Tuesday, February 28, 2017

valarie kaur makes it real... THIS is the America I treasure!

There is not much more that I can add about this moment in time because sister Valarie Kaur articulates with grace, clarity, passion and integrity. So do yourself a favor and take this in - and KEEP taking this in - as you breathe, push and bring to birth a nation we can celebrate with pride and life-affirming love for all.

Monday, February 27, 2017

worship notes: bonhoeffer IV

NOTE: My concluding worship notes for the February Bonhoeffer series.
Thanks for joining us. Next week we start Lent and a conversation on what the United Church of Christ "Statement of Faith" means for the 21st century.

Last week a once young but now middle aged member of my former church in Cleveland, OH died. Neil was just 53 years old. He was a big teddy bear of a man with a smile as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge. I had the privilege of being the celebrant at his wedding, working with his spouse in Trinity Church on Christmas pageants and Christian Education, baptizing both of his children, playing on an intra-church softball team with him and sharing hundreds of hours with his loving parents whom I treasured as the salt of the earth. I loved Neil – and his entire family – and wept when I received word of his passing.

The late Fr. Ed Hays of the Shantivanum Retreat Center in Lawrence, KS once wrote in a prayer book he called Prayers for the Domestic Church that before the days of instant global communications, the news of a loved one’s death used to arrive slowly and in small doses. “Today, families hear the news of death as it comes upon us from all over the world. The daily newspaper or television (and now internet) bring death into our homes on a constant basis… from the collapse of a mine in West Virginia, the crash of an airliner in the mountains of Peru, famine, police shoot-outs and accidents on the highway.” He continues:

Psychologically, all this death renders us numb… as we suffer from overexposure to the message that death has visited our world. As a result, such announcements call forth very little from within us… increasing the danger that we shall respond to the news of all death with a reflex-like word of regret and then move on with the normal business of daily life… Would that we acknowledge the fact that the message of death always comes to us wrapped in fear… and this can be good news if we allow this fear to awaken us to live more fully and lovingly… When the angel of death knocks at our door, touch our lives personally, it is always a sacred time of remembrance.
(Prayers for the Domestic Church, pp. 185-6)

He then offers a few prayer templates to help us practice honoring these deaths and remembering the blessing of love we received from these now deceased saints. When I heard of Neil’s death, I went back to this old prayer book and used these words to take stock of his departure.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, who is the keeper of the Book of Life. Today I have learned of the death of Neil, and as this type of news always does, it comes as a shock. We know, Lord, that we all must die…. But we still share the shock of death… May the news of this death be for me a holy message of how not to waste my todays – how not to be unprepared for the arrival of death in my own life – may I best remember Neil by being grateful for life today and by loving you, my God, with all my heart, strength and mind.

As I prayed these words once again, words I have used for over 40 years, they led me to recall others in my life who have gone home to the Lord – my sisters and parents, nephews and friends, precious members of four very different congregations – and these memories brought blessings to my heart. The angel of death, you see, comes to us as an ally of love and wisdom if we are open to God’s upside-down kingdom of grace. Then, as so often happens for me of late, these reflections morphed into a deeper inquiry into the trajectory of my own ministry – what I’ve learned and experienced over the years, what I believe matters and what I sense was a waste of time – and also how I sense I’ve been called by God to spend whatever time remains.

So, on this fourth and closing day of my series on the wisdom and value of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for our era, it has become clear to me that nearly 73 years after the great German theologian and social activist was martyred by the Nazis during WWII – some 60 years after Bonhoeffer’s ground-breaking and disturbing little book, Letters and Papers from Prison, was published in both German and English – and 50 years after the rise and fall of the “God is Dead” movement: the Western Church in Europe and the United States continues to avoid the critique Bonhoeffer offered to us as a way to reshape and re-form the Body of Christ for contemporary living – and that grieves me.

Like some of you, I have seen Vatican II come and go even as Pope Francis currently strives to ground his institution in modern ways of being faithful to the love of Jesus. The international charismatic movement blew through many congregations in the 70s and 80s with only to leave them no better for the excitement. There was a liturgical reformation in Roman Catholicism and the Reformed tradition, the buzz of the mega-church, the promise of renewal in the praise music phenomenon, and the enthusiasm and disappointment of all the various church growth movements in the USA and they all ignored the challenge of Bonhoeffer.

Like the disciples in this morning’s gospel text who are awed by the mystical prayer encounter they experience with Jesus on the mountain top – a wild spiritual revival linking the man for others with the law and prophets as Jesus is embraced beyond time and space by both Moses and Elijah – the American church aches for a similar enchantment. We yearn for a magic bullet or a quick fix from beyond rather than the sobering and straight-forward admonition of Scripture to simply follow Jesus: This is my Beloved, said the Lord, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him… and when they looked up they saw no one but Jesus alone. Over the past three weeks I have outlined for you the essence of Bonhoeffer’s thought about the contemporary calling of the church that looks to no one but Jesus and why it matters for us now. Today we need to talk about these ideas so that we discern how they might guide us at this point in our life together. So let me first summarize what I’ve shared with you and then invite us into a dialogue.

First, Bonhoeffer was clear that faith means following Jesus: faith is not about doctrine, nor denomination, religious tradition, ritual, superstition or anything abstract; faith is doing in our day what Jesus did in his. To do this requires a conversion or repentance from the Greek word metanoia to change direction or spiritual formation as children of God. Whatever way you put it, none of it means having a Damascus road experience like St. Paul. Rather it is all about getting over ourselves: over our selfishness, our fears, our habits and our addictions. This is what transformation and transcendence means today: getting over ourselves so that we can be available to others – especially those in need. Faith is following Jesus out into the world not about saving ourselves a parking place in heaven by saying magic words.

Second, God makes the idea of faith flesh in Jesus who lives as the man for others. There is no ambiguity in this confession: to be faithful is to reform our lives into the form of Christ. Like Jesus, “we do not live in a separate, divine, holy, and supernatural sphere. Rather, we do God’s will in the natural, historical, public and political world—in work, marriage, government, and church. As a theologian involved in resistance against tyranny, Bonhoeffer asked: What does it mean to act responsibly for God and country?” And he concluded it is being engaged with the real struggles of suffering people on behalf of compassion and social justice. Being women and men for others is seeing the Cross or the Banquet table in the heart of the village rather than relegating religion to extracurricular or part-time events on the sidelines of life. As we say in the United Church of Christ, it is about accepting the cost and joy of discipleship – being there for others – in real time.

And third, our practice of being the church is often backwards: the church exists for the world – not itself – and never for inner magical experiences. “The church is the Body of Christ only when it exists for others” Bonhoeffer taught, “It must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.” In a letter of August 21, 1944 he wrote, “If we are to learn what God promises, and what God fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus.” The church had two jobs: it sends us outward to serve the community and calls us inward to learn how Scripture and prayer nourish encouragement.

Now that’s my summary: faith as following Jesus, Jesus as the man for others, the church as servant for the suffering of the world and the strengthening of discipleship. What I want to do now in anticipation of Lent – which begins in three days with Ash Wednesday and continues for 50 days – is talk together about these three ideas. You see Lent not only invites us into repentance – metanoia – getting over ourselves, it also asks us to renew our commitment to living as people for others as Christ did before us. That’s the whole point of the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; Bonhoeffer said the Christian life is NOT built on asceticism which is all about the self, but rather about how living for others transforms the world and leads us to meet God in our neighbors.

