Tuesday, November 29, 2016

can we walk on common ground...?

We white liberal Americans are a peculiar lot. For all our talk of cherishing solidarity, we are
so addicted to being in control that we rarely realize when we're being condescending. We are quick to name and shame Right wing incivility, crudeness, racism,
misogyny, and fear-mongering, but refuse to own our own shadow phobias like elitism, race/class/gender 
privilege (and let's not even open the door of our antiquated sense of noblesse oblige.) We are boldly certain that education - and money - will heal all our social wounds, but are unable to get our minds around the presence of sin in human nature, politics, or history. Like Jimmy Carter quipped, "America gets the President it deserves." So, apparently, at this moment in time, we deserve a boorish, arrogant con man - a relentless narcissist, know-nothing unable to distinguish truth from lie  - with exaggerated paranoid tendencies and delusions of grandeur.  There, I've said it in print: what I really believe about Mr. Trump. No sugar coating, no politically correct subtitles, and no finessing for those with tissue paper feelings. He is a walking policy disaster with an uncanny genius for tapping into the fear-filled zeitgeist of America. His proposed Cabinet appointments suggest at least four years of mean-spirited demagoguery with long term consequences.

Watching the PBS Newshour last night, the continuing ascendancy of the National Front in
France, the Brexit reaction in England, and the anti-immigrant movement in Germany, reminds me how our encounter with Trumpmania fits within the movement of progress, reaction, hope and despair.  For a useful overview, see Jonathan Haidt's "Why Nationalism Beasts Globalis" here: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/He begins by observing that:

Most analyses published since the Brexit vote focus on economic factors and some version of the “left behind” thesis—globalization has raised prosperity all over the world, with the striking exception of the working classes in Western societies. These less educated members of the richest countries lost access to well-paid but relatively low-skilled jobs, which were shipped overseas or given to immigrants willing to work for less. In communities where wages have stagnated or declined, the ever-rising opulence, rents, and confidence of London and other super-cities has bred resentment. A smaller set of analyses, particularly in the United States, has focused on the psychological trait of authoritarianism to explain why these populist movements are often so hostile to immigration, and why they usually have an outright racist fringe.

Globalization and authoritarianism are both essential parts of the story, but in this essay I will put them together in a new way. I’ll tell a story with four chapters that begins by endorsing the distinction made by the intellectual historian Michael Lind, and other commentators, between globalists and nationalists—these are good descriptions of the two teams of combatants emerging in so many Western nations. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, pointed to the same dividing line last December when she portrayed the battle in France as one between “globalists” and “patriots.”

His conclusion challenges the binary analysis of many liberals who claim an illusionary moral high road while rejecting the current demonization of immigrants so popular among many conservatives. In a word, Haidt notes that multiculturalism works best when resources and opportunities for assimilation are supported, encouraged and celebrated. "Whenever a country has historically high levels of immigration, from countries with very different moralities, and without a strong and successful assimilationist program, it is virtually certain that there will be an authoritarian counter-reaction, and you can expect many status quo conservatives to support it."

That raises two profound questions for me as a straight, white, over-educated man from a world of privilege. First, what is the best strategy for strengthening assimilation?  And second, what activities of solidarity make a lasting difference?  My gut tells me that much of the current reaction to Mr. Trump and his cadre are more about making ourselves feel better through symbolic activity that does nothing to alter the status quo.  Maybe my Advent spirituality is blinding my ethical vision, but this is not the hour for rushing into judgment - especially self-righteous congratulations of moral superiority - or spinning our wheels in busyness. Rather, let us "hurry up and do nothing for the time being except listen, discern and plan" for ways to advance authentic justice and mercy. 

A recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward describes how a New Jersey alliance of Jewish and Muslim women is doing exactly this type of careful work. For six years they have been building bridges - well in advance of the 2016 elections - creating a community of trust in which they are able to wrestle with new problems. Further, their understanding of interfaith cooperation cuts deeper than the usual one-time rally or lecture that brings religious leaders together for 90 minutes but offers nothing beyond. One organizer of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom put it like this: "The Sisterhood has been successful (because we) go beyond the cursory “Abrahamic family” conversations that are so typical of interfaith efforts. Instead of convening a one-time panel discussion between a rabbi and an imam or just getting together to talk about our commonalities over a plate of shared hummus, the Sisterhood provides a space for women to be vulnerable and to learn about one another’s real challenges and concerns.."As part of this learning, we have to listen to each other’s narratives in a safe and controlled environment. We do not have to agree, but we do have to consider other ways of under-standing things. Doing this means hearing things that may not be easy to hear."  Time, relationships and careful listening are critical in this work. The article continues:  

The Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom, a group created six years ago in an effort to build
bridges between local Jewish and Muslim women in New Jersey... started as a handful of women wanting to better understand their neighbors (and has now) grown to 50 chapters, comprising thousands of members, across the United States. Since the election, we’ve received hundreds of requests from Muslim and Jewish women to start new chapters, proving that there is both a need and a willingness within our communities to work together. Our Sisterhood has become a safe haven for women to dialogue about their fears, to listen, to cry together, to seek advice and to find hope. 
The Sisterhood isn’t just a “ladies club.” We’re a peace movement composed of women of faith who believe God has given us the ability to be empathetic and to strive for relationship building over conflict. Our focus isn’t on policy; it’s on people — specifically, on our children and grandchildren. We recognize on a cellular level that it’s worth doing whatever we must to protect those precious lives.
http://forward.com/opinion/355290/ how-do-you-build-a-strong-muslim-jewish-alliance-for-the-trump-era/

Please don't misunderstand: protests and rallies have their place - and I appreciate them. But one time events have limited value in changing a culture in crisis. Standing on the corner with handmade signs is a witness, but a disciplined and sustained relationship over time is where I see real change taking place. Further, I am convinced that the most important resource we can share with new immigrants to our nation is not periodic assemblies of solidarity, but rather teaching English as a second language alongside informal but committed groups dedicated to real assimilation. A one time donation to the ACLU or Berkshire Immigrant Center helps. And yet, becoming a literacy volunteer - or a cultural assimilation advocate - not only welcomes our vulnerable guests into the culture, but shows some of our other citizens why fear and anger is unwarranted. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

advent one 2016...

