Wednesday, December 28, 2016

evangelicals, bonhoeffer and the age of trump...

NOTE: We head out to Montreal in the morning come blizzard or not. That means I will not be posting again here until the New Year. For the next four days, Di and I will have a chance to walk, talk, read, think and love together in anticipation of how we will live our lives of "odd" faith in the era of Trump. My prayers are with you all.

One of the questions that vexes ecumenical Christians (the once mainline but now side-lined Protestant congregations in the USA) since November 8, 2016 has been: how could Evangelical and even some Roman Catholic Christians - who read the same Scriptures as ourselves - allow themselves to vote for Donald Trump?  He is a shrewd marketing genius who has historically denigrated and opposed the ethics and morality of those who follow Jesus. Yet, overwhelmingly - 81% - white Evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. Coupled with the 52% of white women who seemingly chose race over gender, a winning hand for the Trump camp in the Electoral College was realized. 

There is no contest that the Democrats lost  this election. Mrs. Clinton was not a great campaigner, she carried the baggage of nearly 25 years of right wing character assassination, there was media manipulation by Russia and a highly questionable act of political sabotage by the director of the FBI.  Robert Reich calls this a highly tainted election - but the numbers don't lie. From my perspective, what I am about to write is not sour grapes from someone who can't get over losing. No, the question that gnaws at me because it carries staggering implications is how could Mr. Trump win among those who celebrate the centrality of Scripture as the corner
stone of their spirituality? Jesus is unambiguous whether you are a liberal or conservative, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox: whatsoever you do unto the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do unto me. (Matthew 25) St. Paul is equally clear: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing... faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13)

A website I respect, Bill Moyers' collection of columns and commentary, recently posted a harsh and incomplete analysis entitled, "Media, Morality and the Neighbor's Cow" written by Neal Gabler. It is one attempt at addressing my opening question. Many of his observations ring true, especially the penetrating words about Gore Vidal's attack on the Republican Party of 1961. Gabler concludes, correctly in my view, that when the GOP started to sell its soul to Ayn Rand et al, a descent began away from true conservatism. Once it was essential for conservatives to preserve whatever was good in society and inhibit humankind's inclination towards selfishness. Incrementally, however, the GOP morphed into a movement that venerated the so-called objective outcomes of market place analysis. It didn't take place immediately, and clearly there were (and are) Republicans who challenged this transformation. But bottom line thinking has become a Republican idol and Gabler is on to something when he notes that Rand and her followers present "a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilty at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.” (see the article here: The core of Gabler's arguement is this:

The transformation and corruption of America’s moral values didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened in plain sight. The Republican Party has been the party of selfishness and the party of punishment for decades now, trashing the basic precepts not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of humanity generally.To identify what’s wrong with conservatism and Republicanism — and now with so much of America as we are about to enter the Trump era — you don’t need high-blown theories or deep sociological analysis or surveys. The answer is as simple as it is sad: There is no kindness in them.

Think back to the crude but effective manipulation of working class racism starting with Richard Nixon's southern strategy. It was no accident that Ronald Reagan announced his bid for election as the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi: his celebration of state's rights was a dog whistle advertisement that he was the champion of Southern white values. In 2016, Mr. Trump was not subtle or implicit in playing the race card. Or the Ayn Rand card. Or the "yellow peril" card. Or the anti-feminist, anti-immigrant card. He effectively articulated the angst and anger of this nation's shrinking but very real white working class who have been left behind by a multicultural society built upon transnational trade. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Gabler does not explain why religious conservatives abandoned their core beliefs and voted for the least ethical candidate in recent history. Paying lip service to opposing abortion is not enough for those raised on the conviction that we are saved by grace.There was no grace active when Jerry Falwell, Jr threw his support for Mr. Trump at Liberty University: it was all about controlling the Supreme Court into the 21st century. There was no grace in the house either when Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council endorsed of  Mr. Trump; it, too, was a naked grab for power. The goal of both Southern Evangelical leaders was all about energizing their base by using wedge issues like homosexuality, race and abortion to give Mr. Trump an electoral advantage. It worked earlier for George Bush the younger when Karl Rove brilliantly turned out voters to oppose marriage equality. The significant difference, of course, being that Mr. Bush, whatever else you may say about him, was authentically a "born again Christian believer." He was not pandering even if his campaign strategy was..

This cannot be affirmed with Mr. Trump. About the only faith claim he could honestly make is that he owns his mother's Bible. He doesn't read it. He has no use for confession - or sin - or regret - or community - or study - or discipleship. His appeal to Evangelicals was about winning and making certain that all the spoils went to the victor. Not only were older, white Evangelicals frightened by our multicultural society, they firmly believe a culture rests or falls on the sanctity of life - albeit narrowly defined as anti-abortion. They are pro-death penalty. They aggressively support military interventionism and advocate a strict adherence to "law and order." It was no accident that Mr. Trump was able to corral the good will and kind hearts of older, white Evangelical voters by using Richard Nixon's campaign slogan of 1968. And this, I suspect, is where we get a clue about the real reasons why good hearted, Bible-believing people of faith were energized to vote for a man who is the antithesis of Jesus.

I have been working at understanding both the context and wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In
the 1980s Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's best friend and key interpreter, hit the nail on the head when he told the world:  in Bonhoeffer's Germany in the 1930s, religion had become essentially an "inward" matter. The practice of faith was fundamentally about how God's love touched and changed people personally.  This is at the core of Evangelical religion in the USA:, too; there is NO salvation without a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. In the 1930s, German Christians honored this truth. Further, given both the privatized theology of their intellectuals and the public chaos of their society following WWI, Bethge saw the German Church reach out for leaders who promised "a well-regulated and restrictive peace with contemporary society." With fidelity defined by personal salvation that honored order more than  compassion or social justice, the stage was set to pay obeisance to Hitler and National Socialism. In the 80s Bethge wondered if.something
analogous was coming to pass in American Evangelicalism? In 2016, there is an ever greater hunger for authority, results and a return to the "good old days" - make America great again - even if that means turning a blind eye to the heart of Christ's gospel.