So let’s playfully explore these truths in conversation and let’s push ourselves beyond any harmless generalities, too. Our tradition is incarnational, ok? Is that a familiar word? How would u describe it? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that incarnate is derived from the Old Latin – incarnare – in + carn – within the flesh. But let’s be clear: incarnation is the soul of Christianity. God’s love becomes flesh. St. John’s gospel tells us that before the beginning of time the idea and light of the Lord existed – Logos in Greek literally means the words of life which rested within theon their eternal Creator. At the right time, logos was born into human flesh – real flesh and blood from the Greek sarx - and lived among us – literally eskenosen meaning pitched his tent in our neighborhood – bringing God’s eternal light into the world.

And that clearly informs Bonhoeffer’s theology, study of Scripture and insistence that whatever we do in the name of Jesus, it must incarnate the light, life and love of God in the real world.

So, faith as following Jesus: what does that mean in your life? Not someone else’s life – and not in some harmless generality – but in your life. How do you follow Jesus?

+ How about living as a person for others? How is compassion and justice for your neighbor revealed in your flesh? Your actions? Your checkbook or debit card?

+ And then how does our church exist for others? What does that look like – and why does it matter?

My mentor in a New York City urban ministry internship, the late Ray Swartzback, used to say that his vision of the church would be one where things were popping on Sunday morning and early afternoon but then dark and locked up the rest of the week. And the reason he made this bold statement was, like Bonhoeffer, Swartzy believed that the church must be out in the world – at city council, at local schools, on the picket line, at the hunger and homeless center, running for office and visiting the sick and afraid – not massaging their souls in the safety of the Sanctuary. There was always a time and place for Scripture and study – and even a little bit of time for the so-called business of the church. But more often than not, we got the balance inverted: we used the vast bulk of our time for committees and meetings instead of being out there doing what needs to be done. The church exists for others.

That is why we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday right before we start a holy Lent: it links our baptism with Christ’s, it connects the beginning of Epiphany with its close today, it joins the life of Jesus with both the suffering of Lent and God’s blessings at Easter, and it reminds us one more time that our faith rests upon listening to Jesus for a season rather than running off half-baked into yet more busy work that only clutters our hearts and minds rather than frees us for service. Epiphany comes after Christmas, right?

What story guides the celebration of Epiphany, do you recall? The arrival of the Magi – the Three Kings – and why is that important to us? Because these Wise Men and Women come from Iraq – they were Zoroastrians – or Gentiles to the Jews who both saw and trusted the light and logos of the Lord. Epiphany is the celebration of God’s light being shared with the whole world.

That’s the start of Epiphany and two days later comes… what? The feast of Christ’s baptism! And that’s where we first hear the words: This is my Beloved with whom I am well-pleased! And then we get the same words from God again on Transfiguration Sunday: this is my beloved! Today’s feast is to remind us that by our baptism we, like Jesus, are God’s beloved; and we, like the Christ, are committed to following the Lord all the way to the Cross: this is what faith means.

It is also what the meaning of our Lenten journey as we join Jesus as he heads into Jerusalem to face suffering and the Cross. Remember how explicit Bonhoeffer about learning Go’s will from the Cross? All we can know about the Lord has been revealed to us in Jesus on the Cross. So don’t rush too quickly to get to the good times of Easter. If you want to know what God’s will is for your life, or, where to find the Lord in the world: look for the Cross in the middle reality. Transfiguration Sunday leads us down from the mountain of mystical delight and into the valley of the shadow of death.

And with Jesus is heading towards the Cross we are told to listen to him – because we have something to learn that only Jesus can teach us. How, for example, does Jesus “approach his destiny in Jerusalem?” How does his walk inform our own calling to compassion and justice? Just as this Sunday connects our baptismal blessing with the cost and joy of discipleship, it unites us with Christ’s descent from the mountain into the valley of the Cross. It instructs to listen carefully to the Lord so that we might enter our challenge with his grace. And then, but only then, is there the hint of Easter:

Jesus comes to his disciples touches them with a sign of healing, commands them not just to stand up but literally to "be raised up!" and then commands them not to speak of this event until he himself has been raised for this is the hour of death…. Something greater born of this day is coming that cannot be comprehended until after the resurrection. So for now we must be silent.

We are being summoned by the Lord to learn to follow – to be there for others as he is always there for us – and to trust that the valley of the shadow of death is just as vital to our ministry as both the exhilaration of the mountain top and the bounty of the banquet table. As I look back on a long ministry, I give thanks to God that I am still around to share this extraordinary part of this journey with you. We have some import work and love to share in Christ’s spirit, beloved, so let us look to Jesus and Jesus alone in these times of trial

Saturday, February 25, 2017

bringing it all back home...

Every day brings a new assault on love. I can't help but drift back to Dylan's masterpiece, Bringing It All Back Home and "Maggie's Farm."

Yesterday a young Indian man was shot and killed in a Kansas City bar by a white supremacist who yelled: What is the status of your visas - get out of my country! Earlier in the week, after being rebuffed by the FBI, the White House encouraged other US intelligence leaders to contact the news media in order to reshape the way Russian influence peddling stories are being spun. The free press was denigrated and chastised once again by POTUS 45 And at week's end, Steve Bannon proudly proclaimed to the Conservative Political Action Committee:

Our work is the deconstruction of the administrative state. ... If you
look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important. (Please read a brief interpretation of Bannon's remarks that are not fake news but authentic analysis https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/us/politics/ stephen-bannon-cpac-speech.html?_r=0)

There should no longer be any illusions about the current regime: it is an ethnic nativist movement driven by ideologues hell bent on dismantling the America so many of us cherish. The nation, however, continues to be simultaneously uncertain but polarized. A recent TIME Magazine poll reveals that 22% of our citizenry aggressively supports POTUS 45 while 35% boldly oppose him. There are also roughly two equal camps of ambiguous American - 22% who are inclined to support the President and give him a chance along with 21% who tend to oppose him but are willing to see what happens next - who feel anxious and choose to hope for the best. 

As this year unfolds, our slow moving checks and balances will call the regime to accountability. Law suits have already been filed against Ms. Conway for her egregious manipulation of the truth. The blatantly racist Muslim ban has been stalled in the courts while our educational institutions join with high tech firms and American hospitals to derail future prohibitions on immigrants. Further, a few key Republican leaders - John Boehner, John McCain and perhaps General H.R. McMaster  - have articulated modest but important challenges to the pandering lies that have shaped the President's first month in office. 

At the same time, more ICE invasions into immigrant communities are a certainty. Along with the dismantling of environmental safe guards, educational resources and public support for the arts, there will also be a class driven effort to strip the Affordable Health Care Act of its goal of making American benevolent and healthy again. Paul Krugman cut to the chase when he wrote:

Why do Republicans hate Obamacare so much? It’s not because they have better ideas; as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, they’re coming up empty-handed on the “replace” part of “repeal and replace.” It’s not, I’m sorry to say, because they are deeply committed to Americans’ right to buy the insurance policy of their choice. No, mainly they hate Obamacare for two reasons: It demonstrates that the government can make people’s lives better, and it’s paid for in large part with taxes on the wealthy. Their overriding goal is to make those taxes go away. And if getting those taxes cut means that quite a few people end up dying, remember: freedom!

So much for all the disingenuous shouting from the Right about so-called class warfare politics from Bernie Saunders and others. For as the "deconstruction" of our national programs of shared compassion continues, real class warfare cannot be far behind. All of which suggests to me that people of faith, hope and love have some work to do in 2017. 

+ Clearly, we must remain active and public allies of our time-tested
American checks and balances. They need our financial resources as well as our physical energy and vocal support. This is an absolute necessity at this moment in time. In a democracy it takes time to challenge the status quo: spontaneous street protests have their place, but it was the slow and focused work of the NAACP that dismantled American apartheid in the 50s and 60s. So get your check books and debit cards out and keep the contributions flowing.

