current social, political, spiritual and economic dysfunctions as essential – even a Day of the Lord like unto Joel’s time – because they expose the deep pain and anxieties within and among us. What we see in this presidential race are the pathological and outward signs of God’s inward invitation for us to wake up and take care of what is vital. The morbidity rates in Anglo West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are trying to tell us that white folk all across America are having a hard time tapping into the goodness inside of ourselves and nourish it relationally in our ever-shifting sea of racial and cultural diversity. And so there is anger and despair and addiction and moral confusion. The question Ruby Sales asks is the same question the prophet asks:: How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality?!? And Joel tells us that in begins with grief and waiting upon the Lord so that we might be filled with God rather than ourselves.

And here’s where the challenge of our church, my retirement announcement and today’s Scripture all come together for me: subtlety for seven years – and assertively since our 250th anniversary – I have been asking you to grieve the loss of what First Church used to be so that we might become the church God needs right now. Our loss is part of the spiritual crisis wounding white America. I think some of God’s deeper grieving finally began to surface during the small group house meetings that were held throughout the summer where about 50 of us discussed our current financial challenges openly and honestly – and I know it is taking place in other venues, too – and yet for too long we have avoided owning the connection between our problems and the crisis of faith ravaging the white working class. There is a curse as well as a blessing to the way of the bourgeoisie. Unlike the kid with a needle in her arm in Chicopee or the 60 year old father who has to show up as a day laborer now because his factory in Altoona, PA shut down four years ago, our relative economic security creates the illusion of autonomy. Consequently, we ignore grieving over our lost status – here and throughout America’s white culture – and never feel the need to rend our hearts in solidarity and humility.

Some are so disconnected from our collective anguish that they have said to my face: oh, closing this church won’t really hurt all that much. Yes it will be sad, but businesses close all the time, we go to different stores or restaurants or physicians when one no longer serves us, so we can do the same thing with our church. Challenge me after worship if you think I’ve overstated the case, beloved, but a community of faith is different from Wal-Mart. We are NOT a business. We are the Body of Christ.

And the Body of Christ in history came into the world as a vulnerable baby needing the tenderness and attention of his family to thrive. You are the body of Christ. The Body of Christ in real time knelt at the feet of those who would betray him and loved them even unto the Cross. You are the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ in faith rose from death by the love of God to show us that love, not hatred, wins no matter how much we put whipped cream on BS. And that is what I’ve tried to share and realize with you over the past decade: how kneeling, trusting and waiting on the Lord beyond our privilege – beyond the depletion of our endowment and status – could be our Day of the Lord, our time of getting empty enough that God could fill us with a new era of blessing in Pittsfield born of humility and solidarity.

You see only when Joel’s community owned their reality of scarcity was God ready to reveal abundance; only when there was no place else to go but the shelter of God’s love, did the rains come, the locusts cease and the harvests return. God’s promise was stunning: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young shall see visions. Even upon the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. In humility the whole community can be renewed. That’s what I believe – not without fear and trembling, mind you – but in time, history, individual lives and scripture I’ve seen how waiting leads to blessings. And when I practice what I try to preach and refuse to put whipped cream on my own BS, I think I’ve been too subtle about the essentiality of our journey into humility, grieving, emptiness and solidarity. I’ve been too hesitant about pushing away from disposability and privilege to essentiality!

And this saddens me – you are a beautiful, creative, resourceful, talented and loving constellation of Christians – and I sense that God still has great things for you to do albeit in a smaller and more humble way. I trust by faith that God still aches to pour out the Spirit upon ALL the flesh here so that you dream new dreams and claim new visions. But I no longer sense this happening with me.

I can be helpful for a transition now, but in retrospect, I think my time with you has been something like a 10 year interim getting you ready for the next chapter of blessing. Once you had 240 years of grandeur – and then you got ten years of grief with me. And if that isn’t humbling enough, because we’ve nearly depleted our endowment, all illusions of privilege and power are coming to an end. This angers some and frightens others, but it strikes me maybe a beautiful thing where we might be able to kneel down in community like the tax collector and say: “Lord, I am a sinner, I’m empty and I don’t know what to do. Save me.” That would be a holy time– but it’s a lot to ask of anyone who still believes they’re in control. Like the Serenity Prayer says: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. You have to want to let go – accept your powerlessness – and trust God is greater than all fear.