Bethge's warning to Europe and the US was clear: a penchant for order and nostalgia in the church could easily lure some into making peace with tyrants. It happened before and might "lead once more to a world with catastrophic results." My deepening reflection on the insights of Bonhoeffer's late writings point to why we must call out the churches of our day for forsaking issues of peace, justice and compassion in their quest for inner serenity. The imprisoned pastor of Germany also challenged the way a privatized religion ignores public brutality and evil. Bonhoeffer used to speak of Jesus as the man for others: he preached and confessed, not a personal Savior, but one who shows us what a God life looks like in the harsh world of economics, politics and social change..

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

christmas eve message 2016...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes from Christmas Eve that have some bearing on my current
study of Bonhoeffer for the 21st century. I am, of course, clearly indebted to both William Willimon and Walter Brueggemann for their wisdom and challenge in this homily. Here is my working hunch going into 2017:  the Trump administration will be arrogant bullies, their way of operating in the world will create an opportunity for people of compassion to rally against the cruelty, and it will be excruciating and fearful. That said, it will give our generation a shot at living into our Christian oddity with clarity.  So as the 12 days of Christmas unfold - and as we retreat for a brief spell à Montréal at week's end - I will likely post less but will return to this thread in the New Year: Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!


“The first task of the preacher,” states the Reverend Dr. Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament Studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, “is the maintenance of congregational oddity.” (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope.) It is not entertainment or comfort, spiritual succor or moral refreshment; it is the development and nurture of oddity. And by oddity, Brother Brueggemann means a way of living in the world that challenges the values of the status quo, gives individuals and congregations the freedom to act on behalf of God’s compassion in society regardless of politics, economics, race, gender or class – and empowers us with the vision and the spiritual resources to do so consistently and in a disciplined manner. Christianity is not about random acts of kindness, but rather a witness in solidarity and love that is dependable for all life in God’s sweet creation.

And on Christmas Eve 2016, this old, grey haired preacher feels called to remind us that Jesus did not come into the world simply to create a new holiday saturated with consumerism and sentimentality; or to sacralize a social order of dog eat dog and all the spoils to the victor. If that was the Lord’s intention, Jesus would have been born inside a mansion – or a castle, palace or gated community – surrounded by gold and the symbols of power instead of shepherds, animals, refugees, darkness and straw. Clearly our Creator had something else in mind – something wildly different and even odd – something tender, something transformative, something earthy yet spirit-filled. God sent us a Savior in the form of a homeless infant so that we might see how the love of the Lord becomes flesh: through tenderness and vulnerability, through presence and peace-making, through opening our hearts like a momma or poppa and sacrificing everything on behalf of our beloved baby.


That’s what our oddity as people of faith is all about: we intentionally choose love over compensation and security. We cherish love before career and compassion before prestige. Professor Brueggemann is explicit when it comes to articulating our oddities. Over time, he tells us, Jews devised obvious signals to show the world their oddity and devotion to God: Sabbath, kosher, circumcision. Not only did these acts challenge the corrupt habits of empire, they showed their boys and girls how to survive at odds with the status quo. “We live in the demanding presence of the Holy One so now we must keep redeciding for a life propelled by God’s presence.” Jewish oddity challenged the idols of scarcity and violence and celebrated shalom and God’s abundance.

In parallel fashion, and for similar reasons, “the baptismal imagination of the early Christian Church called for comparable acts of peculiar and particular oddity.” We are always at risk, you see, of dissolving our vows of love because the pressures of our culture wear us down, asking us to worship the dollar or the flag before the Lord our God. “So Christians are forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through the scandal of Good Friday, the rumor of Easter Sunday and the promise of Christmas Eve… and we do this by regularly renewing our commitment to oddity: noticing signs of new life in the most unexpected places, sharing the bread of broken-ness, the wine of blessing and embracing the neighbor – always the neighbor – who is for us a symbol of God’s abiding presence and love.” (Brueggemann, ibid)

Christmas Eve is one of our annual oddity renewal ceremonies that asks us, like Mother Mary, to bring to birth new life in unimaginable places and nourish love through tenderness, sacrifice and presence. This Christmas more than any other in my 35 years of ordained ministry cries out for such a renewal – and here’s why: so many Americans – and others throughout the world from Aleppo and Istanbul to Germany and Washington, DC – are terrified and trembling because of politics when the truth of the matter is God has come to earth in the Christ-Child and is actually making tyrants quake. Methodist Bishop William Willimon recently put it like this:

The Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, doesn’t (only) give us a picture of a babe lying sweetly in the manger… Matthew’s gospel gives us once powerful Herod trembling in his boots, cowering like a frightened rabbit, terrified by the thought of this bombshell of a baby. There’s a new king in town who rules not from the Herod Tower in Jerusalem but from a stable in backwoods Bethlehem, welcomed not by the biblical scholars at the temple or the new coterie of generals but rather by immigrant nonbelievers from the East. King Herod is rattled. Now, eventually Herod will get his act together, move decisively, and ensure national security — his troops will slaughter Judean boy babies. That’s what kings do when national sovereignty is threatened. The state’s answer to just about any problem is: Violence. So Matthew teaches us that a baby, who causes consternation among Herod and his ilk, that infant who gathered about him those whom Herod oppressed, that baby and his people are dismantling Herod’s empire stone by stone without raising an army or firing a shot. Matthew’s Christmas story suggests that we ought to be trembling not out of fear of this or that political bully, but by the prospect of God With Us, God’s Anointed Messiah, God getting what God wants through a baby and his presaged revolution. What does the name Jesus mean but “God saves,” and God’s salvation is not just personal; it’s political and public and worldwide.  (William Willimon, sermon, December 2016)