+ At the same time, we need some prefigurative organizing at the grassroots to help us experience and even imagine alternatives. The visual artist and theologian, Mako Fujimura, has written about what he calls culture care.  It is essential that the person of faith and/or vision not retreat to the desert at this moment in time. Rather, we must be at the center of the village (as per Bonhoeffer) rather than at the fringes. Our lives must be engaged along with our intellect and spirit to shape new possibilities.

Many of the streams that feed the river of culture are polluted, and the soil this river should be watering is thus parched and fragmented. Most of these we know, but let me briefly touch on some of the fault lines in the cultural soil (starving the soul) as well as some of the sources of the poisons in the water (polluting the soul). Starving the cultural soul:   One of the most powerful sources of cultural fragmentation has grown out of the great successes of the industrial revolution. Its vision, standards, and methods soon proliferated beyond the factory and the economic realm and were embraced in sectors from education to government and even church. The result was reductionism. Modern people began to equate progress with efficiency. Despite valiant and ongoing resistance from many quarters—including industry—success for a large part of our culture is now judged by efficient production and mass consumption. We often value repetitive, machine-like performance as critical to “bottom line” success. In the seductive industrialist mentality, “people” become “workers” or “human resources,” who are first seen as interchangeable cogs, then treated as machines—and are now often replaced by machines.

This moment in time, therefore, calls for acts of small scale beauty: personal conversations in safe settings, salons, house parties, one-on-one relationship building that evokes our truest stories. Last night, at a small dinner party, we were reminded of how shallow our imaginations can become when caught up in the fear of this present darkness. "When Magellan came to the Americas, the First Nation peoples were unable to "see" his ships. Their minds literally had no experience with such a thing. So as they look upon the water, they were unable to visualize the boats filled with conquistadors coming to kill them."

Earlier, a doctor shared with us a card he had been given that day
by an elderly African American woman who had been encouraged by her share cropper ancestors to "go North and find some opportunity." The hand made card was a word of encouragement and gratitude for the doctor's listening and tenderness. "That's how I spend much of my time," she'd said, "hand writing notes of love to those who might need them."

The care of our culture - the resurrection of compassion - the call to make America benevolent again (thank you Cathleen Falsani) is the call of God's Spirit at this moment in our history. There are players in place to take on the institutional challenges and I give thanks - and some of my limited funds - to their efforts. Now it is time for me to bring it down to the basics of the people I can touch. The 10 foot rule and all of that. In sharing some home made beauty followed up by listening carefully to those close by, the resistance grows stronger.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

get back to where you once belonged...

My life has been blessed. At nearly 65 years of age I still have loving contact with friends from middle school. That's fifty three years of knowing and being known: not always profoundly, of course, and often with some huge gaps and silences, too - but still knowing and being known. In this age of disposable everything, where the idol of busyness for business rules supreme, I cherish these relationships - honor them in my heart, pray about them with gratitude - and seek to nourish and give as good as I have been given. Mary Oliver gets it right in this wee poem she calls "To Live in the World."

you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

In the last three weeks I have had two moving conversations with two of my oldest friends. One was an extensive phone chat that filled my heart full to overflowing. The other was a field trip to a local luthier to repair a 47 year old Martin guitar that we played back in the day. While wildly different, each led me to holy ground in the middle of my ordinary life and left me feeling renewed and deeply loved. What's more, right here in the middle of my current world new musical and creative possibilities are flowing once again. Another Mary Oliver poem, "Tell Me About It" comes to mind:

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Each of my old buddies have been on a journey - very different paths - that have taken us into unique albeit related encounters with darkness, joy, pain, betrayal, confusion, beauty, love and anger. And now, for reasons greater than us all, these discrete crossings are coming together again. What once joined us is once again revealing new/old ways we can share the sweetness of whatever time remains. What an incredible and sacred gift to receive at this stage of life. "You can have the other words - chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I'll take grace. I don't know what it is exactly, but I'll take it. ”  (Mary Oliver)

Yes, yes, I know that old guys in the last quarter of their lives often get sentimental and even maudlin. Been there, done that and will probably do so again, too. But this feels deeper than just the approaching of our 50th high school reunion in three years (not that there's anything wrong with such a celebration.) No, this is more about trust and love in a harsh time. It is about honoring what we've learned to be profoundly life-giving. It is about cultivating beauty, music, art, poetry and friendship in the hope of passing it on. It is what I heard Bonhoeffer speaking of in his Letters and Papers from Prison: living and loving as people dedicated to others.

So many today experience despair. There is a palpable sense that we are careening towards an inevitable cultural and political train wreck that we are powerless to avoid. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite recently referenced this truth from the works of the late Dorothee Soelle in, The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity.  

As a German, Soelle knew well that the most ghastly corruptions of a society can occur when massive intolerance for the sheer existence of other people takes hold in law and custom. Often, however, violation after violations is "tolerated" because, after all, "what can we do about it?" Against this counsel of despair, Soelle argues for a "militant" Christianity that cannot help but keep comparing this world with its rampant injustices to the Kingdom of God. And this Christianity will not surrender one wit to the hell on earth that is the life and death of so many. "If we love heaven, we find ourselves less and less able to tolerate hell." You might think that "hell" is too strong a term for what such intolerance means (at this moment in time). It is not. Hell is obliteration, the opposite, in face of creation. 

Over and again, as I move through the day I discern people of all types aching for trust and hope, but uncertain how to move through their grief. Is it safe to do any thing some wonder? Others carry a weary resignation that our deepest values are being systematically derailed and all we can do is shoulder the burden in silence. Still more are vocal, outraged and angry but nevertheless impotent when it comes to bringing to birth new hope amidst all the fear and loathing.

Perhaps this is why I find my reconnection with my oldest friends to be so compelling. We've been playing/making music together and apart for 50 years. We hold the same roots and influences in common. We respect where we've gone our separate ways and know that this diversity enriches being together again. As for me, I also believe that the Spirit (however you understand it) has encouraged these reunions so that ever more creativity might be unleashed in future collaborations. As one friend said to me in a way that sang within my heart, "I have always believed that somehow our lives have been destined to be intertwined." Makes me think of this invitation...

Let's face it: we are all past the point of fretting over our previous sins and failures. In my lingo, it feels as if now is the time to truly "seek ye first the kingdom of God..."The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” (Mary Oliver - again, yes I know - but the last one I promise!) Call it the revenge and/or return of unrepentant hippies - or the resonance of Mako Fujimura's "Culture Care" - or both: something is brewing and simmering here that is a joy to behold. Mako's analysis warrants a hearing:

An industrial map in the mid-twentieth century colored New York’s Hudson River black. The mapmakers considered a black river a good thing—full of industry! The more factory outputs, the more progress. When that map was made, “nature” was widely seen as a resource to be exploited. Few people considered the consequences of careless disposal of industrial waste. The culture has shifted dramatically over the last fifty years. When I share this story today, most people shudder and ask how anyone could think of a polluted river as good. But today we are doing the same thing with the river of culture. Think of the arts and other cultural enterprises as rivers that water the soil of culture. We are painting this cultural river black—full of industry, dominated by commercial interests, careless of toxic byproducts—and there are still cultural mapmakers who claim that this is a good thing. The pollution makes it difficult to for us to breathe, difficult for artists to create, difficult for any of us to see beauty through the murk.

So whatever is taking place, let me say today that I LOVE being an old dude at this moment in time - especially given the blessings and 
possibilities that are stirring with my old mates - I'll keep you posted as this story ripens.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

bonhoeffer part III...

NOTE:  My worship notes for Bonhoeffer III from February 19, 2017.

