Saturday, August 26, 2017

thanksgiving eve...

After Bible study is done - and prayer is shared - there are still week's
when I wonder what should be shared on Sunday morning. The appointed texts are among my favorites - Isaiah 51, Romans 12 and Matthew 16 - and I have come to this conclusion: there is a clear but overlooked connection between being a living sacrifice (Romans) and becoming the rock upon which a new way of being is made flesh (Matthew.)

On THIS rock we build a community that embraces one another, cares for one another, refuses to let another drift into needless anguish or alienation. And what is this rock?  It is life shared from within the heart of our living God. This is the narrow gate that takes practice, time and commitment to embody. It is the way of being that celebrates, creates and treasures life rather than death. Some Biblical scholars are clear that the rock (petras) Jesus refers to in Matthew 16 is not Peter (Petros.) Petras is feminine and petros is masculine. On this we differ profoundly from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers noting that Jesus was not claiming Peter to be the rock, but rather the community of faith (ekklesia) a word that is, indeed, feminine. It is the new community, inspired and filled with God's Spirit, that makes the life, love, compassion, justice and ethics of Jesus visible and flesh in the world not the Pope (no matter how much I cherish Francis.)

All week long I have pondered what musical expression best summarizes this truth?  After waking this morning at 5:30 am, it hit me: it has to be Bob Franke's Thanksgiving Eve.  And so it is.

NOTE:  We're off to the Eastern Townships in the morning and without Internet.  See you after Labor Day.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Cantons de l'Est, nous venons ici...

Sometimes you just can't help yourself:  as I'm starting to pack for the Eastern Townships, I'm searching madly for the CD "Paris Magnifique." You see, I'm a sucker pour les chanteuses fran├žaises. In the small town of Austin, home base for the next 10 days, 87% of the 1,700 people are francophone. Small wonder that while I'm gathering up my jeans, I need to hear Mademoiselle Keren Ann offer up "Jardin d'Hiver."

There's something vaguely provocative about the way these women play with these songs. Nothing over the top, most of the time, and never crass. They're just evocative of love, broken hearts and a glass of great red wine. Julie Delpy's banjo grunge, "Je T'Aime Tant" is in a league all by itself. Not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure, but I am knocked out. 

As the packing continues, so do the songs: Cantons de l'Est, nous venons ici.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

lies and truth in phoenix...

From time to time I refocus my reflections here to address the state of the union or a particularly encouraging or troubling event in our common life. With precious little ethical commentary taking place in the mainstream - and the current regime cranking out truly fake news and lies faster than even social media can cover it - I believe it is essential to periodically offer moral interpretations of the news. That is part of the charge given to "the people of the Book" as the Abrahamic traditions are sometimes called. Other faith traditions have comparable moral principles to evaluate politics, culture and economics, too and their insights are equally important in this age of social amnesia.

Last night's Presidential rant in Phoenix was particularly troubling both because of the ugly and unhinged nature of the speaker's spontaneous comments, and, because of his manipulation of truth. True to form, 45 plays to his base who despise and distrust what they call the "cosmopolitan cultural elite." He growls and struts, he taunts and insults, he lies and then calls his dishonesty the truth. Time and again last night, the President quoted himself in a highly edited form to augment his case that the elites are against him. And after lying repeatedly, he then attacked the media's credibility as well as their love of America. BBC News put it like this:

Spot the difference: Donald Trump has been talking about Charlottesville again... but is he leaving something out? http://www.

Dan Rather made this observation::

But why does he attack the press, as "bad people" who "don't like our country?" "Sick people?" Why does he say "the only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media and the fake news?" CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post is the enemy. Fox News and Sean Hannity are the good guys.  his bombast is because the press is a check on power. The press is performing its constitutional responsibilities. The investigative reporting has drawn blood. 

The forces of political gravity that have tethered his agenda to reality

went unstated. So he attacks sanctuary cities. He touts a wall that is apparently being built, and over which he is willing to apparently shut down the government. He hinted at a pardon for the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "Sheriff Joe can feel good." He keeps fighting the battle over health care, unable to let go of a stinging defeat. Over and over he said "one vote away..." fully conscious that one of those key votes that doomed his health care effort was the senior senator from Arizona, John McCain. "I won't mention any names. Very presidential." And then he attacked the junior senator from Arizona, Republican and Trump critic Jeff Flake, without mentioning his name either. But the tenor was clear. Mr. Trump was ready to attack any GOP senator who has the temerity to go against him. 

This was Trump as candidate, uncaged, unscripted, unabashed, and frankly unhinged. The crowd got to chant "lock her up" to the name of Hillary Clinton and cheer a president who claims that he has accomplished more than any president at this point in a term (never mind reality). He was playing to the home crowd. But there is a much bigger world out there, no matter the picture Mr. Trump may wish to paint.  