When we start to trust and act like God’s presence is with us as Savior, we honor God’s call to

oddity in a broken world – to paraphrase folk singer, Carrie Newcomer, we quit fretting and trembling and return to doing those things that have saved us in the past – and then the miracle of Christ’s birth starts to multiply and expand. Once we affirm our conviction “that the Babe of Bethlehem is the only true sovereign and that Jesus’ people, though marginalized and ridiculed by the powerful, are God’s politics” then the world starts changing in beautiful albeit small and sometimes overlooked ways. I think of the woman in one of Alabama’s large industrial cities who recently “spent hours writing letters to every Muslim in her town saying, “You are a valued, child of God. Here’s my phone number. Let me know if I can be helpful to you in this time. Our politicians do not speak for me. I speak to you in the name of Christ who loves you and has given me responsibility for you.” In this, beloved, Herod trembles. (Willimon) I think of the artists who created each of these beautifully challenging contemporary icons, too.

I was told of a Roman Catholic priest who said on the Sunday after the election, “OK. America has elected a president. Fine. But remember that the most important, decisive election was when God elected us to be light and salt to the world. We know that lying is wrong! Hate speech is wrong! Groping and sexual abuse is wrong! So let us try to live so that people might look and see something that America is not. God has chosen us to witness; this is a great time to obey God and not simply human authority!” Herod trembles.

And don’t forget that an emerging, non-partisan alliance is taking shape and form right here in
Pittsfield – the Four Freedoms Coalition highlighted on the front page of the Eagle this morning – a group that cuts through our divisions and asks us to walk in love and human tenderness with one another. It about Black and Brown and White together – gay and straight and trans-gendered together – rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old together. The message from the angels to is fear not because when love is shared it is Herod who trembles.

Now let me bring this home in a way that awakened my heart to God’s tender love being born again right here in this very Chancel. It happened during our regular Tuesday night choir practice – as unexpected a place for Christ to be born, I submit to you, as any raggedy stable in Bethlehem. We were working on an arrangement of “O Holy Night” that you heard last Sunday. It’s stunning – slightly different from the traditional setting – but poignant soul food for those who love the Lord. Amen? And three things happened that night that you need to know about:

First, another young person under the age of 12 joined our choir that night. Like our youngest alto, this new singer also brings enthusiasm, innocence, talent and fun into the mix. This alone would have made my heart sing but something else took place while we were working to bring this tricky anthem to fruition. For some reason I looked up and out of the corner of my eye saw one of the mommas of the choir next to our new chorister helping him keep pace and make sense of this complicated score. I know that her own heart has been shattered this season yet there she was being the presence of love and tenderness with another of the Lord’s little ones.

During Passover our Jewish sisters and brothers sing, “Dayenu” during the Seder – it means that would have been enough for God to bless us with – it would have been enough to cross the Red Sea, Dayenu, it would have been enough to leave oppression, Dayenu --and that act of tenderness would have been enough for me. But after about 20 minutes, when the rest of the choir had shown up and snuck into their assigned places, I saw a new person enter the Sanctuary – and then another – both of whom have wanted to join our choir. Without missing a beat, our choir chaplain, Renee, got each new friend their music, helped them get situated, welcomed and seated – and the music kept rolling. Twenty people were now standing in a semi-circle in this chancel singing “O Holy Night” like angels: senior citizens and children, women and men, gay and straight, rich and poor, recent arrivals and veterans alike.

Again, I’m thinking “dayenu” when our music director says: “I want you to do this song one more time – and sing it now like a prayer. Some of you know that I am Portuguese, but I am also of Syrian stock. And given everything that is taking place in Aleppo and the Middle East, I can’t help but feel we need to lift this up tonight as a prayer for our sisters and brothers. So sing it one more time for Syria on this dark and cold night.” For a moment, it felt like the air had been sucked out of our lungs by grief – and then someone gasped and we burst into tears. “You want us to sing now, do you?” said another choir momma.

Frederick Buechner, the wise old Presbyterian from Vermont, likes to say, “Pay special attention to the presence of unexpected tears: They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.” So we sang that night: we sang and wept, we sang and prayed, we sang and renewed our vows of oddity. And in that little circle of safety some of us sensed that once again Christ the Lord was being born within and among us.

Beloved, what took place in our choir – or in that Roman Catholic priest’s homily in Chicago – or the letters of that woman in Alabama welcoming Muslims who might experience fear and intimidation – are NOT random acts of kindness. They are the fruit of the Holy Spirit being born within us like Christ was born in the Virgin Mary. They point to a life-time of disciplined compassion that senses the Lord’s birth whenever tenderness is required in a harsh and dark moment. What we affirm on Christmas Eve is a renewal of our oddity - our dedication to sharing the tenderness and hope of God through our flesh – for in this the Lord Jesus is brought to birth over and over again. In the name of all that is holy, let us join this feast: that love might be strengthened, real lives saved and the tyrants of this hour tremble for God Immanuel is with us just as the angels proclaimed.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The day after Christmas...

Today was a regrouping day: regrouping from being public, regrouping from being active and in
worship, regrouping from working much of Advent/Christmas while others soaked-up family time (except, of course, hospital personnel and those who work retail!) After a stunning feast with our Plainfield, MA loved ones we came home and nearly crashed! These next three days are all about reclaiming some equilibrium because even though we managed Advent/Christmas in a mostly chill way this year, it was still emotionally draining.