Much of what I hear about religion these days turns my stomach – and breaks my heart. On the Right, our conservative sisters and brothers seem hell-bent on a 21st century theocracy obsessed with moral minutiae that penalizes and even demonizes those who question their selective use of God’s word in the Bible. They champion the so-called right to life for the unborn while demanding capital punishment, the obliteration of the Affordable Health Care Act and a reckless foreign policy that makes our nation ever more vulnerable to terrorism. It doesn’t matter that Jesus abrogated the moral limitations of “an eye for an eye” ethic – and that more people of color are incarcerated and injected to death in prison than white folk – those who serve a vengeful God demand a realm of retribution. Sr. Joan Chittister hit a home run for me when she said:

I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any public money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is. Over and again I hear Jesus saying at the close of the Sermon on the Mount: Remember not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.

And lest I be accused of narrow partisan rather than prophetic preaching, let’s note for the record the withering self-righteous elitism of the liberal side of the Christian family, ok? How many times have our fundamentalist kin been ridiculed, dismissed or shamed by an ill-informed media that does not even try to comprehend their angst? How often is their quest to live more fully under the guidance of God’s word denigrated as dangerous and derided as destructive? How often have liberals “equated any religious expression whatsoever in the public sphere with religion’s most illiberal elements, treating it as ipso facto incompatible with secular values or the Constitution?” As Christopher Moraff wrote in the Daily Beast: the vast majority of Americans (78 percent) still identify as Christian. Add Jews and Muslims to the mix and a monotheistic belief in a sentient higher power is practically universal in the U.S. (And of this majority) more than half accept the validity of evolution, are tolerant if not openly supportive of marriage equality, and back the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act and yet they continue to be portrayed with religion’s most illiberal and offensive elements. To which I hear Jesus saying from that same Sermon on the Mount: “Hypocrite. First remove the beam from out of your own eye so that you can see clearly the speck in your sister or brother’s eye.”

To which Dietrich Bonhoeffer says to us all, conservative and liberal alike: The time has come to realize that God is now teaching people of faith how to live in the world without religion. Without conforming to the “emotional comforts” of being part of the spiritual IN group, without reducing God’s love to inward feelings of forgiveness, without forcing bourgeois morality down the throats of a diverse and creative population, and without the need for our phony, divisive and mean-spirited culture wars.

Writing from a German prison for smuggling Jews out of the Nazi regime Bonhoeffer put it like this in 1944: “How do we now speak in a non-religious way about God? In what way are we religionless Christians? In what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world… where Christ is no longer the object of other-worldly concerns, but something quite different, truly the Lord of this world” but in ways beyond our traditional way of thinking and living?

For today’s third installment of “Exploring the Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for Our Era” I’m going to share with you three ideas: 1) Why Bonhoeffer concluded that the dispensation of religion was over in Western culture; 2) What he means by practicing a “religionless Christianity”; and 3) How his insights might empower us in advancing Christ’s love, mercy, hope and peace in our world.

To begin, I want you to look at one of Bonhoeffer’s poems, Christians and Unbelievers, for it offers a broad sense of what a religionless Christianity means. In three complex stanzas Bonhoeffer portrays how to move from a religious world view to a nonreligious Christianity. This poem is on the top of today’s bulletin, ok? When it opens, we’re shown what contemporary Christian religion has become: we go to God when we are in pain. We want God’s comfort from beyond the world to ease our sickness, our hunger, our sin and our fears. It is ”deus ex machina, the other-worldly, Powerful God we turn to when we need a fix or a rescue operation.”

Men go to God when they are sore bestead, pray to him for succor, for his peace, for bread, for mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead; all men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Like the late Billy Graham used to say: all drowning people know how to pray for when we are confronted by our powerlessness, we want to be rescued. Superstition, however, gets us into trouble Bonhoeffer believes because it trains us to depend on a silver bullet without taking responsibility for our actions. 

The second stanza deepens this critique of traditional religion by contrasting a powerful God in the opening lines with a crucified God in the next: this is the in-between realm, the theologica crucis or theology of the Cross, which the Protestant Reformation’s Martin Luther wrestled with wherein God is in agony. St. Paul spoke of this inversion as the wisdom of God and the foolishness of the Cross. Seeing God’s pain we want to “rush to the Lord’s side to challenge and defend God from the unbelievers who cause such suffering.” If you know the Lenten hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” then you know what Bonhoeffer was expressing.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead, find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead; Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

The real challenge to religion as either superstition or sentimentality is described in the third stanza of this poem. Instead of God coming to us from beyond with power to ease our pain, or, believers going to God to challenge unbelievers who have nailed Christ to the Cross; here God moves towards us from within the suffering of the world. God acts to be there for us, sharing the nourishment of love – whether we get it or not – just as Jesus lived. Jesus is the Man for Others in Bonhoeffer’s words , living into the joys and sorrows of reality, freely offering compassion and solidarity to Christian and Unbeliever alike.

God goes to every man when sore bestead, feeds body and spirit with his bread; for Christians, unbelievers alike he hangs dead – and both alike forgiving.

Reality is where we meet God – sharing love with the whole world like Jesus – is where God is present: not in our creation of spiritual clubs saturated in superstition, not in the celebration of sentimental superheroes, and not in arcane tests of doctrine and dogma. Only becoming whole in love – mature – complete as Jesus taught in today’s gospel is where God is to be found. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. But let’s be clear that this is a truly problematic and unfortunate translation of the Greek word telios.

Not only does it contradict the wisdom at the top of the text where we’re instructed to live beyond the ethic of an eye for an eye by choosing love over hatred; it asks us to strive towards the impossibility of human perfection. We know that we were made with a crack in us by God for that is how the light in; so why would Jesus tell us something different? The truth of the matter is he didn’t and Biblical scholars are explicit in translating telios – perfect – as becoming whole or complete in love – and that changes everything, don’t you think?

+ Can you describe what you sense it means for an adult to be whole or complete in love? What does this text say to you?

+ Scripturally it has something to do with balance and perspective: integrity and a sense of proportion help us live in balance, too for not every word or problem is as important as another.

The Old Testament lesson in Leviticus uses the word holy – qadosh in Hebrew – stating you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy. Our spiritual relatives in ancient Israel were not speaking of perfection when they celebrated holiness. No, they meant honoring the cosmic order that God initiated before the beginning of time. They meant growing up completely in love. One scholar put it like this:

God has created the world with a capacity to be “very good,” and that goodness is maintained by the order built into creation, setting boundaries, for instance, between light and darkness, earth and sky, sea and dry land (Genesis 1). When those boundaries are maintained, life can flourish. When they are crossed, chaos ensues… Living into this understanding of holiness erases any boundaries between what is sacred and secular – because all life and all matter is important – priests and laity are called to practice the same holiness… Jews and foreigners are to be cared for with equal compassion… the fields were to be cherished so that neighbors and strangers alike might all eat and be nourished…
for we are to become mature – complete – by loving our neighbor as ourselves. (Working Preacher)

Bonhoeffer believed that the time had come when only a religionless Christianity could care for all people – Christians and unbelievers, Jews and refugees, neighbors and strangers alike as God intended – because a religionless Christianity was driven only by mature love. It did not insist on rituals, doctrine, sacraments or any public manifestation of faith except… love. Cut back to the third stanza of the poem and today’s Scriptures are clarified and revealed: God goes to every one when sore bestead, feeds body and spirit with his bread; for Christians, unbelievers alike he hangs dead – and both alike forgiving.

Are you still with me? Let’s pause and see if we’re still together on this, ok? Any questions? What are you thinking or reacting to?

In his context of pre-World War II Germany, Bonhoeffer saw conservative Christians giving the Nazis a pass on hatred and fear-mongering by concentrating on petty and personal moral infractions rather than the festering social injustices of bigotry and anti-Semitism. He also called-out the liberals of his day who no longer knew how to speak about public morality and ethics because they too had privatized and psychologized God. Further, most of Europe didn’t even care about God and only thought about the Lord when they had problems they couldn’t solve.