Today worship felt like church for me: tender, quiet, honest, humble and filled with
beauty within our respective sadnesses and fears. This isn't always the case, right? Sometimes it is just my job - a peculiar and sacred one, to be sure - but sometimes still a job. But today there was a depth and verve to our singing that was palpable. Today there was a gravitas to our prayers that went beyond eloquence and approached truth. Today there was a self-conscious awareness that we need one another. As one person told me after the liturgy:  I found a safety pin on the floor near my seat after worship last week - and it was broken. I took it and now it is at my place of work reminding me of all the brokenness around us...

After worship both Di and I said almost simultaneously: Let's go get some candles and make an Advent wreath!  We haven't had one for the past five-plus years. Who knows why? But this year we were both moved to want such a small symbol of prayer and hope in our house. The nursery right down the street from us make beautiful wreaths; so, with a little rearranging, our live Advent wreath is resting in our quiet living room. It will be a place to ponder the way of the Lord's coming in these strange, anguishing, holy and all too human days.

We won't have family around us this year - other commitments and other travel plans - so we're doing an "adult Christmas" at chez Lumsden/De Mott. It is more candle filled than present oriented. It is more a minor key ancient chant than reworked jazz standards, too. Yes, we will spend a few days next week in "Louis-ville" caring for the little man while his parents celebrate a milestone birthday. But after that, it will be liturgy and soft hymns for a change. Shortly after our Christmas Day Eucharist, I will retreat for a bit of solitude before we head to Montreal together for Christmastide - and New Year's Eve!

This morning I began worship using the collect for the first Sunday in Advent from the Book of Common Prayer. ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

The words of this day - a broken safety pin at work, the works of darkness, singing like angels, let's make an Advent wreath this year - each and all are filled with promise. In an essay I have been working on for the past week, Walter Brueggemann writes that our dominant culture believes that "bread must be guarded and not shared; that each must live against all, with no ground for community; and that silence can authenticate the status quo."  To which Professor B adds:  the preacher cannot subvert the status quo with equally bold and loud ideological slogans; rather, she must share small acts of compassion that feed hope and ask others to do likewise. "Then, these local cherished memories seed or reimagine our reality outside of the killing fields that our (dominant culture) takes as normative."

Today, we shared bread and wine - we embraced one another and sang with gusto and beauty. Today there were young and old, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, savvy and intellectually challenged, kind and fearful all together. Tomorrow, perhaps, this blessing will be multiplied with another act of tender sharing by one who remembers. That is my hope - and that is my Advent prayer.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

o come, o come emmanuel: advent and confession...

Tomorrow Sunday, November 27, 2016 marks the start of Advent in the Christian tradition.  For
most of my days as a clergy person I have emphasized the spiritual practice of waiting during this season.  Early on, I was influenced by the wise Gertrud Mueller-Nelson.  Her book, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (1986), is my go-to primer on liturgical feast and fast days. As a Jungian-Roman Catholic educator, with children of her own and an active life of participation in a faith community, her insights are practical and profound. On Advent she notes:

It is Advent and, along with nature, we are a people waiting. Far out of the south, the winter light comes thin and milky. The days grow shorter and colder and the nights long. Try as we may, we cannot fully dismiss the fundamental feelings that lie deep at our roots, a mixture of feelings dark and sweet. Will the sun, the source of our life, ever return? Has the great light abandoned us? We are anxious from the separation and feel an obscure guilt. We know there are vague disharmonies that keep us at odds. But our longing for union is passionate. This year we want our Christmas to be different. We want to be touched this season - moved at a level the lies deep in us and is hungry and dark and groaning with a primal need. Like the receptive fields, we lie fallow and wanting. The dark, feminine, elusive quality of our receptivity is not helpless passivity. We are willing to receive the Spirit. We wait to be impregnated. "Drop down dew, O heavens, from above. Let the clouds rain forth the Just One. Let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior. (p. 60)

Since my first days of ordination, her guidance has shaped my preparation and instruction during Advent:  this is a feminine season of faith where we practice being pregnant and patient. Waiting is the discipline of the hour. "The more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry ... (because we sense that ) waiting is unpractical time, good for noting, yet mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming."

As in pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, backing, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of becoming and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a life of value. 

This year, however, without denigrating any of these truths, my heart is urging me to reclaim the equally ancient penitential nature of the Advent season. I had been feeling this all year long given the bravado and brutality of the Presidential campaign.  So much hubris bandied about in ugly and self-righteous ways without a hint of depth or insight. While driving 14+ hours to a wedding in Kentucky, however, we listened to Krista Tippett's conversation with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne wherein Mr. Brooks said:

I wrote this book where Augustine was central as was the awareness of sin that is central to Niebuhr — that we are more sinful than we think even when we think we’re taking the purest action, and we have to be aware of that sinfulness. But how do you talk about sin in modern America? I had gone on the Charlie Rose show... and talked about my book before it came out, and I had talked about the word “sin." I got an email from an editor in New York at a different publishing house, and he said, “I love the way you were talking about your book, but I didn’t like the way you used that word ‘sin.’ It’s a downer. Use the word ‘insensitive’ instead.” And so I forwarded his email to my editor at Random House — it was sort of a test of him — and he said, “Well, that’s why you’re writing the book, to redeem sin.” But then how do you talk about it?

You really can’t talk about “original sin.” People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of “disordered loves” which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them.