And that’s why Dianne and I sensed it was time to step aside. Either you want to move beyond privilege – and know you need to do it – or not. Come February, of course, by the necessity of limited funds, I must move into a part-time, twenty hour a week ministry with you – and in order to make up some lost salary I needed to retire to access my annuity. But let’s be real, me being part-time is going to be a big change for us all – a bold time to figure out whether we’re really can give up our privileged past and move into God’s humility and solidarity.

That’s how the prophecy of Joel ends, you know: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be made whole and filled with the Spirit.” And I believe that is as true here and now as it was there and then. Remember: to be filled with the Spirit literally means to be in-spired – filled with God’s grace – nourished by a love poured out upon ALL flesh together – not by our doing – but by God’s. And that brings me back to the gospel story I wanted to preach on before life interfered with my plans: more than anything else I think Christ’s parable shows us what life looks like without inspiration and solidarity: The Pharisee and the tax collector remain separated - divided by contempt, class, privilege, occupation, habit and theology – and such segregation is NOT of the Lord. That is hubris and discrimination – not the body of Christ inspired by the Spirit of the Lord to bind all ALL flesh together in love. It is the logic of domination as practiced by Imperial Rome or 21st century technocracy that separates us into winners and losers, in crowd and misfits, America-First versus the immigrants, the beautiful people and the despised, the privileged and powerless or just those who idolize the past and fear the future.

In a splendidly Jungian manner, this story calls the lion within us to lay down with the lamb, the dark and fearful to embrace the light of hope, the Spirit to inspire all flesh – male and female, young and old, gay and strait alike – and quit putting whipped cream on BS! We need one another. Dare I say we need a new incarnation of First Church for the 21st century, too.

+  Professor Brueggemann writes that the theological commentary of the Old Testament in general and the theological conviction of the prophets in particular is that God’s steadfast love endures forever. This became a practical resource to protect God’s people past, present and future from surrendering to the vagaries of historical circumstance. God’s word, is always judgment bat also the promise of grace to us forever as a counter to denial, privilege, and despair

+  Perhaps that is why another member of the ancient tribe, NY Times columnist David Brooks, could put it like this: our culture needs a religious voice in the public square now more than at any other time in the history of our republic: We need to become more communitarian in a society that has become too individual. We need to become more moralistic in a society that’s too utilitarian. And we need to be more emotional in a society that is too cognitive. Religion born of humility not hubris speaks those three languages very well.

+  And Jesus closes his message with equal clarity: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Blessed are the humble and broken-hearted… for with less of ourselves taking up all the space there is more room for God and God’s grace that tears down all divisions.

I sense that God has a sacred and glorious new call for this congregation, one that will be smaller and more humble, to be sure – more focused and even more tender, too – and probably more satisfying for the whole of this community. For this to happen I believe it is time for me as a full-time pastor to step back so that the Christ within you may increase. In that spirit I invite you to affirm your faith in the way of the Lord and sing with me:

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all its righteousness
And all these things shall be given unto you: allelu, alleluia.
Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find,
Knock and the door will be opened unto you: allelu, alleluia.

Friday, October 21, 2016

a word of clarification...

So many of you have written to me since my letter of intent to retire earlier this week that I found it vital to be back in touch. Your words have touched my heart and I am grateful. I thought that I was thorough in sharing my reasons, but apparently I left out some of the specifics for our immediate future. In the weeks to come, our Church Council will be sharing with you new insights and plans about ministry and mission at First Church in 2017.  But until those updates, let me offer these clarifying insights:

+ Since my return from sabbatical 18 months ago, Council leadership and I have been in discussion about ways to focus our ministries in ways that strengthen the community and work towards a balanced budget. After a series of house meetings this summer, an ad hoc renewal team was empowered to bring suggestions to Council.  They reported out this past week to Council and soon Council will wrestle with their insights.