In 2017, the Church is equally bifurcated but not necessarily in the same way: conservatives are agitated about too much secularism – think Bill O’Reilly’s specious “war on Christmas” – so they want the new administration to make us more religious. Conversely, liberals have become so ethically compromised that most Americans don’t even know we exist – and if they do, they don’t care! That is why Bonhoeffer insisted that it is part of God’s plan to have the old religion pushed out of the world. A religious view of God – that is, a human perspective – is a false vision that “props up misconceptions about who God really is in the world today.” Now is the time to grow up he wrote– mature and become complete in love as Jesus and the Old Testament teach – so that we might find our true nature by sharing God’s love with all of creation. To quote from a letter written a year before his execution:

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur – as if there were no God – coming of age means that God lets us live in the world without the working hypo-thesis of God who solves all our problems… in truth, God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. There we see God as weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way – the only way – in which God is with us and helps us. Christ makes it quite clear that love comes not by virtue of Christ’s omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

This still sounds provocative 73 years later – and it should – because Bonhoeffer knows that all we can know of God is what Jesus looks like on the Cross. If you ask, “Where is God?” or “What is God like?” or even “What does God ask of me right now?” Bonhoeffer would say: Look at Jesus on the Cross. Then he goes on to explain HOW Jesus ended up on the Cross and what that means for you and. So after I lay this out we can explore any of your questions, ok? This is really important, but so upside down to our usual thinking about religion that I want to be careful and precise with you – so pray for me – as I give you these five points.

+ First, Bonhoeffer believed that faith means following Jesus: not doctrine, not abstract theology, dogma or even religious tradition. Faith means doing in our day what Jesus did in his: using his life to be fully there with love for his neighbors. 

+ Second, when we are fully present in love for our neighbors, we meet God. When life is not defined only by our fears, needs, selfishness or personal gratification, but rather the well-being of our neighbor, we experience transcendence: we get over ourselves; we move towards maturity, our world is expanded by welcoming in the needs of our neighbors and our hearts are strengthened by sharing and practicing love.

+ Third, more often than not, this finds us sharing compassion with another’s suffering. We can also share the joys of our neighbors, but more often than not the suffering of another is where we find Jesus – out on the Cross – and wherever we find Christ on the Cross, we hear God’s voice in our world. This is what true reconciliation means – recognizing the Cross in our context – and moving in compassion towards those in need. 

+ Fourth, repentance is NOT about confession or personal prayer. Metanoia – changing the direction of our life – has nothing to do with asceticism, denial or saying the right magic formulas. Repentance is bumping up against our own selfishness when called upon to share love and choosing to move towards compassion even when we don’t feel like it. It is participating in the suffering of another in love. Repentance is “not denial in the sense of a religious world, but rather placing one’s self at God’s disposal in all of life.”

+ And fifth, in order to live this religionless Christianity, we must truly love life. All of life – good food and laughter, hugs and kisses and sex, nature, music and the arts as well as cultivating maturity, discipline, silence and prayer. If we don’t love life like Jesus did – and remember he was criticized by many in his day for being a party animal who performed his first miracle by changing water into wine – if we don’t love life in the fullness of our true selves, then we will become grouchy phonies play acting with love – rather than discovering God in the midst of reality.

And I’m here to tell you right now that the world doesn’t need more phonies – especially in the Church. The world doesn’t need more liberals or conservatives either. What the world needs more of right now are women and men willing to put themselves at God’s disposal in all of life. That is the down and dirty work of growing up and maturing in love. That is what Bonhoeffer saw as our calling at this moment in history. That is the way a religionless Christianity lives like Christ in a broken but beautiful world. So do you have any questions or comments?

We have been called into the radical freedom of loving and serving God without a crutch, without superstition or sentimentality, and with the fear of hell haunting us. Bonhoeffer himself wrote just months before his execution:

One must reject the questions “How can I be good?” and “How can I do good?” and instead ask “the utterly and totally different question, ‘What is the will of God?’ ” The God who is incarnate, crucified, and resurrected in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality… so let us become whole – complete – by being formed in the likeness of Christ Jesus our Lord. The difference between an unbeliever and a Christian is that the former calls upon God to solve their problems while the latter hears God call followers to participate in the problems of human suffering. This is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being today is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world.

This is how we become whole – holy and complete in love – we have to check out of the status quo and place ourselves at God’s disposal. In anticipation of confessing our affirmation of faith, let that sink in as we share with you Eddie Vedder’s religionless call to action in a song he called: “Society.”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

songs of compassion, resistance, feasting and tenderness...

As I reflect on the wisdom of Bonhoeffer for this era - especially his call to a "religionless Christianity" - my new semi-retired, part-time ministry makes more and more sense. Let me be explicit: I wanted this change as much as the congregation needed to start saving resources. It is a win/win wherein we made "poverty our friend." That is, we found ways to match my change in call with our financial challenges. This isn't always true for congregations. All too often when dollars become tight compassion and vision go out the window as formerly liberal Christians become fiscal fundamentalists. Not that we didn't have to wrestle with this tendency, too. Nevertheless, we were able to craft a change that both empowers me and creates now possibilities for ministry among the faithful.

It would be incomplete for me to speculate about what our new reality will mean for the faith community beyond this year. Better that this be left to an intentional discernment process that I pray will come into being over the next few months. As for me, a few insights are ripening:

+ First, sharing the music and poetry of compassion and resistance. 
I have long known that hearts can be opened through beauty and passion. They can be manipulated, too so I am on-guard against such a violation. The joy of shaking your booty, the ecstasy of dancing and laughing in community, the nourishment of careful listening, however, are not incidentals to our addiction to busyness: they are essential for new life and true health as they become prayerful communion in a most incarnational way. It might be Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road" ensemble, John Coltrane's improvisational jazz, Joni Mitchell's exquisite playfulness with poetry infused with melody and rhythm, Carrie Newcomer's commitment to encouragement and solidarity in song, Mary Oliver's spirituality of words, Beyonce's enfleshment of female wisdom or... whatever else breathes life into your soul through the arts, yes?

The quest is to awaken us to living for love. Bonhoeffer made it clear that this cannot be sentimental or superstitious: both render religion to the dust bin of history - and rightfully so. What religionless Christianity does is live into the realities of contemporary life fully as women and men of compassion. "Wherever you seek the will of God," he wrote, "look for the Cross of Christ... for the Cross is all we can know of God." Where are innocent people being violated? Where are our neighbor's most vulnerable? Where are the cries of the poor? The arts have a unique way of opening our hearts and minds to truths deeper than ideology, habit of convenience.
+ Second, celebrating the fullness of life's beauty even in the presence of the brokenness.  To live like Jesus is to bless the wine at the feast, break bread often in the company of others and share the full joy of the incarnation with all our senses. Bonhoeffer taught that true repentance - metanoia - is NOT about asceticism or denial, but rather confronting our selfishness and exercising discipline and maturity in pursuit of compassion. He said, "Repentance is putting our whole lives at God's disposal." It is about growing-up and getting over ourselves by loving. By sharing. By being fully alive.

Too often, however, religion is somber and fear-based. That is why it is part of our conversion to practice honoring our sensuality for what we do not know ourselves we are unable to make flesh for others. Henri Nouwen hit the mark so sweetly when he wrote:

We all need to eat and drink to stay alive. But having a meal is more than eating and drinking. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another's plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body. That is why it is so important to "set" the table. Flowers, candles, colorful napkins all help us to say to one another, "This is a very special time for us, let's enjoy it!"