Disordered loves. Does that ever sound like the United States at this moment in our collective history? The texts for Sunday echo this truth like our Eucharistic anthem:  the prophet Isaiah raises up a vision of shalom on God's holy mountain where all people will live as kin, beating our swords into ploughshares; while the Gospel of Matthew speaks of a mysterious time of judgment that will come upon us like the flood of Noah's days. It is a dialogue we have long abandoned, a deep truth about how to live into a sacred balance that honors the reality of grace and wrestles with the sin within and among us. This moment in time is more than a passing season of insensitivity.  It is an era of sin writ large nourished on arrogance, denial and 

All the more reason to reclaim Advent's penitential emphasis alongside the spiritual practice of patience and waiting.  Tomorrow, during worship, my message is essentially an invitation to pilgrimage.  Let's learn - or relearn - how to confess our disordered loves - trust God's quiet grace on the road of repentance - and awaken ourselves to the presence of the Lord in the most unlikely places.  Station One on this Advent journey offers people a seed.  All I could find were fennel seeds so that will suffice as an object lesson.  The invitation of Advent is to turn away from the mega-promises and addictions to bigger is better and choose to trust that something so small when planted - and nourished and cultivated - can bring us blessing. We want to challenge ALL in the injustices of this hour. We want to repent from ALL our sinful ways and redeem ALL our wounds, but that is just not going to happen.  Consequently, because we want it big and we want it all right now, we slip into despair or rage or shame or blame and become what we hate:  immobilized people of privilege who are masters of convincing ourselves that depression is really divine contemplation. 

Advent teaches that is a self-indulgent lie that we must confess and turn away from:  how is the season to trust the folly of the Cross.  Most of us want to gaze sentimentally upon Christ's cradle, but Advent tells us the Cross is always our destination.  So, this year, despite my feelings and decades of training, I'm going to enter Advent as a journey into confession. "O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel."

Friday, November 25, 2016

the cost of discipleship...

This morning I woke early (for me) and got myself ready for today's baptism:  what a great way
to greet the day after America's Thanksgiving. No Black Friday foolishness here; no fretting about whether my words would ruffle some pampered feathers  either; just 
a quiet time of prayer and reflection on Scripture with an extended family I love. Over this past year, two young women in their teens discerned a call to discipleship. They wanted to be baptized in their grandparents' home church, too. So, while the wider family congregated for the annual feast of thanks, about 30 took time out this morning to welcome two young Christians into the circle of faith. 

I began by explaining that today's liturgy, while informal, involved taking vows:  baptismal vows. Other vows have been celebrated in our Sanctuary including marriage and ordination vows. When a parent speaks the baptismal vows for their child, the ceremony becomes a celebration of God's unearned grace: a small infant cannot earn or even desire the blessings honored in these vows of intention. When a young woman or man chooses baptism, however, another part of our theology comes into focus:  discipleship.  Perhaps that is why I chose both Romans 12: 1-2 and Matthew 11: 28-30 as the Scriptures for this gathering.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

St. Paul, who was often caustic and disagreeable, was writing from prison about the heart of
discipleship. And in his final written communication with the young Body of Christ he called the church, he reminded them of something he affirmed in his heart: the counter-cultural nature of sharing God's love in public.  Such compassion always challenges Empire - and our era is in need of this love as much as any in history. To listen carefully, to be present with those in need through hard times, to call out hatred and fear is no easy task.  That is why baptism always points to the Cross.  The Cross documents the extent to which God's love will endure suffering. This is part of the cost of discipleship. I also reminded these young women that none of us can do this kind of loving all by ourselves: we need strength from above. That's what Jesus promises in Matthew 11: 28-30. "Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you... rest." Jesus was also lead us into the "unforced rhythms of grace," too.

As the baptismal liturgy unfolded, I could see from the eyes and faces of the young people gathered that some simultaneous translation was in order. Not that people were disinterested - far from it. But insider theological terms like "salvation" or "born again" often carry baggage in these trying times. So I was not going to give the culture's shallow or mean-spirited definitions of the Gospel a pass this morning.  As I spoke about the symbolism of the baptismal font, the multiple means of water in scripture and tradition, what it means to die to sin and rise to new life guided by God's inspiration, etc. I could see young faces connecting the dots of between their lives and the ancient language of the liturgy.  It was another small sign of hope in a weary era, confirmation that the news of Jesus continues to be good even after all these years.

And when the vows and prayers were done, all 30 of us crowded around the baptismal font, took one another's hands and bowed our heads as I led a family blessing prayer. After the ceremony, two comments struck deep. The first was the stunned question about our use of the rainbow in the Sanctuary:  "do you know what that means?" asked one person in apprehension. To which a congregation member replied, "Of course, it means that all people - and all religions and genders - are welcomed here in the safety of God's loving community." To which a deep smile of gratitude arose. The second was the reaction after I reminded the folk that while our Cross is lovely and artistic, the Cross of our Lord was vile, bloody and painful, which prompted the reply:  We so often miss the true cost of discipleship, don't we?

As I drove home I sensed that this is the calling of our congregation as we move into the 21st century: small, humble acts of worship and service that both explain and honor the counter-cultural grace of Christ's disciples

Thursday, November 24, 2016

thanksgiving 2016...

Thanksgiving Day in the United States is simultaneously wonderful and troubling. It is, of course, the day many of us gather to feast on turkey with all the trimmings including mashed potatoes, stuffing, squash and pumpkin pie. Often family members trek many miles to be a part of this feast after not seeing one another for most of the year. It has become part family reunion, part banquet, part national day of rest, and part celebration of our respective blessings. That's the wonderful part:  Thanksgiving is born of our national mythology wherein  America rises to become a generous, freedom sharing people living in the world with gratitude. From the sanitized story of Squanto - an indigenous Patuxet citizen who was sold into slavery in 1614 only to return to New England six years later - to the songs of the Pilgrims who came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom, this holiday is saturated in romanticism.  There have been times when I have even spoken of it as an American Eucharist.