Two things worth noting as I spend most of the day in solitude:

+ First, Martin Marty's small book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography is highly insightful.  I am devoting major time in the New Year to rereading Brother Bonhoeffer, both because my first pass was in 1970, and because these days leading up to and including the Trump presidency resonate with too many Wiemar Republic overtones for me to ignore. One of Marty's best observations has to do with the use and misuse of Bonhoeffer's enigmatic expression:  the world come of age.  Writing a biography of a book (a fascinating idea unto itself) gives Marty the chance to discuss how early interpreters used these words for ideological purposes. Some "death of God" theologians talked about the 60s and 70s as a culture reaching maturation. Eastern block ideologues suggested that Communist Europe was an environment "come of age" - no longer in need of God to fill in the blanks - but fully just and humane. That both were wildly mistaken comes as no surprise in the 21st century. Nevertheless, they gave Bonhoeffer a bad name - saddled him with untrue naivete and branded him incomplete - when, in fact, it was the intellectual and ethical limitations of Bonhoeffer's interpreters who were at fault.  The heart of Bonhoeffer's late stage thinking was NOT that our culture had matured, but rather the suffering of the world had exposed to those with eyes to see that now was our time to act as true adults.

God compels us to recognize... that we now live in a world without the working hypothesis of God (to fill in the gaps.) We now stand continually before God and with God, we live, however, without God for God consents to be pushed out of the world - and onto the Cross. God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matthew 8: 17 makes it quiet clear that Christ helps us not be virtue of his omnipotence, but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial distinction between Christianity and all religions.

Marty then quote Bonhoeffer's poem, Christians and Pagans, to make the point that in the incomprehensible suffering of this age, we experience God's presence not in our power, but in our powerlessness. It is almost as if the 12 Steps and the Serenity Prayer are prefigured in this poem:  

People turn to God when they’re in need,
plead for help, contentment, and for bread,
for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.
They all do so, both Christian and pagan.

People turn to God in God’s own need,
and find God poor, degraded, without roof or bread,
see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand with God to share God’s pain.

God goes to all people in their need,
nourishes body and soul with God’s own bread,
takes up the cross of Calvary for both Christians and pagans, both,
and in forgiving both, is slain.

Marty concludes that "in his mind, Bonhoeffer thought that living by faith in Jesus meant living without relying on what was pious, metaphysical or a prop of the inner life... it meant living as Jesus lived, a the man for others."  With no assurances - no expectation of consolation - simply trusting that as Jesus was united with God in his suffering, so too would we, but only on God's terms, not our own.

+ Second, now that the high holy days of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are over - and I have had a chance to rest (a bit), it is clear that being prophetic about resisting the ways of Trump et al will take their toll on church attendance. Maybe this isn't true in some areas, but in our region it is clear to me that some are staying away because they will be challenged by the radical compassion and grace of Jesus. I would not have wanted this for my final year of Christian ministry - even part-time ministry - but such is the cost of discipleship. I think of the words of Jesus who tells us "I come to bring a sword." That is, witnessing to God's love separates us from culture. When I spoke Brueggemann's words on Christmas Eve about the "the fundamental task of the preacher is to nourish congregational oddity," some laughed. But as I continued, they got it: we are to look, act, feel and see differently from the status quo. Those who serve only wealth and power will increasingly feel the distinction - and judgment - of God's way calling into question the ways of the world.

Already I grieve not seeing a few whom I love who have apparently chosen to stay away rather than change their hearts - or politics. But more than ever, Christian oddity around cherishing the neighbor is essential: it will become the mark of discipleship for this generation.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas...

Here are a few of my favorite Advent/Christmas images for this year:  Merry Christmas to all - Happy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, too.  We had about 60 people in worship today and a ton of sacred fun.  There were about 75 at Christmas Eve and it was poignant, chill and real. Sp now we're heading out for Christmas dinner with the Plainfield crew - and I give thanks to God for all three!  Blessings abound!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Blessed and Merry Christmas...

Here is our shared Christmas/New Year's letter. We're wrapping gifts today and listening to quiet Christmas CDs before heading over to worship @ 8 pm.

Merry Christmas from James and Dianne

Like many of our dear friends have said: 2016 was a challenging year! In addition to the mean-spirited politics that have dominated the US popular consciousness this year, we have both been concerned about the plight of Syrian and North African refugees, the politics of Turkey, the stalemate between Israel and Palestine, the rise of nationalist/anti-immigrant movements throughout Europe and a rising fear in people of goodwill throughout the world. If ever there was a need for a revolution of tenderness, now is the hour. To that end, our past year brought to light a few highlights:

In March, we hosted a music/poetry/prayer presentation of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” It was the 50th anniversary of this masterpiece and nothing expressed the heart of my recent sabbatical – and the hopes and fears of creation – better than this explosion of sound, rhythm, melody and improvisation. About 100 local folks joined our reflection and we raised relief funds for Syrian refugees through Church World Service.

+ Dianne and I took a few trips to Canada – for retreat and for vacation – in 2016. In March we were in Montréal to speak with the CELTA (English as a second language) administrators; in June we were in Ottawa for their Jazz Festival and a time with Jean Vanier’s L’Arche community; and then back to Le Plateau a Montréal for Labor Day. It is our hope and expectation that sometime in the next 15 months we will spend a year in Canada: James with L’Arche and their ministry to those with intellectual challenges; and Dianne helping refugees make a new home in the Americas.

+ In August, Phil and Julie arrived from San Francisco and we gathered as the Lumsden Clan to lay my parents’ and sister’s ashes to rest on Lake Chargoggago-ggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg in Webster, MA. It was a joyous time of sharing stories and songs and being with a family that sticks together through tons of hard times. As the summer unfolded, our nephew Thomas married Elana. Then Shawn married Samantha – and they were blessed with regaining custody of his son Kody.

+ In September, a new candidate for ordination to ministry from our church, Elizabeth, was taken into discernment status by both our congregation and the Berkshire Association. Then we had the honor of officiating at Christabelle and Annabelle’s wedding in Southern Kentucky. CB was one of the confirmation students Dianne mentored nearly 15 years ago; they have remained close and it was a total gas to be a part of this sacred time – and we got to reconnect with her brothers David and Nat, too!