+ One that impacts me most clearly is the option to work part-time after our annual meeting in late January 2017. While the terms are still to be negotiated, it will likely be 20 hours per week. This is a bold change from my current call agreement and also represents a serious alteration in compensation and benefits package. So, in order to move enthusiastically into this new ministry, I must find additional compensation.  My plan includes accessing my annuity , and, thus, retirement. In order to satisfy all the administrative entities - including our own call agreement, I must give the required 90 days notice to be in good shape for February 2017.

+ After our annual meeting - where a new budget and mission focus will be fully articulated - my new ministry will begin with an emphasis on worship and pastoral care. At 20 hours per week, this will also give me time to make creative music in pursuit of peace and do the writing I have wanted to work on re: a spirituality of tenderness in harsh and violent times. Again, details are still to be fleshed out, and there is no clear time table re: how long the Spirit will call us into this arrangement. But clearly for the foreseeable future I will be serving as your part-time minister after the start of the New Year. Only after this time of transition will Di and I explore being in Canada.

There is a GREAT deal more to be shared and I trust that Council leadership will be able to update you regularly on the work that is being done in the aftermath of our cottage meetings.. This is a creative and exciting time at First Church so please stay tuned and stay prayerful. 

With great affection and gratitude,

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


NOTE: Here is my letter of intent to retire that I shared with my Council last night and my congregation today. 

October 2016

Dear Friends and Colleagues in Ministry at First Church:

During my sabbatical in Montreal, I began to sense that just as I had once been called “in” to full time pastoral ministry in the summer of 1968, I was probably now being called “out” of this ministry, too. As in all matters of discernment, this is not something I have rushed into. Indeed, over the past fifteen months I have been actively engaged in prayer, study, quiet reflection, professional counsel, family questioning, financial planning and a series of practical experiments concerning what my heart is communicating to my head. In a word, I have been listening deeply to how best to serve God, care for my soul, and share love with those dearest to me. As a result, I am submitting my notice of retirement as Settled Minister of First Church, Pittsfield effective February 1, 2017.

Just as the sacred rhythm of God’s grace teaches the world that there is “a time for every purpose under heaven,” so, too for me: “there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” (Ecclesiastes 3) Everything within me knows that this is my season for leave-taking from full time ministry. Further, given the congregation’s need to move towards part-time ministry, now is the time for me to act. 

+  I am not departing because I have found a better job or more money. Nor am I in conflict with the direction or leadership of our congregation. Dianne and I are simply finished with this phase of ministry; our days of working full time in a local church are over. So just as I have often challenged you in Sunday worship to step out into life with faith, trusting that God is not done with us yet, now is yet another time for us to do so, too. 

+  In order to negotiate a new transitional, part-time position with First Church that will take effect in the New Year, my current call agreement must come to a close. Honoring the protocol of our tradition, this requires a three month notification. Additionally, I must give the Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ three months to prepare my annuity package upon retirement. 

+  And, as some of you know, I also ache to return to Canada. Upon completion of my part-time ministry at First Church (whenever that should come to closure) it is my goal to volunteer with Jean Vanier’s L’Arche Community in either Ottawa or Montreal as part of their ministry to adults with intellectual challenges. Dianne has been eager to respond to the humanitarian crisis of Syrian and North African immigrants fleeing oppression. She will have completed her CELTA certification in English Language Training in May 2017 and hopes to assist refugees in Canada with their transition. I look forward to going deeper into my writing concerning a spirituality of tenderness. And, without qualification, we are going to spend lots of time with our beloved daughters, sons-in-law and grandson.

My retirement comes with full support for Lauryn Levesque’s commitment to help First Church become a vibrant small congregation for the 21 century. I endorse our Church Council’s vow to preserve our unique contemporary ministries while honoring the historic legacy of our congregation in the wider community. And l celebrate the insights and recommendations the Ad Hoc Planning Team led by Jon Grenoble has crafted for our future. I pray you will support them faithfully, too.

There are no good times for a pastor to leave a beloved congregation. Still, I know that this is the right time for me to rest in God’s grace. The Bard of Vermont, one of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, put it best when he wrote: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than the excitement and gladness, touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments – and all life itself is grace.

As I look back upon our ten years together I give thanks to God for our commitment in becoming an Open and Affirming congregation: when First Church took this stand, it spoke volumes to the wider community about God’s love for all of creation. It also put us on notice as allies for all who have experienced religious persecution. 