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessings
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

The troubling dimension for most white folk appears whenever the veneer of our myth is peeled back to reveal a more complex and sometimes brutal reality. Like the earliest white settlers committing genocide in the name of religious and racial superiority. Or the legacy of slavery. Or the wars we have waged to protect American business interests abroad that were advanced by lies, manipulation of our patriotism, and fear-mongering. Or the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Or our refusal to come to the aid of European Jewry in their hour of need. Or the prohibition of universal suffrage for women and people of color. Or American apartheid. This list is too long to continue, but you get my point. Our legacy of altruism is at best compromised and often laced with lies.

Not that other nations don't share a comparable level of deception. They do. But many of them are more prone to own the contradictions and failures of their histories. They know there is a wisdom in confession that is good for the national soul. We in the United States, however, avoid owning our complicity in the suffering of others in epic proportions. Small wonder that our pathological unwillingness to look at our collective shadow - and its consequences - locks so many of us into immaturity - or worse. The rise of the so-called "alt.right" is just the most recent example of sacralizing our sins:  we rewrite and reinterpret reality to demonize some while elevating ourselves as the champions of virtue, hope and democracy.  No less an advocate of real American values, Pete Seeger, once confessed that he was reduced to tears of shame and confusion during the late 1960s when First Nations people as well as young feminists and people of color asked him to quit singing Woody Guthrie's "This Is Your Land." Langston Hughes got closer to the truth when he wrote in the 1930s that "America ain't been America to me." In time, Seeger rewrote some of the folk song's lyrics to reflect our more complex history with greater accuracy.

So, as my small family celebrates Thanksgiving 2016 this year (most will be away in NYC) I am struck by the contradictions of this feast day - especially in light of the non- violent battle currently being waged between the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and the big oil interests of Energy Transfer Partners in North Dakota. A local Williams College graduate was one of the critically injured allies at Standing Rock when law enforcement troops turned water cannons on the protestors and shot rubber bullets into the crowd  Another ally, a local catering firm left Massachusetts a few days ago (with support from the tribe) to bring Thanksgiving dinner to 500 encamped at the protest site: "We are talking 30 pasture-raised turkeys, donated by Bill Nieman from BN Ranch in Northern California, and spit-roasted by Stanton and crew. Volunteers will prepare other dishes as well. The dinner was the brainchild of Judy Wicks, activist and former owner of the Black Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, who used to host Native American Thanksgiving dinners at the Cafe, and invite Native Americans from that region."

I love Thanksgiving - I always have - and I pray that I always will. But this year, in a unique way, I am more attuned to the anguish it evokes, too.  The NAACP expressed my gratitude better than I ever could when they wrote:

We are thankful for our powerful history written through the lives of those who sacrificed so much over the last century. We are thankful for the courageous activists in our 2,200 units across the country fighting to realize the promise of America — as we speak. We are thankful that, in the face of Jim Crow 2.0 voter suppression during the campaign, the NAACP went to court ten times — and won. We are thankful that, when children were poisoned with lead-tainted water in Flint, we filed suit against the wrongdoers.  We are thankful that, amidst this Twitter-age civil rights movement, our activists are not only online but also in the streets peacefully and forcefully seeking justice. We are thankful that our members and supporters not only speak powerfully with words, but also in the eloquence of example — as you know, when we elect a president, we do not "de-elect" our ability as citizens to speak truth to power.

A colleague in the United Church of Christ, the wise and insightful poet and pastor Maren Tirabussi, wrote words that resonate with me for this year, too:

I am thankful the people missing
from my Thanksgiving table
were people I loved --
not everyone has
my lucky, lucky tears.

I am thankful for a country
where the least likeable person
could be elected president,
but that many of us are not afraid
to protest his threats
against those
who must be very afraid.

I am thankful for my alcoholism
giving birth to a recovery
that blesses me
with empathy,
a few tools to help others,
also a small liquor store bill.

I am thankful that my dogs
are rescued,
my books are second-hand,
my singing makes people laugh,
and Leonard Cohen sang
about the broken Hallelujahs
I’ve known all my life.

I am thankful that my death
is closer than my birth,
so I have a deep reservoir
of tender memories,
but, if I lose them, like my parents did,
there are people who will try
every day to make my life sweet --
family and friends,
and some gentle paid people,
so even my neediness
helps somebody make a living.

I am thankful for prayer,
the many faces and names of God
around the world,
the Spirit that prays me like a fiddle
or a child’s game in the sand –

when the tide comes in
and even my thankful is quiet.

Later this day, as we're preparing our food, I will finally get a chance to listen to Carrie Newcomer's new CD, The Beautiful Not Yet, that has sat on my desk for nearly a month. Then
when Dianne and I sit down to our small feast, all of these truths will join us at the banquet table as guests, memories, partners and prayers. This is a time, as Cornel West wrote earlier this week, for us to become the hope another needs.  I pray that we can do this together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

come on up for the rising...

For over 30 years this night has been holy ground for me: Thanksgiving Eve. Inspired
both by Bob Franke's wonderful song and Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie's historic Thanksgiving weekend concerts at Carnegie Hall, I started doing American music festivals in the various churches I served. In Saginaw, MI my friends Tom and Donna (and sometimes Bob) joined me and my ex for three wonderful events. In Cleveland, OH we did something similar with Don and Harvey and Roger. In Tucson, AZ the gig grew into something like a cross between Lyle Lovett's Large Band and The Last Waltz with a huge ensemble of musicians as well as a core house band. 