+ In October, after nearly 15 months of prayer and discernment, James announced his retirement effective February 1, 2017. He will work part-time (20 hours a week) at First Church with an emphasis on worship and pastoral care. This change not only empowers the congregation to move towards greater financial stability and mission, but gives James the chance to do more study, writing and work on both spiritual direction and music for peace-making.

+ In January, 2017 Dianne begins her CELTA training on-line – with a Montréal intensive in late April. She has long desired to continue a passion for helping immigrants that began when her parents taught English to those without skills and then opened their home to Vietnamese refugees after the war. With James’ semi-retirement, she is now free to pursue this important calling – and was able to crowd-source the funding for this work through the generosity of friends and colleagues.

+ We were also able to spend time with our beloved and precocious grandson, Louie, in Pittsfield as well as Brooklyn. We even had the privilege of caring for him for three days so that Jesse and Mike could celebrate Jesse’s 40th birthday sans le bébé. We all came down with colds – and shared a few hard tears – but it was a grand time and we can’t wait to do more after the New Year. We also had the joy of hanging with Michal, Winton and Noah this year for various suppers – and a three-generation viewing of Hilary Clinton’s historic acceptance speech.

Advent 2016 has been all about growing closer to one another – as a couple, as a congregation, as a family – even as we all sort out how to advance the cause of tenderness and justice in the New Year. A broad association of non- partisan allies is already planning for a Freedom Rally at our church on Saturday, January 7, 2016 – so we’ll keep you posted. (check it out here:,493084) As 2017 takes shape:

+ Dianne will deepen her skills in working with non-English speaking people so that they can better assimilate and make sense of their new lives. For the time being, she will also continue to work part-time at a great local shop, Brits-R-Us, which every local person should support vigorously!

James will start a serious study of Bonhoeffer in the New Year along with Henri Nouwen’s notes on spiritual direction. It will be a huge adjustment – mostly for the better – to move into part-time work after 35 years of full-time ordained ministry, but the time is right. He will also make periodic trips to Canada to explore next steps with L’Arche.

Please know you are always welcome to join us in our small, warm and humble Berkshire home. Even with plans to spend a year in Canada sometime in the next 15 months, we plan on keeping our Pittsfield home: we love this place and cherish the community. So know the light will always be on and the doors open. Give us a buzz beforehand at 413-464-9408, or use our email:

One of our favorite artists, Carrie Newcomer, recently wrote that now more than ever is a time to ask: What sustains and connects us, where do we find help in hard times, how can I be more present in my daily life, and when I stop and pull back the layers of distraction, what is at the very heart of my life? The things that have always saved us personally and as a community are still here to save us; compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, a sense of humor, decency, faithfulness and good parenting are all still here. Yes, the things that have always tripped us up–greed, racism, tribalism, unchecked commercialism and violence—are also still here, and so we name and contend with these things as well. But too often we look “out there” for solutions, when what we really need is right here, within us and between us.”

Joyeux Noël

Thursday, December 22, 2016

staying open and grounded...

Today has been one of those days I anticipate after all these years of being in ministry: an
unplanned encounter with people's unexpected pain.  It actually started yesterday at midday Eucharist when only a few regulars showed up. On those days, our liturgy becomes more of a pastoral visit that concludes with the Lord's Prayer and breaking bread. 

But about 20 minutes into things a small, disheveled man showed up walking down the center aisle. As I turned to greet him, he knelt - kissed my hand - and started speaking greetings in Hebrew. No kidding! (Later Carlton smiled when I recounted this and said, "Only you, man... only you!") Our guest kept on kneeling, but switched to English and began to ramble on about a host of problems, blessings and people that had impacted his life. In time he smiled and said, "You know, at our best, Jews and Christians - and probably Muslims, too - are intertwined in love. We celebrate and honor the same Lord, we often sing and pray the same words and we're all children of Abraham." There were a lot of other things he said for the next 30 minutes but they were pretty jumbled. We brought things to a close with blessings in English and Hebrew, a few hugs and then he schlepped off.  But half way down the steps he said, "Oh, would any one like a holiday fire ball? (a candy) I just bought some and thought it would be good to share."  He left four on the communion table.  Who knows when or how the Lord will be born into our world in unexpected places, yes?

This morning it snowed - more than the expected dusting - and that set things in motion: phone calls from people wounded in love, the Berkshire ARC tow truck to take away our desert truck that has finally succumbed to our harsher climate, my beloved wife's tears of loss over that sweet truck as well as my working on worship notes for Christmas Day. A ton of ups and downs all in the first four hours of the working day!  Good thing I planned for keeping things open and free. Its something I learned from the past masters of pastoral ministry: life gets wacky around our major holidays so make certain to leave space in your schedule so you can be present for those who are hurting.  Kind of the whole Christmas story in miniature, right?  In years past - and other congregations - I've received calls of unexpected deaths, one mate coming home to find their spouse in bed with someone else, suicides, over-doses, violence, birth and everything in-between.
So, while I never know in advance what challenge will pop up at this time of year, I do know that something will... and leave the few days before Christmas (and Easter) wide open. That's the only way I know to stay loving and grounded:  space, rest and riding loose in the saddle. As I get ready to finish up my worship notes for Christmas Day (thank God Christmas Eve is done) I am thinking of these words about those who perished in the warehouse fire in Oakland earlier in Advent:

For the tormented queer, the bullied punk, the beaten trans, the spat-upon white trash, the disenfranchised immigrants and young people of color, these spaces are a haven of understanding in a world that doesn’t understand.