+  I have been personally blessed by the creativity of our music and worship endeavors over the past five years. I would rank Missa Gaia and Love Supreme as highlights of our liturgical and artistic collaborations. Creating and sharing new music in the service of solidarity with the people of Pittsfield – as well as in public worship – has been holy ground for me. Thus, I owe a debt of gratitude to the various incarnations of Between the Banks with a special love for: Jenna O’Brien, Brian Staubach, Sue Noyes, Eva Perri, Jon Grenoble, Dave McDermott, Elizabeth McCarty, and Dianne De Mott. My artistic/spiritual collaborations with Jon Haddad, Andy and Sue Kelly, Rebecca Maaia, Charlie Tokarz, Grahm Sturz and Linda Worster have been equally sublime. 

+  Being connected with the young people of First Church – musicians and confirmands (and their wonderful families) – has been another source of renewal, hope and deep satisfaction. I am particularly grateful for young musicians like Ethan Wesley, Olivia Kinne, Emory Korte, Catherine and Alida Perri for their willingness and verve in making a joyful and beautiful song for the Lord.

+  Working with five Moderators, Council members and Worship Teams under the guidance of
John Galt, Susan Noyes, Dana Noble, David Noyes and Lauryn Levesque has been enriching. And bringing to fruition the ordination into Christian Ministry of Rebecca Floyd, Robert Hyde and now Elizabeth McCarty has been a unique and sobering privilege for me.

I would be remiss in affection and untrue to my heart if I did not acknowledge the unique, creative and compassionate synergy that became the core of my collaboration with my First Church colleagues: David Grusendorf, Becky Jankowski and Carlton Maaia II. Not every staff loves one another nor works well together for the glory of God – but this crew did – and we have all been the more blessed because of it. Joyfully I have grown closer to many of you as we practiced loving God in community, worship and mission. I have disappointed and even failed some, I know, and rely upon God’s grace as we all move into a new era.

This moment in the life of North American Christian congregations is complex: our culture and our religious habits have changed profoundly. For good and ill, there are more “spiritual but not religious” citizens in our region than ever before. Our personal and public obligations have grown more multi-faceted – and all too harried. Our commitment to the common good has been diminished. So many good people are both anxious and angry about the future. And a growing minority of neighbors prefer a coarse and crude politics celebrating cynicism rather than the pursuit of happiness and social responsibility for all. More than at any other time in my thirty-five years of ordained ministry, I sense a need to nourish a spirituality of tenderness in writing, music-making and community building and I yearn to use my retirement for just such activities.

So thank you for your love and your support. After I take my leave, and conclude whatever part-time service we negotiate, I will uphold the Code of Ethics for Retired Clergy and rigorously maintain clear and respectful personal boundaries like my predecessors. Until that time, however, I pray only blessings and a deepening of God’s guidance for you in the exciting and challenging days ahead.

Grace and peace always,
The Reverend Dr. James Lumsden

Monday, October 17, 2016

to every thing there is a season...

So many endings and beginnings this week:  the anniversary of my father's death and the marriage of "the Belles," the announcement of my retirement from full-time ministry and grandson Louie's third birthday, the falling of stunning autumn leaves and the welcome of Elizabeth into "discernment for ordination." More to say soon... but this picture from the wedding gets it so right!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

taking flight takes courage...

As if the lower back aches and pains were not evidence enough - or the snow white and silver hair - a picture posted on FB this morning puts it all into perspective:  today is Louie's first day of school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

I can remember with vividness his mother's first day of school back in Saginaw, MI. She wore a red corduroy jumper, a white blouse and a green tweed sports coat. She carried her vegetarian lunch in a small Army green back back. There were reddish Buster Brown shoes on her feet as well as white tights. I cried that morning - a mixture of joy, sorrow, anxiety and hope. And I found tears in my eyes this morning seeing my grandson's first day at school picture, too. So many big and competing feelings, yes? 
This aging business is complicated - I love it and sometimes fear it - knowing there is nothing I can do to stop it. This is truly the season for practicing letting go. As Christine Painter wrote earlier this week: 

Autumn is the time of transition, of the earth's turning, with the balance of light and dark in the northern hemisphere tilting toward the dark season and the invitation to release the excess we carry and rest into growing Mystery. It is a season of initiating these great movements across the globe of birds, fish, and mammals following an instinctual call.