And for 8 years we did much the same here in Pittsfield, MA.  It snowed like a mofo two years ago, however, and we had to cancel. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and liberating. We followed up with a show in January but haven't tried to duplicate the groove since January 2014. Yes, we did perform a most excellent rendering of Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia: Earth Mass" last year at about this time. And followed up with a Good Friday take on John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme at 50" but we've let the American Music Festival rest for the time being.  And it has been the right call even as some grow restless for a new perspective - and finally I think I have it.
Here's the core of an idea:  before the next Presidential inauguration - on Sunday, January 15 in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday - maybe we could host a "Songs of Solidarity" concert that would bring back the key performers from our TGE gigs and raise money and a whole lotta music for local groups fighting for compassion in both the immigrant and LGBTQ communities?  I don't have any of the details yet, but before I retire and move into part-time employment I think this gig is essential. Not only does it advance the "10 foot rule" - giving time and energy to healing the hurts that exist in a 10 foot circumference rather than fretting about the macro picture that only breeds despair - but it reclaims the joy of making beautiful music together in the middle of winter on a sacred, secular holy day that celebrates many of our deepest values and dreams.

Last night I got an affirmation from two of my oldest musician friends. And after choir practice a few of our church band members indicated how healing it has been to resume playing together. So, let's see where this might go. I'm already hearing something like this in my head...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

the ten foot rule...

As the Trump cabinet is slowly announced - and "the Donald"once again executes his evil genius for distraction on the American people (e.g. Hamilton) - people of faith, hope and love should be clear:  this is going to get much worse before it gets better. Already real people we care about are being hurt and harassed. The Internet is on fire with hate and threats. And anxiety about immigration and civil rights for people of color and the LGBTQ community have reached a fever pitch. We know the track record of people like Jeff Sessions et al and it does not bode well for our future.

What my gut tells me is that this is the hour for many of us to embrace the "10 feet" rule once articulated by Jean Vanier.  Essentially, it calls for loving action - even fierce resistance to evil - in ways that are immediate and close to home.   Act on what you can touch and know 10 feet around you. It is too easy to become immobilized with fear, worrying about events and people we can never touch and missing those we can. To paraphrase the late Pete Seeger, "This is a time to think globally and act locally."  Some of the implications of this for me include:

+ Waking up to the under belly of a cruel and vicious culture. For many of us, myself included, this moment in time exposes the reality of our land to anyone with eyes to see:  there is virulent racism, sexism, xenophobia and economic exploitation all around us. It has always been this way for people of color and women. The current regime has now brought it out into the open. And while some of us could look the other way and get by because of our race, class and economic privilege, that is NOT what the spirit of Jesus requires. We are to be in solidarity - taking risks - practicing a conscious form of race, class and gender suicide. We will make dreadful mistakes. We will encounter staggering blindspots. And our fear of getting it wrong cannot bind us to inaction or indecision. 

+ Committing to the nonviolent love of Christ. Some people have started to play the blame/shame game. But whether that is trumpeting what Bernie might have done (debatable) or demonizing potential allies (an exercise that soils some with guilt without changing the status quo) the result is still fear and loathing. Now is the time for constructive and disciplined small acts of love that help real people within our communities. This is not to excuse violence and hatred - injustice, stupidity and cruelty must be called out clearly - even as we work in opposition.  But it is too easy to become the evil we hate and be blinded by self-righteous fury, unguarded words and an inflated sense of self-importance. The path of Jesus is to be a servant to one another, not a bully.

+ Learning to listen carefully.  Some have told me - and I've experienced it myself - how shocked they were when Mrs. Clinton lost. As I've posted before, for many middle class, white liberals it feels like a death has occurred. And, truth be told, that is true - but it is the death of our privileged illusions that have died so that the harder truths might be seen and healed.  SNL did a biting satire on the shock many felt watching the November election returns - a surprise that was not part of the community of color - as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle make so clear. 

+ Saying out loud what is hurting. One of the truths I have experienced in ministry is that some people in pain think others should be able to read their mind.  We can't - and we ought not take on blame for not knowing what another needs.  In the "Servant Song" is this verse:  "I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you; I will share your joys and sorrows til we've seen this journey through."  The key for me is the word share - I can't share what hasn't been offered - nor can I know things kept in secret. When a need is expressed, however, people of good will can respond. Most of the time, however, most of us are so jammed just trying to get through our own day - already filled with our own pain and activities - that we simply don't have eyes to see or ears to hear. Ignorance can certainly be born of privilege, but also of silence. So now more than ever our communities of faith are being called on to find ways of helping one another share our wounds.

Americans of all spiritualities and political backgrounds are not very good at confession - and that is causing trouble now, too. Justin Trudeau, for example, has been clear about the hurt and sin his dominant class has inflicted upon the vulnerable and oppressed. Confession does not change the past, but it does awaken us to how we have injured others overtly and covertly. It also helps us reorder our priorities for the present as we consciously choose to act with greater kindness and compassion.  When we own our own complicity in sin, we cultivate a greater humility and a larger heart. And humble people of compassion are clearly needed in this hour of uncertainty and increased fear. 

One thing more: in these times of crises, there are always people who rise to the occasion and live as servants of solidarity.  That is part of the balance of God's creation:  cruelty is not the only story of this hour, there is also courage and compassion. I see that every day and suspect that it will increase over the next few years. This is a grand opportunity for people of the heart to reach out beyond our comfort zone and dismantle privilege in pursuit of love and truth.

Monday, November 21, 2016

moving into thanksgiving...

In two months I will retire from full-time ministry. Yes, I will still be serving part-time (in
some still to be negotiated fashion) with my congregation in Pittsfield. Yes, I will continue to lead and shape worship and pastoral care for 20 hours each week. And, yes I will be present for our various church emergencies, too. But for the first time in 35+ years, I will no longer be doing ministry full-time.  