Sometimes, just sometimes, our churches become such safe havens. Would that this were true more often.  I posted these words on our church FB page - and got hundreds of hits and
affirmations. It was yet another clue that there is a deep and yearning hunger for tenderness in these harsh and cruel times. Tomorrow I'll visit a few folk as Di works and try to hit one of the nursing homes, too. S
tay open, dear friends, that the Spirit of all that is holy and healing greets you as we move closer to the blessed Feast of the Incarnation.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

writing for christmas eve...

Tuesdays have become my day of study, writing and prayer in preparation for Sunday
worship. Over the years of my ordained ministry I've experimented with other ways of getting my worship notes ready:  sometimes it was being in my church study every morning (like my mentor Ray Swartzback), at other times I tried Wednesdays or Thursdays, too. It became clear that my mind couldn't handle the interruptions if I was in the office - apparently I need more focus and solitude to construct anything coherent - so I've evolved into a writer on Tuesdays between 9:30 am and roughly 4 pm. Like another wise mentor, the late Raymond Brown of Union Seminary used to say, "Preachers need walking around time with the text. Like Jesus." His admonition was to get Sunday's liturgy done early, then take time early in the week with study and prayer so that as you "walked around" through ministry during the rest of the week, new insights might bubble up.

Being prone to fretting in general - and about worship in particular - I've found this to be essential for me.  I used to try, like many others, to do my writing on Saturday afternoon and evening. But I was too wound up and anxious to accomplish anything of value and then I couldn't sleep. It was just a mess when I was in seminary. So, I took Eugene Peterson's advice and made my calendar my ally.  Peterson wrote in Working the Angles that if he sensed he needed to spend a few hours with Dostoevsky each week, he would pencil it into his calendar. Same for prayer, walking and worship preparation along with pastoral visits. Make your calendar work for you and the Lord he advised - and his wisdom has been a god-send for me.

So, now I have my first draft of my message for Christmas Eve ready. I need to let it sit for a spell while I have some tea. Then I'll return to see if what I've worked on for the past five hours has any merit. Sometimes things click and I am grateful. Other times... not so much and I have to rewrite or even start all over again - and work after I get home from choir practice. This year I've been reading what church leaders in Syria and Palestine have to say about the birth of the Prince of Peace. Pope Francis, too. Their hope and solidarity gives me strength to proclaim the challenging call of enfleshing Christ's tenderness in an age of incivility, bigotry and fear mongering.  My heart has found solace in the words of Walter Breuggemann, too when he reminds us that:

... the first task of the preacher is the maintenance of oddity... an oddity which creates freedom for life, energy for caring and joy through the day.  (This oddity) spins off into public policy and proposes the reordeing of public life. But the first task is the maintenance of oddity for the people gathered for worship.

Brother Brueggemann is explicit in calling the preacher to articulate an alternative vision to the violence and fear of the status quo - a sub-version as he calls it - that makes real God's "radical option in the face of the normalcy of deathliness."

It occurs to me that the scandal of particularity so prominent in the election of Israel and so decisive in the incarnation of Jesus is pervasive in biblical faith, always so particular, always so peculiar, always so at odds. It occurs to me that the Jewish
imagination of the Old Testament is so peculiar and so particular because Jews are always the odd men and women out, always at odds, always at risk, always int he 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, an now we must keep redeciding for a life propelled by that presence, The Jews, over time, devised signals of this oddity: sabbath, kosher and circumcision.

Noting that the same is true for Christians despite our woeful assimilation to the values of empire and capital, he continues:  In parallel fashion, and 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 wh ave been with Jesus. We are forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through the scandal of Friday and the rumor of Sunday. 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.

So, I will let this message sit for a while - swim around in my head and walk around in my heart - to see if later it still preaches.  The old timers in Arizona used to say about something that worked:  that dog hunts.  We shall see, yes? In the mean time, I'm loving this song.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

challenging this present darkness with solidarity - part four...

A colleague and comrade in the ways of the Spirit recently posted an insightful article from Jacobin, the on-line and print journal offering a non-doctrinaire socialist take on contemporary culture and politics, that urges those who oppose the goals of the Trump regime to quit using Weimar Republic/Germany against Hitler analogies. It is a most insightful reflection on this moment in history: 

Comparing the recent American election to the doomed Wiemar Republic has become pundits’ favorite pastime. In newspapers and on talk shows, commentators are quick to warn that the United States is going the way of 1930s German democracy. Donald Trump’s arrival on the political stage — not to mention his presidential win — has heightened fears that economic anxiety, right-wing nationalism, and paramilitary violence will once again mix into a gruesome cocktail. (Jacobin)

I know I have made careful comparisons to Trump's fascist and authoritarian statements and
inclinations that evoke Germany in the 1930s. And I have not been shy in calling out his white supremacist connections and their affinity with neo-Nazis. Further, I believe rereading and reclaiming the insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are essential for people of faith who are 
committed to engaging the resistance to PEOTUS Trump. Nevertheless, at the heart of the Jacobin critique is a warning against the very neo-liberal elitism that simultaneously dismissed the wounds of the American heartland too glibly and was willing to compromise our democratic principles on the altar of efficiency.

Condemning fascism is not a productive progressive agenda. The political value of such a strategy is limited, as the Clinton campaign recently learned; but more importantly, as Loewenstein and Speier’s project shows, it can easily become a dismissal of democratic principles, treating the public as a force to be avoided rather than engaged. If anything, Trump’s disturbing victory provides the Left with the opportunity to reject technocratic politics and the close collaboration between the government and economic elites. Rather than retreating into “militant democracy," progressives should build viable coalitions, commit to distributionist policies, and address the needs of the many. In the process, we should retire the Weimar analogy. Historical comparison can be useful, but it would be even better to develop a new way of confronting the problems that we face.