I am taken with the mysteries of migration, the inner knowing that rises up in them to embark on a journey, the impulse to swim and fly across great expanses of earth and sea in search of a feeling of rightness that season.

I think of the ancient desert monks who each knew that one day they would have to leave behind the familiar and venture out into the wilderness to seek a space of radical encounter with God. Or the Irish monks who felt called to a particular kind of journey called peregrinatio, which was a pilgrimage for the love of Christ without a destination in mind. The practice was to step into a small boat called a coracle, without oar or rudder, and let the current carry them to the place of their resurrection. They yielded their own agendas and plans to the current of love, trusting in this deeper wisdom at work in water and wind, on behalf of the One who opens the way before us.
So Louie goes to school, we leave to celebrate the marriage of a young woman I first met 20 years ago in Tucson. It is the anniversary of Dianne's father's death 15 years ago and the passing of my own dad just about 2 years ago this week. Sensing some of these transitions - as well as our journey in a few hours - Lucie remained glued to my hip last night. She, too, is aging, no longer the screwy little puppy who would sleep on my boot. Painter closes her reflection with words that speak to this moment in my own soul's migration:

In the Christian contemplative tradition, we are invited to rest more deeply in the Great Mystery, to lay aside our images and symbols, and let the divine current carry us deeper, without knowing where, only to trust the impulse within to follow a longing. As autumn tilts us toward the season of growing darkness, consider this an invitation to yield to the mystery of your own heart's desires. You do not need a map or agenda, simply a willingness to swim in the waters carrying you back home again.

The monks knew the wisdom of embracing a season of unknowing, to wrest from their grip the idols of certainty and security. As mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade says, "a false sense of security is the only kind there is." Of the new things happening you have known nothing until this moment. Taking flight requires courage to ascend into the unfamiliar and unknown.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

on the road again...

We are heading to Kentucky tomorrow. It is a 14+ hour driving trip so we're breaking it up into two seven hour road trips:  Erie, PA on Wednesday and Paris, KY on Thursday. On Friday we'll see the young couple and spend a bit of time with their families as we finalize details on the ceremony. On Saturday, we'll celebrate God's gift of love with these two women in a beautiful outdoor setting. And then, it is back on the road again come Sunday: we'll make it to Frederick, MD that night and visit with my dear sister and her family; and truck on home Monday. as I have church council that night. We're interviewing a woman from the congregation who is ready to enter the ordination process for ministerial standing in the United Church of Christ. And there are a few other major decisions to be addressed at council, too.
After returning from Kentucky, we'll be getting ready for the 9th CROP Walk we've sponsored in Pittsfield. For those who don't know much about CROP Walks, they are a major resource for funding and information sharing about the ministries of economic development and emergency relief organized by Church World Service. (Find out more here @ Dollar for dollar, CWS is one of the best investments going as only 10 cents per dollar goes to any administrative expenses. CWS not only does its homework about long-term needs, but they maintain strong relationships with care givers on the ground. It is a privilege and blessing to be a part of strengthening their work in a broken world. (NOTE: we'll also get a chance to celebrate my main man Louie's third birthday, too!)
Then it is on to implementing new changes in ministry, celebrating Eucharist, caring for the community of faith, All Saints Day, Veterans' Day, Christ the King Sunday - and Advent 2016! All of which is to say that I will not be posting much of anything here for the next week. See you after Kentucky. We raise prayers as our Jewish loved ones enter Yom Kippur. We pray for peace and justice for our sisters and brothers in Syria and Palestine. We grieve with our kin still reeling from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. And trust that our small acts of love - shared with vigor - will bring a bit of hope to those most in need.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

presidential debate #2...

It was unpleasant and sometimes disturbing. It was a race to the bottom a la Jerry Springer et al as is the core of Donald Trump's persona and candidacy. And, with the exception of a highly unsatisfying episode re: deleting State Department e-mails,tonight's second presidential debate showed Hilary Clinton "going high when he went low." Don't get me wrong: she is a barracuda politician who is as ruthless as they come and plays to win. That is both a strength and a weakness depending on who you talk to about her (or any politician, for that matter.)  Nevertheless, her commitment to answering most questions with insight and clear responses stands head and shoulders above Mr. Trump's insults, threats and hyperbole. 