The magnitude of this shift is enormous for me beginning with my self-identity but also how I intend to spend my days. Others regularly fail to grasp why this matters so much to me. So as I have noted in the past, it is long past the time when I think of myself primarily as a pastor. Not that pastoring is unimportant, but at this stage in my life it is too self-limiting and publicly too rigid. To paraphrase Barbara Brown Taylor: I can't take being treated like the holiest person in the room any more. (NOTE: You might read her brilliant spiritual memoir, Leaving Church, for other great insights) She continues: would have to say that at least one of the things that almost killed me was becoming a professional holy person. I am not sure that the deadliness was in the job as much as it was in the way I did it, but I now have higher regard than ever for clergy who are able to wear their mantles without mistaking the fabric for their own skin. As many years as I wanted to wear a clerical collar and as hard as I worked to get one, taking it off turned out to be as necessary for my salvation as putting it on. Let me explain more thoroughly using two other quotes from Leaving Church::

+ First, just as a person is truly called "into: ministry, I have discerned that I have now been called "out of" it, too. Taylor quotes the wise Walter Brueggemann in relationship to her own movement beyond serving God in the local church. "The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you,' he said, 'by the grace of God.'" This shift goes way beyond whim. It cuts deeper than the passing emotions many clergy feel given the ups and downs of our unique work. For me, it feels as if something has been taken away from my core - lifted out of my soul - but also off of my shoulders so that I no longer comprehend ministry the way I once did. It feels lighter - as if a burden has been lifted that I have struggled to carry for the past few years - but also emptier. Paradoxical, yes?  

What is currently vexing me most about this shift is how monstrously hard it is for me to give up nearly 40 years of thoughts, habits, practices, and perspectives that have nearly all been focused on helping a congregation stay on track. Incrementally I have been trying to "let go" since April given the various transitions taking place in our faith community. This fall, however, I found my leave-taking to be excruciating. For reasons both my own as well as those beyond my control, I must learn to let people make their own mistakes. I said to Dianne just the other day: "I like to quote Ecclesiastes 3 to people re: the cycle of dark and light, blessings and curses, hope and despair. But mostly when I say, "To everything there is a season..." what I really mean is that I only want the singing, dancing, laughter and celebration not the silence, mourning, tears, repentance and loss of control. I know it doesn't work that way, but that's what I really want!" So as I move from full-time ministry into retirement, I am finding that I must learn a whole new vocabulary and set of habits -all of which is more complicated than I ever imagine - not bad, mind you, but still hard.

+ Second, what I was once called to do in my ministries with the church no longer gives me joy or life: it has changed, too.  This is not simply because I've learned a few things along the way that work better than others; rather, it has something to do with sensing that my new call goes beyond what most traditional ministry requires. The Reverend Dr. Taylor puts it like this: 

In a quip that makes the rounds, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom, but it was the church that came. All these years later, the way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it. We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium. If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these deep contradictions in our life together, then I think that is because God is faithful even when we are not.

What I began to grasp on sabbatical in Montreal - and what has been confirmed over and again since our return - is that no matter how creative and committed we are to rebuilding our ministry, God has made certain that it must be done with more humility than ever before. I keep seeing the Taize liturgy we shared during our last week in Montreal as the paradigm:  there was lots of sung/chanted prayer and silence, incense and candles interspersed with icons, Psalms and Gospel, shared reflections and quiet departures - with a simple fellowship hour afterwards for those who wanted more connections - and a radical sense of simplicity. Hell, everyone sat on the floor (except those who couldn't and small seats were arranged for their comfort) so the whole experience was anti-hierarchy. Everyone's comments were welcomed, there was no planned "message," and everyone participated as the Spirit moved within and among us. No committees. No evaluations. No hoops to jump through: just Jesus and the silence in the midst of candles and beautiful music.  Taylor got it right when she wrote:

What if people were invited to come (to church) to tell what they already know of God
instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?

I no longer have any abiding interest in church administration even as I struggle to let go of my old habits. I have no need to prove myself as a preacher or teacher either. I simply want to nourish the love of Christ within and among a simple and faithful - albeit human and humble - group of real people. More than I ever realized, it is complicated to know one truth and move into an emerging identity. That's why I have made certain that this week will be slow and quiet for me.  I have unplugged from every and all  institutional commitments. Tomorrow I will finalize my preparations for the first Sunday in Advent (Sunday, November 27th) so that Di and I can move into a quiet Thanksgiving holiday where we cherish gentle intimacy.  The snow has arrived. The cold and gray skies, too. I LOVE this time of year:  maranatha - come, Lord Jesus, come.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

a winter festival on christ the king sunday...

Forty one brave Berkshire souls made it to worship this morning - and it made my heart sing!
We were missing two of our beloved musicians, but the band sang with beauty and integrity. The snow made us all feel a little child-like - and in these days of sorrow and deep reflection that is not a bad thing - not to evade our calling beyond privilege. But, rather, to simply rejoice in the beauty of God's love.  So we did...

... and as so often happens in these moments, I discarded most of my worship notes and simply asked the gathered faithful:  what the criminals on either side of Jesus in the appointed gospel lesson said to them?  Who are the voices of anger, fear and confusion? Who are the voices of acceptance, humility and tender hope? I asked about the names they used for Jesus and then how they prayed for balance in unsettling times:  why not use your hymnal as a prayer primer?  We played hymnal roulette:  let the book fall open and see what words pop up; what are they saying to you right this moment? It was fun and restorative.
Then we sang Point of Grace's "This Is Your Land" in remembrance of our transgendered friends who have gone home to God this past year.  We broke bread and shared the cup of blessing, too. And returned thanks that we could be community together. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

the limits of subtle subversion redux...

Yesterday I wrestled with naming the shadow side of a reality that infects the life of every
pastor I know:  balancing our call to subtly subvert our collective addiction to the dominant culture with love vs. being reduced to a "quivering mass of availability."  As I walked through the quiet woods yesterday afternoon in what is likely the last warm day of autumn in the Berkshires, I thought of three, broad manifestations of this challenge.