At this moment in time, therefore, I find myself returning to the kitchen as my prayer station. I have been working through two books, The Gaza Kitchen and Jerusalem, to savor the flavors and to experience in my flesh the joy of creating and sharing beauty. Last night, we took a break from the Middle East, however, so I could work up some maple braised pork chops. After years of utilitarian eating on the run, it is a blessing to slow down and chop, taste, simmer and bake the delights of creation. Soon I will be sharing these feasts with new guests, too so that the bounty is

+ And third, going deeper into a spirituality of tenderness. I am sometimes overwhelmed at the cruel and callous disregard for life the current regime celebrates. I am not saying they are the only purveyors of pain - that would be naive and stupid - I am simply noting that their selfish disregard for the vulnerable and Mother Earth are the antithesis of tenderness. Already the proposed cabinet if filled with those whose stated goal is to dismantle what we have achieved over the past 70 years. Even Senator McCain called out his homies over their abandonment of Western values.  And don't get me started on how the forgotten working class patriots of the heartland will be skewered by health care policies that make the rich richer and curtail social services to those most in need.

But the sickness runs deeper: it is an idolatry of selfishness. Niebuhr used to say that original sin was a theological way of talking about vanity and selfishness.  When we put ourselves at the center of the universe, we create suffering. And the more suffering we create, the more we must struggle to keep the consequences of our acts out of sight and mind. That is why Brueggeman insists that the prophetic church must help us break through our illusions and denial.
Bonhoeffer made it clear that only small acts of disciplined love connect us to the presence of the holy in our world. In 1944 he put it like this:

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur – as if there were no God – coming of age means that God lets us live in the world without the working hypo-thesis of God who solves all our problems… in truth, God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. There we see God as weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way – the only way – in which God is with us and helps us. Christ makes it quite clear that love comes not by virtue of Christ’s omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

I am grateful for the time and chance to embrace this more deeply.

Friday, February 17, 2017

loving robbie robertson's testimony...

Last night I started to read the story of Robbie Robertson: Testimony. It is just what I had hoped for: musical minutiae for the "roots of rock and roll" geek in me, critical reflection upon his heritage as a young First Nations boy from Canada along with a deep awareness of the way sound, rhythm, harmony and passion can be woven together in ways that become food for the soul. Robertson was first shaped by the songs of his mother's people in the Iroquois Confederation. Back in the day, the pulse of drums accompanied by acoustic guitars formed a foundation for the movement of melody becoming harmony. To a young mixed race boy experiencing the community's only shared form of entertainment, the sounds were magical.

Later, Robertson was transported to another level of blessing when he was turned on to the low down rockabilly of Ronnie Hawkins, Duane Eddy and others. At 15, his teen band was opening for Hawkins in Toronto and before the year was out he was on a train heading to Arkansas for an audition. As an underage performer, Robertson had to wear a fake mustache drawn on by worldly twenty year old Levon Helm and keep his back to the crowd under a blue stage light. Before he was 16, he was sneaking into blues clubs in Memphis to hear Howlin' Wolf play in Black clubs, getting trashed on Southern rut-gut and being bedded down by all types of wild women.

Already, I am struck in these early chapters by the way genre bending music speaks to some of us of us in ways that are mystical. Rockabilly is already a hybrid form of the blues meets country twang. When I was exploring the roots of rock for my doctoral dissertation I discovered that the 1953 recordings that Elvis Presley did for Sun Records in Memphis  always included one side of a 45 rpm disc that favored part of the equation - the blues - while the flip side inverted the experiment and celebrated the other part of the fusion - country. He was clearly mixing and matching traditions to see which one worked the best both for himself as well as his audience. Think, for example, of his first release: Arthur "Big Boy" Craddup's "That's Alright Momma" backed by Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" The same research was at work with: "Good Rockin' Tonight/I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" or "I Forgot To Remember To Forget / Mystery Train."
One side emphasized his take on the Black traditions of soul, gospel and the blues - with a bit of jump thrown in to keep things hoppin' - while the other shared a slightly hipper take on country, traditional mountain music and bluegrass. A year later, the King was tearing it up at RCA with "I've Got a Woman," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes" and finally "Hound Dog." 

It was this same mojo that got the young Robbie Robertson working on his guitar skills and pushed him into the realm of live performance. (Check out this early cut of Ronnie Hawkins working his stuff on "40 Days" from back in 1959. Note, also, the urbane Dick Clark schmaltzing it up with his cowboy gear!)
Robertson, of course, went on to play electric guitar in Bob Dylan's renegade move from folkie to hipster in the mid 60s and then take it one step farther with the birth of The Band. His guitar style has been genre-bending from the start: clear but biting, subtle attacks that add interest without becoming self-indulgent while mixing a heartfelt blend of the blues, soul, and traditional folk sounds to his First Nations roots. 

Eric Clapton ached to join The Band back in 1968 after a few years of psychedelic hyperbole. He wanted to play it pure - like Robertson - and spent time with The Band up at Big Pink in Woodstock, NY. Clapton never made the musical move, but he did start to mine Robertson's genre-bending wisdom in his own way. If you know his first solo album, you can hear the heavy influence of Southern wild man, Delaney Brammlett, as well as the inimitable J.J. Cage. As the 70s ripened, Clapton played with a similar aesthetic by blending reggae sounds into a more pure Blues groove mixed into a stew of rock and soul. Small wonder that when The Band called it quits in 1976 - and Scorsese and Bill Graham hosted "The Last Waltz" at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom - Clapton played along with Howlin' Wolf, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Ronnie Hawkins. 

Here's how the musical gumbo wound up: start with a master from Motown, Marvin Gaye, and play his "Don't Do It," adding the horns of New Orleans genius, Allen Toussaint, with Canadian rockabilly aficionados (most of the Band including Robertson) with the drumming and the vocals of Arkansas-born and raised Levon Helm. Pure magic and soul food.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

just play it loud...

Tonight I'm gonna play some Beatles and Stones with a friend - and we'll turn it up LOUD! 

Right now its just for fun as we are both rooted and in love with 60s pop and garage band songs. I mean, who doesn't like "Dirty Water," "Hang On Sloopy" or "Jumpin Jack Flash," right? I can't wait to try out "Paperback Writer," a Beatles gem I've always loved but never played in any way, shape or form. What a gas! John Lennon used to call it "Son of "Day Tripper" and that works for me - especially given the killer bass boost they cooked up at Abbey Road Studios in 1966.

For a few years we've wanted to just hang and play our favorite old songs so... here we go. Having fun with music is such a gift: to laugh and feel the good vibes, to do it with a beloved colleague and sometimes to share it with others is a slice of heaven, yes? I truly believe that one of the sweetest things we can do right now - or really at any time - is to bring a smile into another's life through music.

I remember sitting in Washington Square Park in San Francisco's North Beach waiting for the Sun Kings - a Beatles' cover band - to kick off the morning. It was a lazy day and the fog still hung in the air. The park was filled with yuppies and hippies, winos and kids and everybody in-between but nobody was talking or interacting. Maybe we were all hung over or cold and then the band hit the first chord to "A Hard Day's Night" and the joint started rocking. In the matter of seconds, strangers were dancing with new friends, food was being shared with neighbors and laughter rang out in every direction spontaneously where once silence ruled the day. Not every type of music evokes such joy - or community - but you can count on it when the Beatles are involved. 

So, I'm off early this evening to step back into some of the magic and see where it might lead. Have a totally FAB day...

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

a new appreciation for garrison keillor...