And Mrs. Clinton's reply about the character of both the candidate and the campaign resonated with my values of caring for the common good. She has a big heart - as well as a number of personal and political flaws - in addition to her 30 year track record of caring for others. All that can be said about "the Donald" is that is is a self-promoting narcissist. Sure he has tapped into a long history of manufactured Clinton hatred. Without a doubt, he has grasped that 40% of the American people are afraid and/or confused - for various of reasons ranging from loss of blue collar jobs and the changing demographics of race to terrorism - and has hired the right people to articulate this fear and hatred into wildly emotional sound bytes that make his crowds roar. And let's not forget his mastery of reality TV crudity.  He's a player - good at what he does - but dreadful for both the USA and the world. His erratic and skulking performance tonight was ugly, focused only on cleaning himself of self-inflicted filth, and stopping the loss of political credibility born of his own belligerent hypocrisy. In so many way he was a stalker - and it was creepy.

Let me be blunt: I like Hilary Clinton. Many people - liberals, independents, etc - feel the need to qualify their support for HRC. She's the lesser of evils. She's the realist compared to Trump's lunacy, Stein's ideological rigidity and Johnson's intellectual fog. She's really a Republican but I don't want to throw my vote away. There are probably more reasons why some qualify their support of her bid for the presidency, but not me. I like her thoughtfulness. I like her long history of caring for people on the margins. I like that she can stay focused and poised when bullies try to pull her into the sleaze. I like that she wrestles with the politics of the possible and goes for it with a realistic strategy. I like that she is a Christian realist who understands that most of the time we act in the world in ways that are compromised no matter how  noble our planning or prayers.  I don't like that she's so close to Wall Street. I don't like that she sometimes flirts with telling the whole truth. But I also don't like that she has been forced by those who hate her to carry around a tarnished reputation that is fundamentally untrue. At her core, she is a person I respect and value.

I get that most people - even bright, successful and well-educated people I know and love - don't go much deeper than headlines and bumper stickers so they don't know this aspect of HRC. Who cares why this is true, it is. Hilary has a lot of negatives to overcome and she won't win everyone's hearts by Election Day. Still, I cannot for the life of me understand how people of compassion and conscience can conclude that she is evil incarnate. Or that she is morally compromised - especially when Mr. Trump is her adversary. His record of greed, unethical business practices, bankruptcy, misogyny, race baiting and Islamaphobia disqualify him  from anything related to the common good.  As Dan Rather said, "He gives even con men a bad name."

America has been in murky political waters before: the cronyism of Andrew Jackson, the racism that defined appointments to the Supreme Court up until Harry Truman, the long arm of the robber barons, Watergate, the Democratic machines of Daley and JFK's purchase of the West Virginia's vote are just the low hanging fruit. In time, we weathered these storms and learned from our failures. I trust this will happen again as we find a way through our current morass. I think Mrs. Clinton can help. That's why I will not take take a pass in silence and ignore the destruction Mr.Trump promises in word and deed.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

still more questions re: Jesus and the 10 lepers - part three...

Who could have predicted that I would become fascinated (some might even say obsessed)
with the connections between Luke 17: 11-19 and Leviticus 13-14; as well as the origins and implications of shamanistic rituals within the holiness ceremonies of Israel's priesthood?  Not me - but I am intrigued and wildly engaged in trying to understand what all of this means. And I am increasingly clear that my focus has something to do this quote from Walter Brueggemann:

The book of Leviticus articulates an old and perennial agenda in Israel in which there is an awareness of the radical "otherness" of YHWH who cannot be approached casually, but who can be hosted only with rigorous, disciplined intentionality.  This agenda is rooted in Israel's profound sense of the character of this God who is, at the same time, faithful and ominous.  That sense of God is perhaps intensified in a season of cultural danger.  This reality may provide a clue for our appreciation of the codification of older material in exile or soon thereafter. It is curious of course that by the time of the exile (the season in which Leviticus was formalized)... there was no longer a temple In Jerusalem where sacrifices could be offered and cultic holiness could be practiced. This may suggest that the extended inventory of sacrifices and related materials in the book of Leviticus is to be understood not as a manual for practice, but as a liturgical, aesthetic act of imagination of what the world of Israel is like when it is known to be focused upon glad responses in obedience and sacrifice to YHWH. 
                              (Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination, p. 74)