First, the sense that everything that happens in a faith community necessitates the pastor's presence.  This is rampant in small and mid-size congregations where participation in every coffee hour, every social event and every mission project are judged somehow incomplete unless the minister engages the activity with gusto. Showing up is not enough to satisfy the "attendance police." It doesn't matter that most clergy are introverts who are drained by social events - including giving their all during Sunday worship. The hardships of the past week - or the day to come - are rarely factored into theses demand for participation either. Nor is the fact that liturgy literally means the work of the people - not just the clergy - a factor many remember in the life of most churches. Once upon a time, well before people became so pathologically overcommitted, you could say, "We are NOT a church where the minister ministers and the congregation congregates" and many would offer a hearty "Amen!" Not so much in the 21st century.  

Consequently, contemporary clergy people must carefully strategize how best to be available for these events - and for how long - lest both soul and energy be depleted.  I wrestle with this every week. There is rarely a Lord's Day when I don't encounter someone after worship who doesn't have a question or personal issue necessitating my private attention. Almost never! That means I am not available for schmoozing and eating donut holes. No matter that I often learn things from being present at coffee hours or potlucks, the demands of time and intensity usually take me away from making general connections with people so that I can be fully present with specific individuals in need. Sadly, no matter how clearly and often this is explained, some simply refuse to understand. Some even hold it against their minister. This is annoying at first, but becomes exhausting over the decades. 

Second, is the expectation that a pastor must "eat" whatever outrageous critique or complaint like a lamb being led to slaughter and suffer in silence.  Call it the consequence of a "Jesus meek and mild" mindset in adolescent Christianity, or simply the cruelty of your congregation's soul vampires, every church has a cadre of mean-spirited folk
who believe theyt can rant at their minister - sometimes in vicious and truly ugly ways - without getting it back. And, God forbid, should a clergy person finally say, "You know, you are so full of shit that I can't endure this conversation any more" and leave...! Well, then the pastor is being disrespectful and maybe even unfit to serve. There is a place, of course, for patience in disagreements. There is a place for anger and even deep conflict, too. Yet the learned expectations rarely encourages or supports a pastor's reply to unfair and unjust criticism - and this, too can become demoralizing and debilitating.

Once, early in one of my calls, I was challenged unexpectedly in a public meeting by a few with complaints that were trumpeted in a cruel and degrading manner.  It was obvious that this was considered acceptable behavior by the brazen nature of the complaint. My first reaction was a searing shot of anxiety stabbing my solar plexus as well  as an immobilizing sense of shame. Then, my fight or flight reflexes kicked in and I wanted to pummel and belittle my accusers. But by practicing centering prayer in that moment - and for years before - I was able to say, "Why do you choose to say such things to me in public in such an angry and hurtful way?  There may be a way I can be helpful, but not when you accuse and insult me. So why did you say this to hurt my feelings? That is just cruel."  The complainers were shocked into silence before fumbling with a generic apology.  To which I replied, "I don't need and apology. I need you to ask my forgiveness when you realize how hurtful you have been.  We must find another way to ask for help - or even call into question various actions - because Christians are called to rise above cruelty."

Be forewarned: there are a variety of consequences to practicing giving back in love as good as you've gotten in fear or anger. First, some will be shocked and offended. Second, you will feel like a whole and honest person for a moment in your ministerial role. Third, you will be challenged by some of your leadership team who are not used to accountability and candor. Fourth, you will have to discern which battles are worth the fall-out. And fifth, you will model for the congregation spiritual and personal integrity - rather than broken passivity -  in the midst of conflict that will be misunderstood but eventually affirmed and even practiced.

Third, and perhaps the most frustrating shadow of our subversive ministries, is the
practice of people unloading and dumping their anxiety, fear and problems on you without any commitment to repentance.The late Father Martin, a Roman Catholic priest who used to do "Chalk Talks" in support of AA, once put it like this:  I no longer take visits from people who aren't serious about getting well. I will meet with anyone one time to hear their story and share love with them over their wounds. But then I tell them:  if you want to keep talking, you have to do your work. If you don't take my advice, then our time together is done. I will continue to pray for you and love you, but I won't let you waste our time. So either make a commitment right now to change your direction and try what I suggest, or, take yourself to the door, ok?

He is right:  life is too short. My life. Your life. All our lives. And while I know it is the human condition to procrastinate and practice denial more than confession, it is also drains your soul when people who could make a change refuse to do so. Some clearly don't want to change - they want pity. Others are afraid of change and are either too confused or too addicted to their wounds to change direction.  While still others haven't hit bottom yet and haven't owned their brokenness. I have learned that this is personally deadly after many years of being asked to sit idly by while hurting people rehearse out loud their sorrows while steadfastly refusing to repent and get well. These days I no longer accept these appointments. There is push back, of course, from individuals and leaders who choose to misunderstand my commitment to healing:  God wants us to become whole - and more often than not this demands a change of direction. Repentance. Doing the hard inner and outer work of salvation, that is, full health.  Ministry is not about enabling, it is about embracing the mystery of the Cross and trusting that as we go through the pain we will be set free, too.

Once I was asked by a seminary professor what advice I would give to students about to be ordained. I had a laundry list of practical insights ranging from finding friends outside the congregation, securing a trusted spiritual director, etc. Ten years after making this first list, I would add wrestling with these three specific shadow aspects of ministry, too. 

(NOTE: I have used some of the brilliant contemporary icons by Robert Lentz here to evoke the mystery of ministry. Clergy and congregation are in a relationship - not a job description - that is much more about mutual love and sharing than performing a series of tasks. This, too, is often poorly understood. These icons suggest how ministers are changed just as profoundly by repentance and love as congregants.)

Friday, November 18, 2016

the limits of subtle subversion in ministry in 2016...

One of the truths I have consciously wrestled with personally and professionally over the past three years - and clandestinely for 35 years - has to do being grounded in grace. Walter Brueggemann notes that the essence of Christian preaching is sharing a sub-version of reality with our congregations that not only challenges our addiction to the
dominant culture - and the privileges it awards to those who bow down to Cesar -- but encourages us all to boldly trust God's grace, abundance and love.  Eugene Peterson says much the same thing in his reflections on preaching noting that preachers must subversively lure people away from idolatry and into the embrace of grace. And M. Craig Barnes suggests a similar point in his brilliant Pastor as Minor Poet. What is missing from the insights of these masters, however, is the simultaneous blessing and curse that accompanies such subversive living.