Locally that is exactly what is beginning to take place: a broad coalition of organizations and individuals that have previously worked without conscious cooperation are now seeking both cooperation and solidarity.  The Four Freedoms Coalition - a loose confederations of labor, arts, religious and non-partisan political groups - is actively planning a kick off event on Saturday, January 7, 2017.  A recent press release described our initial action like this:

Join us on Saturday, January 7th, the 76th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inspiring Four Freedoms speech, as our Berkshires community comes together united against hate and bigotry in all its forms. All are welcome. We plan to gather in down-town Pittsfield, march, and then rally together to re-inspire and reconnect ourselves with our highest values and commitment to our neighbors.

The Four Freedoms Coalition is a new, non-partisan, diverse coalition of community organizations and individuals working together to unite the community and reaffirm our true American values, as outlined in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's landmark Four Freedoms speech. They are:

Freedom from fear - Freedom from want - Freedom of speech - Freedom of religion

We will hold the inaugural rally in our Sanctuary. We will be Black and White together. Gay and straight and transgendered together. Republican and Democrat and Green together. Male and female together. Labor and artists together. Religious and atheist together.

I can't help but think Christian participation in this coalition is part of what Bonhoeffer imagined when he spoke of "the world come of age."  I sense that the martyred pastor was speaking of Christians who took their responsibility for nourishing, healing and strengthening the common good as the essence of "coming of age."  Bonhoeffer, you see, was explicit in stating that only when we embrace and encounter the suffering of God in Christ are we living into our fullest calling. Anything less is either superstitious or infantile.  In a poignant and clarifying article,the Rev. Peter Potter writes:

When Bonhoeffer writes of humanity coming of age, therefore, he is not suggesting that human actions in his day were somehow signs of a new independence or a higher form of maturity. Instead he is saying that the human race is able, and is required to speak for itself, to account for Auschwitz, Hiroshima and all the other suffering inflicted in our own day. (Lost in Translation, Peter Potter)

Here is an opportunity to make connections beyond the confines of our Sanctuaries. Here, too, is a chance live out our sacrificial love beyond theological abstractions. We are called to enflesh the love of Christ in ways that bring hope and healing to the brokenness of real people beyond faith traditions, ideology, race, class and gender.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

waiting to decorate in the spirit of prayer....

Tonight we finally decorated our house for the Advent/Christmas holidays.  I put up our traditional outdoor white lights after worship on Advent I.  Later that same day, I pulled out our satchel of Advent/Christmas music - mostly Celtic, medieval and a little George Winston - and we got our Advent wreath set into place. But life has been too demanding to do much else this year: whether it has been sharing time with loved ones in pain, going to the hospital, praying in agony over our friends in Istanbul, Aleppo and Cairo or simply getting our hearts and minds about living into a few years of focused resistance in the US, neither of us has had the energy or desire to do a whole lot more.

We got our tree on Advent III after worship and got the white lights up, too. But there it has remained in all its semi-naked glory for nearly a week. It has felt holy to just let it be for a spell.  This is, after all, a season of longing and quiet anticipation so it was a visual reminder of our Advent prayers.  Three experiences this week, however, pushed me closer towards the decorations we finally did tonight with joy (and a little melancholy.)

+ The first took place on Tuesday at choir practice.  New choir folk kept showing up and wanting to sing:  young tweens, young adults and a few more experienced!  Every 15 minutes it seemed as if some new friend was joining our ranks. After about 50 minutes of serious work on "O Holy Night" for this Sunday, Advent IV, our director stood up and said, "Before we run this one last time I want to tell you what it means to me. You know that I am Portuguese. But I am also Syrian... and as we sing this hymn it says so much to me about what is going on right now even as we practice. So, let's do it one more time as a prayer." At which point, about half the choir burst out in tears. As one colleague said, "Oh, great, now you expect us to SING?!?!" But we did - and wept some more too - and put our whole heart and soul into the music.

+ The second took place during a recent staff conversation.  We have been wrestling with the reality of new staffing in the New Year along with reduced budgets and all the rest. To say that it has been a nine months of anxiety and anger would be an understatement. But, thanks be to God, our lay leaders are faithful and creative.  And we spent the better part of two hours giving thanks to the Lord for their hard work and willingness to seek God's vision for our congregation.

+ And then, last night, I had the chance to hang with a younger colleague in the area and share a few pints of excellent winter lager.  We haven't had the chance to see one another in far too long so this was a small gift of love and encouragement for me as I move into partial retirement in February 2017. I can't quite find the words to say how important it was to share stories with my buddy - to say nothing of respect and affection.  It just confirmed so much in my heart is in sync with the Spirit of these times.

So, we made time tonight to get our tree dressed and add some other lights and decorations to our little Berkshire house.  One of the things we both cherish as we hang ornaments on the tree is remembering the stories behind each symbol:  the shamrock and thistle from our trip to London, the Inuit orb from Quebec City, the curling stone from the Eastern Townships of Canada alongside homemade treasures from our children and grandson. Each memory and each ornament evokes another prayer of gratitude, so tonight our hearts are more open for the birth of Jesus in our midst. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

god's love and this present darkness - part three...

NOTE:  This is part three in an unfolding series of reflections concerning God's love,
resistance and this present darkness...

In Walter Brueggemann's stunning opening essay, "Preaching as Sub-Version," from his 2000 collection of essays and sermons, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, I find myself pouring over extended paragraphs slowly.  If contemplation is taking "a long, loving look at what is real," then this is lectio divinia of the most prophetic type. Today my sustained reading took in only two paragraphs, a few hundred words, but they were saturated with such insight and clarity that I will ponder them for days to come. In his description of the "taproot of violence," he notes that material deprivation and social isolation breed violence. Then he writes:

The taproot of violence is also surely silence, of being vetoed and nullified and canceled so that we have no say in the future of the community or of our own lives. How odd, in the midst of a technological revolution offering broad communication, that serious input into our common future is increasingly limited and monopolized so that we cynically conclude that our say does not matter anyway. The silence are increasingly like a driven, helpless, desperate two-year-old who, having no say, will enact a tantrum; and so the tantrums build in Northern Ireland and among the Palestinians and in our own abandoned cities. Or to take it more intimately, every time a neighbor gets a machine gun and kills seventeen neighbors, the next day the comment i sure to be, "I don't know; he lived alone, kept to himself, and never talked to anybody." And we collude in the silence, the abused protecting the abuser until the killing comes.