In other words, the experience of a broken people in exile can be redeemed only by honestly entering the darkness of grief, reconnecting a failed past with the present through a thorough confession, embracing a radically renewed trust in God's incomprehensible grace, and waiting for the Lord to infuse our imaginations with a new vision. Imagination is NEVER a product manufactured by human will but always an inspired gift from beyond our control. The book of Leviticus, therefore, gathers together cultic rituals from Israel's pre-history - ceremonies that suggest a linkage between holiness and social justice - in order that life beyond exile in Babylon might be saturated in careful living and social equality.  "The term holiness," Brueggemann writes, "bespeaks separateness, almost in the manner of an elemental religious taboo, the affirmation that God is so different and distinct from Israel that Israel dare not draw near to God or be in God's presence except with the most careful preparations and qualifications." (Brueggemann, p. 67) At the same time, such intentionality towards God has:

... an ethical direction so that (holiness) may also refer to righteousness and justice according to the requirements of the Torah. The term has such rich and varied usage precisely because it seeks to articulate what is most characteristic, and therefore most hidden and inscrutable about God.

After revisiting the scholarly works of Bernard Anderson as well as Robert and Mary Coote on this matter, I am clear that Brueggemann is on solid ground: Leviticus looks backwards in time to Moses and" the Sinai tradition of covenantal commandments" through the lens of priests enduring the shame of the Jerusalem Temple's destruction and the grief of exile after 587 BCE. The final redactors of Leviticus incorporate traditions and practices that likely extend back as far as 1500-1250 BCE, yet their wilderness story is always informed by the realities of 550 BCE and beyond. These priestly editors may be writing of Moses and the physical desert but their true wilderness involves finding their way through the wreckage of political, spiritual and emotional exile within the presence of the Living God.  As Brueggemann notes about an earlier Torah passage in Exodus:  "If these are episodes told, shaped, and imagined in the sixth century (as now it may be thought for much more of the narrative), then it is possible that the "pharaoh" of at least these particular plagues is readily understood as Nebuchadnezzar, the great and feared Babylonian ruler who assaulted and conquered Jerusalem." (p. 54)

The upshot of such a critical awareness is the chance to see that any episode of the narrative can be read with references to any encounter with overwhelming, abusive power; consequently, the theme of YHWH versus Pharaoh functions not as historical reportage, but as a retelling of paradigmatic confrontation with reference to a particular tyranny and a particular or anticipated rescue. 

Where once I was bewildered by the detail of the holiness rituals and ceremonies in Leviticus -
especially from my training within the non-conformist Reformed tradition - I now understand the character of Leviticus to be both a celebration of ancient Israel's relationship with YHWH, and, a collection of activities designed to restore wholeness to a people broken by either of sin or disobedience. Leviticus is more about reconciliation and grace than I ever imagined.  First, there is personal and community reconciliation. Then, in chapter 19, there is a call to healing between strangers and aliens - the second great commandment of Jesus in the New Testament - love of neighbor.

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be with you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-34)

Then there is the great chapter of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 wherein the blessings of Sabbath rest take on economic and political significance.  "A corpus of commandments that has its focus on cultic purity... readily spills over into the secular (that is, the non-cultic dimensions of life) so that holiness becomes a practice of neighborly justice." (p. 73) Indeed, the whole of Leviticus "underscores the cruciality and urgency of the practice of obedience, of holiness that takes the form of justice." (p. 73) 

Now remember that my investigation into Leviticus started with St. Luke's retelling of a healing involving Jesus and 10 lepers. In all the other settings, Jesus instructs the healed ones to go and present themselves to the priest. So I wondered what this was all about. In the next installment of this unfolding reflection I will outline the complex and clearly prehistoric healing ritual described in Leviticus that seems to be born of Semitic shamans, worship in the Tabernacle and later Temple and then the disruption of exile.


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:...