Strategically I know Brueggemann et al to be right: "The preacher has on her hands a Subject (God) who is not obvious and a mode of speech that is endlessly open and demanding... that makes preaching deeply demanding in a congregations schooled in one-dimensional, techno- logical certitude. The offer of such technological certitude, however, not only misreads the text and the God of the text; it seriously distorts and misrepresents the true human scene, as every pastor knows, for the human scene is one of endless zones of contradiction and endless layers of interpretation, no one of which can ever be more than provisional.... (That is why) my thesis is that preaching is a sub-version. Preaching is never dominant version, never has been...(for) the dominant version of reality is the swoosh, Nike, 'life for winners' of a private, individualized kind who can make it in the market or in the sports arena, who live well, are self-indulgent but who never get involved in anything outside of their own success. (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World, p. 5)

The good professor posits that the calling of the preacher and pastor is to sub-vert the dominant reality that imprisons us all:  the well-to-do as well as the poor and middle class.  The blessing of this for both pastor and congregation involves building trust and sharing love in ways that help us learn to let go of our addiction to winning. It is a slow and never complete process for individuals and churches. It requires a long commitment to a discrete group of people - part of the scandal of particularity - and an even longer vision of "the moral arc of the universe that bends ever so slightly towards the good."  I have been blessed countless times by subversive living and know it is essential to ministerial longevity and honoring the movement of grace in our lives.

At the same time, however, I have experienced the starvation of my soul in service to such subversive living, too.  We all pick our battles, of course, as clergy, spouses, parents, musicians and participants in the public life of our communities. But all too often the shadow side of this long obedience robs clergy of passion and verve.  Stanley Hauwerwas puts it best when he writes that we become a "quivering mass of availability" rather than tender-hearted servants of mercy, compassion and justice.  This may be a necessary trade-off for sojourning with a community of faith, but it can also destroy our passion for serving the Lord. That is why I have come to believe that there must be another way to advance grace while preserving a measure of personal spiritual passion. It comes with a price - conflict and congregational discomfort always accompany the Cross - but honest spiritual authenticity in ministry must be claimed as a vital component to pastoral subversion lest our own unique gifts wither and shrivel on the vine. David Crosby was more blunt when he sang  let your freak flag fly!

The destination of dominant culture is "the normalcy of deathliness" writes Brueggemann. As the prophetic witness of ancient Israel makes clear - as well as the ministry of Jesus - the way of the Lord challenges death, creates community and gives voice to all who have been kept silent. Deuteronomy 10: 17-19 puts it like this:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

To which Brueggemann writes that we are given a picture of the Lord as "the strongest one in the community, running a food pantry and collecting clothing for widows and orphans, physical gestures of solidarity that concretely and intensely bind the God of all creation to the 
undocumented workers and welfare recipients. In the end, Moses says, 'Now you do it, too!'"(Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, p. 8) The dominant understanding of Empire tells us that ALL bread must be guarded, EVERY person must be out for her or himself, and those outside of the powerful must remain SILENT. The subversive - or alternative - vision shared by God is that such self-centered fearfulness always results in death.  To move out of bondage and into the promises of grace requires nourishing and practicing alternative habits that strengthen love and document God's alternatives..

The Jewish imagination of the Old Testament is so peculiar and so particular... that it trains Jews to be odd men and women out, always at odds, always at risk, always in the presence of an empire with its insistent version of reality, always telling the boys and girls that we are different, different because we have been in the demanding presence of the Holy One, and now we must keep redeciding for a life propelled by that presence. The Jews, over time, devised signals of oddity - sabbath, kosher, 
circumcision. In parallel fashion, for like reasons, the baptismal imagination of the New Testament is so peculiar and so particular because Christians are always odd men and women come together in odd communities and congregations, always at odds, always at risk, always in the presence of large cultural empires that want to dissolve our oddity for reasons of state, always telling the girls and boys we are different because we have been with Jesus... We, like Jews, devise signals of oddity: the notice of new life, the bread of brokenness, the wine of blessedness, and the neighbor - always the neighbor - who is for us a signal of the love of God. (p. 10)

For most of my professional life I have adhered to the axiom that the way of Christian subversion is quiet and subtle - pushing at the edges and encouraging letting go - but always fitting in and working from within the status quo. At this moment in ministry, however, while I still affirm the wisdom of the quiet and subtle over and against the demanding and harsh, a more disciplined and public departure from the status quo is essential.  We must look and act odd and peculiar. The recent presidential election should make clear that communities of mercy, compassion and justice must stand in opposition to the registry of Muslims, the dismantling of health care and the normalization of hatred and mistrust. Jim Wallis of the Sojourner's Community in Washington, DC was explicit in their 10 Commitments of Resistance (https://sojo.net/articles/10-commitments-resistance-trump-era) that include nourishing our inward faith, lifting up the truth in an era of lies and manipulation, rejecting White nationalism, calling out hate speech as we love our neighbors, and actively partnering with new allies to oppose the culture of rape and scapegoating refugees.  Cornel West writing in The Guardian this morning was equally clear:

For us in these times, to even have hope is too abstract, too detached, too spectatorial. Instead we must be a hope, a participant and a force for good as we face this catastrophe. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/17/american-neoliberalism-cornel-west-2016-election

To BE hope for one another is to live openly, oddly and freely - out of any and all of our closets as best we are able to do - and risk our obsession with bourgeois niceties for bodies thirsting for mercy, compassion and justice.  Middle class churches are aching for such authenticity, too as their all too numerous deaths document. I sense this is a season for grief and emptiness on theroad towards a resurrection of oddity. .

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:...