We of all people (Christians and Jews) have the textual resources authorizing and legitimating and modeling speech that breaks the silence of violence and the violence of silence. At the very outset of our story, it says of our victimized mothers and fathers in Egypt, they groaned and cried out, and God heard and God saw and God knew and God remembered and God came down to save (Exodus 2: 23-25). But unlike our high Calvinist notions of sovereignty, the break comes from below in the daring speech of the silenced,. Out of that comes the richness of complaint psalms and lament psalms and psalms of rage and hate and resentment, the voice from below refusing the silence, speaking truth amidst power, speaking truth to holiness and evoking newness. It is all there in the preacher's script. Except that the colluding church and we colluding preachers and our colluding hymnal committees cover the Psalms, enhance the silence and foster in our naive ways more violence.

What a brutal irony that today the most recent cease-fire in Aleppo is being shredded yet again by cluster bombs, power politics and cynical tyrants without a soul. What a tragic and ugly fact that today, December 14, is the anniversary of the Newtown Massacre. At midday Eucharist we spoke of how the violence and silence must be a call to bind us closer together - and give us a voice born of love. Not the shallow, sentimental love evoked during this season and then forgotten, but a sacrificial love born of a vow to serve in the spirit of the Cross. As is happening so often of late, I turn again to the words of Bonhoeffer, this time from his reflection on training young clergy at Finkenwalde, the Lutheran seminary in exile that he ran during the Nazi regime. Facing the reality of this present darkness and encountering the inevitability of abandonment is one dimension of being faithful for a people come of age. It is nourished by solidarity, quiet prayer alongside an unwavering connection to God's truth. 

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life, but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared'.

A popular Face Book meme quoted Bonhoeffer puts it like this:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

confronting this present darkness - part two...

NOTE:  this is part two in my emerging reflection on resistance and serving Christ in this present darkness.

Tonight, at the close of Advent III, I am thinking a great deal of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Lutheran pastor during the Third Reich, son of privilege and prestige who was martyred for his opposition to Adolf Hitler, enigmatic and flawed activist who coined the phrase "religionless Christianity."  In his Letters and Papers from Prison, published posthumously in 1951 he wrote:

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”
If ever there was a time for "religionless Christianity," it is now. And yet three words of context are necessary to do Bonhoeffer's insight justice.

+ First, Bonhoeffer was writing from prison where he had already been incarcerated for smuggling Jews out of Germany. For years, German civil and military elites had been discussing how to assassinate Hitler; Bonhoeffer, a life-long pacifist, joined the plot. Discerning that the murder of one man would be less sinful and damaging to German society than allowing him to continue both genocide and his execution of a world war, a bomb was planted in the Fuhrer's study. Hitler was stunned but not killed. Soon incriminating paper's linked 
Bonhoeffer to the attempted murder and his fate was sealed by the Gestapo who then transferred him to Buchenwald. Pastor Bonhoeffer was hanged at Tegel prison on April 8,1945 after celebrating a time of prison worship less than a week before Allied forces liberated the concentration camp. Bonhoeffer never attempted to excuse himself from sin knowing that only God is the final judge of good and evil. 

What matters is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, its
given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for this world—not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

+ Second, the "religionless Christianity" was shaped by Bonhoeffer's sense of a "world come of age." Freed from superstition, institutions that had become morally bankrupt in praxis and outmoded traditions that no longer possessed energy or symbolic power, contemporary people of faith must redefine what it means to live and share the compassion and grace of Christ in our generation. Walter Brueggemann, in his opening essay to Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope writes that there was a time in the USA, "perhaps 250 years ago, when the Christian preacher could count on the shared premises of the listening community, reflective of a large theological consensus."  Indeed, there was a time "long ago" when the assumption of God completely dominated Western imagination."  But if the Holocaust did not destroy such illusions, and they did for many, the destruction, violence and hatred since 1945 have completed that task.

Today, God cannot be treated as a mechanical force called upon to solve our moments of 
weakness. Rather, the Holy is to be comprehended as the essence of life itself. What Richard Rohr calls the totality of our existence.  We are to live as if there were no God to rescue us. We must enter the suffering of others in solidarity and live as the very love of God for others - and ourselves. The Cross teaches that God enters the suffering and calls us to do likewise:

(This) is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world. Thus we must really live in that godless world and not try to cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.

+ And third, without illusions - or shame or superstition - we can finally live fully for love: This is what it means to be a people come of age: we have no false notions of God because God is in the living. “The world come of age is more god-less and perhaps just because of that closer to God than the world not yet come of age.” Bourgeois, white American Christians have rarely come of age. We have been blessed and cursed with our privilege and power for it keeps us from knowing how removed we are from God's presence in the world. We have constructed a privatized religion that only celebrates the inward journey. 

Now, whether we are ready or not, the emerging Trump regime will call us to forsake our lies and illusions for true solidarity.  Most of us, I trust, will not rise to the call. We will cling to our safety and hide behind wealth, class, race and gender protection. But, and this is a massive qualification, those who choose to let go and join Christ in the suffering that is to come, will come of age - and be embraced as the beloved of the Lord in ways we cannot yet imagine. As Bonhoeffer was led to his execution he said to a fellow inmate:  "This is the end... but for me it is the beginning of life."

1) Lent Madness

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:...