Let me step back from my observations on the current regime's political mayhem and vulgarity for a moment to share a surprising blast of beauty. For decades I have been ambivalent about Garrison Keillor. I have often been moved by his subtle combinations of self-deprecating humor and spirituality in the "News from Lake Wobegon" monologues on A Prairie
Home Companion. (The uninitiated may listen here: https://www. prairiehomeorg) To be sure, these seemingly stream of consciousness tales of quotidian angst and redemption are not everyone's cup of tea. They favor the geezer demographic of which I now inhabit and lack the tortured irony that so many hipsters crave. They flirt with the sentimental, too and are long-winded in an age of sound bytes and instant analysis. And yet, more often than not, Keillor is able to create a multi-layered story of the many ways grace breaks through our fears and stupidity to bring us a bit of hope and love. This is the part of Keillor I treasure.

His other public persona - the big-mouthed, blow hard who slams the small minds of his conservative opponents - leaves me cold. In this incarnation, Keillor is self-righteous and smug. He embodies all the elitist stereotypes of liberal "cosmopolitans" that America's heartland has come to detest. He is insulting, bitter and too often cruel in both sound and substance. And while I find myself agreeing with most of his conclusions, I have discovered a repugnance bubbling up inside me when I read this slop - and have made it part of my spiritual discipline to avoid his political diatribes for the sake of my soul. 

Curiously, I have both of these reactions at the same time whenever I hear him on NPR's The Writer's Almanac (check it out here: http:// writersalmanac.org) I value the information at the start of these broadcasts - the birth dates and mini-biographies of famous writers is insightful and fascinating - and I almost always take something away from his featured poem. I applaud his public commitment to reclaiming spoken poetry in America's shallow popular culture. Today, for example, he lifted up "First Snow" by Louise Glück:

Like a child, the earth’s going to sleep,
or so the story goes.

But I’m not tired, it says.
And the mother says, You may not be tired but I’m tired—

You can see it in her face, everyone can.
So the snow has to fall, sleep has to come.
Because the mother’s sick to death of her life
and needs silence.

Every time this program breaks through the din of a drive on my car radio I am nourished. And, at the same time, I secretly wish Keillor wouldn't try so hard to sound precious in the various set ups to the poetry. It is like the women and men clergy who work so hard at being theatrical in their reading of Scripture in public. If you've gone to worship in a Protestant church sometime in the last 40 years you may have heard them working so hard to sound earnest. Significant. Flirting with relevance. Ugh! "Lord, save me and take me home right now" I find myself praying silently when in the presence of such sounds. I'm not questioning anyone's faith commitment, just their inflated sense of self-referential aesthetics. Bible reading, like poetry, needs to be passionate but clear, honest and accessible, sincere and simple. After all, the wisdom doesn't come from the reader - repeat again and again, "it's NOT about me" - so why make the words sound otherwise?

All of which leads me to Brother Keillor's written reflection in yesterday's Washington Post:  "Driving into the Storm." When it appeared in our local paper, The Berkshire Eagle, I almost skipped over it. As noted earlier, it has become an act of self-care to avoid his hyperbolic rants. But, for some reason greater than myself, I didn't - and I was delighted. Keillor's prose is tender and sincere. His insights are humble and honest. Mixing personal narrative with The Beatles' "Abbey Road" and the sonnets of Shakespeare, Keillor offers a simple moral:  it takes a lifetime of practice to love deeply.

To love that well which you must leave ere long. The beauty of a long, slow drive through New England hills in a snowstorm. Because the world is white, it’s filled with light. The faces on the TV screen talked about politics, but none of it matters unless you love this world and the people you find in it. You drive into the storm and meet five friends you didn’t know before, you feel their mortality and your own, the snow is falling. Love is here, love is there, love is drifting through the air. And the people in these lovely little towns, how are they doing tonight? Do they have medical insurance? Can they afford to go to the movies? Do their kids learn poetry in school? (check out the full essay @ https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions /driving-into-the-storm/2017/02/14/f1bccbbc-f2e8-11e6-a9b0-ecee7ce475fc_ story.html?utm_term=.d520fb193f7b

Today my work at church is finished for the week. Twenty hours goes by damn fast, doesn't it? It was a good week even when I forgot important things (ah, the humility of my humanity!)  It was a good week because I was able to sit and listen - and then pray - with a few people aching with uncertainty. It was a good week for making beautiful music with our choir - and finding a way to work Eddie Vedder's "Society" into Sunday worship. It was a good week because the snows came and went and we were safe and warm. And it was a good week because now that my work is over (it is never complete) there is time for my lover and I to rest and talk and read together.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

the man for others - bonhoeffer part II...

NOTE:  Today's worship notes for Bonhoeffer - Part II:  Jesus as the Man for
Others.  It was a cold and snowy morning - we're getting about 2" an hour - with more still to come. I was grateful for the 50+ people who showed up.

Did you watch Super Bowl 51 last Sunday? I’m not a huge fan of the sport – and I only tuned in to check out Lady Gaga, truth be told – even as I rejoiced in the Patriots’ incredible upset. But what really spoke to me were the commercials. Yes, too much money was spent on them and you can argue about the mixed up values of a nation that directs our best and brightest artists into advertising and consumerism. But what about those messages? Over and over again, from Budweiser and Coke to AirBnB, the corporations made it clear that the current ban on Muslims – as well as the phobia some Americans have towards immigrants and refugees – is not only unwanted but un-American. It was to me a visceral, high tech portrayal of today’s opening Scripture: I set before you today the ways of life and death, prosperity and adversity… if you obey the way of the Lord you will blossom… and if you rebel you will perish… so with heaven and earth as my witness I plead: choose life saith the Lord. (Deuteronomy 30)

It should be obvious that currently there are competing visions for the soul of our nation that are in mortal combat with one another. On one side there is fear and a serious measure of hatred, resentment and confusion. On the other, an alternative reality built upon sharing, neighborliness and trust. Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says that the “dominant narrative of our society is about military consumerism as driven by greed, vanity and violence – and that narrative is a lie – because it cannot produce life. Scripture offers an alternative meta-narrative based upon God’s grace and neighborliness. When social power and social resources are administered in a neighborly way, they produce a just and peaceable society that does produce life. These two truths are always in tension – a contest between the ways of death and the gospel that creates and sustains life through neighborly vulnerability.”

Theologians speak of this as testimony and counter-testimony – thesis, antithesis and synthesis – and what I saw on Super Bowl Sunday was the celebration of God’s counter testimony writ large in a non-partisan, life affirming way that literally made me weep tears of sorrow and joy at the same time. And it is my tears that compel me to share with you why I believe the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Nazi Germany 72 years ago, holds meaning and value for our generation.

Our current quest for clarity looks a lot like what once confronted people of faith during the 1930s and 40s in Nazi Germany. I am not saying they are analogous. I am keenly aware of significant differences. But then as well as now, some profound parallels warrant our consideration. 

+  A huge swath of the working people in both eras experienced themselves as lost, forgotten and ignored patriots who became afraid of the future. In pre-war Germany, the rapid industrialization and migration to the cities after WWI left countless able bodied workers without the skills necessary to compete in the new economy. And globalization and 21st century hi-tech business practices have done much the same thing in America’s heartland. 

+  Public morality and social norms shifted wildly, too. Where women had once remained in their homes to serve their families for generations, by 1920 they were needed in public to be teachers, secretaries, factory aides, nurses and clerks in the German Weimar Republic. A social revolution every bit as mind numbing and perplexing with respect to families, traditional roles and workplace expectations as happened in Germany has also taken place in the United States over the past 20 years.

And, both nations share a vicious history of nativist demagoguery that periodically breaks into the public realm and turns vulgar and racist. The Nazis cultivated anti-Semitism and fear of the stranger for political gain while our white supremacists throw gasoline on the fire of prejudice, ignorance and resentment over Barrack Obama’s election as the first African- American president of the USA. Please note I am not saying the rise of Hitler offers an exact template for predicting the future in our land. I am not a shallow historical determinist. And yet, we would do well to pay attention to the needs of highly agitated but disempowered white folk in both eras who were open to manipulation – and that’s where Bonhoeffer has something to tell us about how to challenge this reality with Christ’s love.

Today I want to concentrate on what Brother B taught us about Jesus. If we’re going to be allies of God’s movement for life rather than pawns in the narratives of death, he said, we MUST figure out what Jesus means in our generation. This was Bonhoeffer’s essential task. In his own day the German Church had become divided between liberals and conservatives, both of whom made themselves irrelevant to healing the soul of the nation.

Liberal Christians treated Jesus as an inward spiritual balm who offered only comfort to our psychological wounds without a strategy as to confronting social injustice; conversely, conservatives turned Jesus into the dean of middle class morality. Liberals trusted science, economics, physics, engineering, education and government to deal with their public lives and only wanted Jesus to guarantee the forgiveness for their sins. In their view, Jesus only mattered in the inner, so-called spiritual realm. Conservatives went public, but were so obsessed with individual moral purity in their quest to serve a harsh and judgmental God that they, too rendered themselves irrelevant to the real social issues. You see, the conservative agenda was not driven by Scripture but bourgeois etiquette reducing Jesus to a tea-totaling, mealy-mouthed prig rather than the revolutionary prophet of God’s justice and peace.

To which Bonhoeffer replied: rubbish! Beyond all rules, habits, piety, sentimentality, rituals, theology and dogma Jesus was the man for others. This was Bonhoeffer simple yet profound short hand description of who Jesus was in Scripture and why this mattered in our generation. Now let’s be clear that to name Jesus as the man for others meant: 1) Jesus is the standard by which we evaluate all our ethics; and 2) the life, death and resurrection of Jesus defines what it means for us to incarnate compassion and justice. Bonhoeffer understood the entirety of Scripture and tradition as the quest for justice and compassion, it was the contest between the testimony of death, greed and vanity and God’s counter testimony of faith, hope and love.

Are you with me on this? How do you react to confessing that the heart and essence of Jesus is NOT as Son of God – the miraculous union of natures both human and divine – but rather as the man for others? What does that say to you? Now, there are three elements to practicing a life that honors Jesus as the man for others that Bonhoeffer spent his life articulating – and let me lay them out carefully and clearly for you so that we might discern how they might help us in 2017. 

+  First, using the Old Testament’s insistence that God’s compassion and justice was NOT about some other life after death, but rather flesh and blood existence right here and now, Bonhoeffer insisted that transcendence is becoming grounded right in the middle of reality and not some other worldly concern. “God’s beyond,” he wrote, “has nothing to do with heaven or other-worldliness. God’s beyond is in the middle of our village… living unreservedly into life’s duties, problems, success and failures.”

+  Second, what makes living in the middle of the village Biblically transcendent in the way of Jesus is not about out-of-body spiritual experiences, but sharing real life beyond selfishness on behalf of our neighbors. “Being there for others” is how he put it: “Our relationship to God is not a religious relationship to the highest, most powerful and best BEING imaginable – that is not Biblical transcendence – rather our relation to God is new life born of being there for others."
This is how Jesus lived, this is how Jesus experienced transcendence - by being there for others“and what was true for Jesus is true for you and me. We meet God in relationships not abstraction.

+  And that speaks to his third insight: Christian faith is NOT about doctrine or dogma – ritual or tradition – even when they are lovely. Christian faith becomes “participation in the being of Jesus who gives his whole life as the man for others.” And that is why the church exists: to train us, equip us, empower, correct and encourage us to live as men and women for others. In 1944, Bonhoeffer put it like this:

God does not repay evil for evil and thus the righteous should not do so either. No judgment, no abuse, but blessing...Blessing means laying one's hand on something and saying: Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: may God's blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer. We have received God's blessing in happiness and in suffering. Yet those who have been blessed can do nothing but pass on this blessing; indeed, they must be a blessing wherever they are.

That might be the best summary of what Christianity looks like. It is being a blessing to others wherever you are, in the middle of life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. We lay our hands on others and say "Despite everything, you belong to God; be blessed." And, we suffer with our neighbors making our lives available to them, "not dominating, but helping and serving."

Three bold, brave and beautiful insights about what it really means for Jesus to be the man for others and how it heals a broken world: 1) We find God right in the middle of life’s agony, problems and celebrations not on the fringe of reality. 2) Transcendence is not other worldly, but living beyond our own small world as a generous allies of love for our neighbors. And 3) Faith looks like sharing love in the same way Jesus did – relationships that bring blessing for others – is that clear? God is right here, with us sharing blessing with others, in public.

Today’s gospel text speaks to this with clarity when Jesus says: I need your work for righteousness – dikaiosuné in New Testament Greek that literally means justice - to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. He’s not saying the scribes and Pharisees are bad guys, although Christian anti-Semitism likes to portray them that way. No, the scribes and Pharisees were often the best and most public people living into Torah – the justice, mercy and steadfast love of the Lord – so Jesus is telling us: I need you to do it better! Do it more publically! Do it with a greater vigor and physicality for that is what makes my Father’s kingdom visible and real for all with eyes to see!

Another way to say this would be: fulfill Torah in your life – do not treat Torah like it is over – but rather fill it full with all the love you can muster and all the Spirit can inspire. That’s what it means to choose life over death as the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy challenged, ol? Fulfill the love of God in public by filling it full of justice – full of love – full of mercy for this is where the human and the holy embrace.

Now sometimes it is painful and costly to bring blessings to our neighbors in public. Many of us continue to be active in what has being called the resistance to the selfish and fearful agenda that has captured so many hearts and minds in contemporary America. Last week, my man Pope Francis was explicit: we cannot claim the name of Jesus and his grace if we turn away the refugee and foment hatred for Muslims. That, said the Pontiff, is hypocrisy – and so it is. Every week, my wife – who is studying to teach English as a second language to refugees and immigrant neighbors – gets trolled by people who call themselves Christians but spew the ugliest and most hateful words to her – praying that she gets raped or knifed or beaten by one she hopes to teach. If we weren’t in church I’d say these are really weird f***d up times for Christianity.

So let me call you attention to verse three of Bonhoeffer’s hymn which we sang before I started this message: he describes the sorrow and pain of being a blessing in public, linking it specifically to Christ’s own sorrow: And when this cup you give is filled to brimming with bitter suffering, hard to understand; we take it thankfully and without trembling, out of so good and beloved a hand. Faith is choosing life over death and moving into the middle of real problems. Sometimes that hurts – but sometimes there are joys and ecstasies too great for human words. That’s what verse four honors: And when again in this same world you give us the joy we had, the brightness of your sun, we shall remember all the days we lived through and our whole life shall be yours alone.

Bonhoeffer turns bourgeois religion on its head – and shows us how living and loving in public can not only change our lives, but heal the world. Brother B celebrated Jesus as the man for others – and teaches that as Jesus did it, so must we. So in our realm, in the world of the global neighborhood, being there for others and bringing blessings to the most vulnerable requires some homework:

+  Tomorrow, at 6 pm at Herberg Middle School, our friends from Jewish Family Services will be holding an informational meeting about bringing 50 Syrian refugee families to relocate in Pittsfield. Before Christmas, about 20 of us spontaneously attended. Since then, fears have been fueled and lies have been told.

+  So let’s see if we can double our past participation with intentionality and faith: let’s send 40 people from First Church to choose life and not death – to honor the wounded and afraid – to let our righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees and Scribes – and become Jesus, the man for others, in the flesh.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that when he marched in Selma with Dr. King, it felt as if his feet were praying. We need to be praying with our feet this week for it is time to stand and deliver. This is how I hear the good news for today – so let those who have ears to hear, hear.

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:...