Clearly you can fool all of the people some of the time. But with only a 33% approval rating, the demagoguery of our befuddled and deceitful Commander in Chief continues to unravel.  Thousands of opponents have taken to the streets in peaceful protest.  My colleague in the local NAACP noted that the true take away from last Saturday's counter demonstration in Boston was:  Black people peacefully lead 40,000 people through the city to chase white supremacists out of public space! (check it out @ https:// www.facebook. com/NAACPBerkshires/posts/1423868604375428)

I see the presence of the Living God taking shape and form in those who call out Neo-Nazis and the Klan. As Americans, they have the right to hold unholy opinions but not the right to impose them upon others. And certainly never the right to have their prejudices go unchallenged. I give thanks to the Lord for my friends, family and colleagues who were in Charlottesville, Boston and Phoenix. Sounds like Amos 5 in spades!

O you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

eastern townships are coming into view...

The countdown towards time away in the Eastern Townships of Canada starts... NOW!  Louise Penny holds a book signing in Lac Brome, QC on Saturday so that means vacation part two is about to commence. (I will be leading worship one more Sunday this month so this event will be missed this year; but NEXT year in... well, not Jerusalem, but you get the drift.) The cottage in Austin is "rustic." All the necessary ingredients - running water, electricity, showers and potable water - but no Internet or phone. Not a bad way to spend 10 days at the end of the summer.

+ The better part of one day will surely be given over to Lac Brome Books. Check it out here @

+ Another is likely to include l’Abbaye de Saint-Beno├«t-du-Lac. Check it out @

+ And who could miss the Three Pines Inspirational Road Trip @http://

Right now the search is on for doggie Prosac. The vet provided a scrip, but none of the local pharmacies carry sedatives for pets. As some may recall, dear Lucie is a grand friend and gentle companion, but a total worry wort when in the car. Or in public. Or with strangers. Or with men. Or with children. Or when it rains. Or when it thunders. Or when music is played on the piano. The search is ON for a way to help this four legged travel with greater comfort. And for me, as this work week comes to a close, the clock is now officially ticking.

Monday, August 21, 2017

we create a cleavage when we want to do good things for people...

This simple quote from Jean Vanier of L'Arche has been my constant companion in meditation for the past week:

Can we accept people with disabilities as they are? When we want to change people, we have power. We have generosity. We have goodness. But we create a cleavage when we want to do good things for people.
More than any other writer - Nouwen, Rohr, Buechner or Norris combined - this quote captures the essence of living into the upside-down kingdom of God as expressed and celebrated by Jesus. It is the KEY to living into the "unforced rhythms of grace." It is HOW I can experience the "peace that passes all understanding." And it is the WAY to live with energy and verve - even in my brokenness - rather than the exhaustion that has so often haunted my life of faith. For almost 20 years, Peterson's reworking of Matthew 11:28-30 has spoken to me:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Two years ago on sabbatical, I discovered how tired I was. Exhausted. Some have even suggested burned out. I slept and slept and slept. At first, I blamed the ministry, but that was only partially true. Then I took aim at the church, but the Body of Christ was not the real culprit. No, I was raised on a gospel of doing: if I wasn't actively trying to fix something - or help someone - or solve some social issue, I was wasting my time and God's love. Yes, there is a call to sabbath rest. Of course, I knew all about quiet time and the Psalmist's song to "be still and know that I am God." But apparently, I didn't believe it. That is, trust it. So, I had to run out of gas in every conceivable way before I was open to hearing what Jesus was actually teaching - and why it is the fount of every blessing.

Vanier cuts to the chase: not only do we create a cleavage by all our striving, but we wear ourselves out, too.  This past week as we spent time caring for our beloved grandson, my only job was to love this little soul. Not fix him when he was hurting. Not try to replace his momma or poppa when he was missing them. And certainly not try to change anything about this precious boy who is bright, compassionate, witty and oh so loving. No, my gift from God was just to love him. Be present with him. Cherish him as he is - and it was glorious. Full, demanding and sacred - and glorious.

So so it is with living into the wisdom of Christ: be real - be present - and do it from your heart. "All of us," Vanier writes, "have a secret desire to be seen as saints, heroes, martyrs. We are afraid to be children, to be ourselves.” The way of striving is exhausting. Love is so much easier - and so much better.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

returning thanks...

We are in Brooklyn tonight to be supportive of our loved ones about a month early. Seems our granddaughter knew best and arrived five weeks early. Momma and baby are doing well and resting.  Poppa and Louie are starting to grasp how the world has shifted.More news at it unfolds over the next few days. For the time being, we get to love them all, care for Louie when poppa is busy, and hold them all in our loving prayers. 

Tonight I give thanks to God, great doctors, loving children and precious grandchildren. How do my Jewish colleagues put it?  Dayenu?  Indeed...

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

hoping not to change anyone...

Every week I put together three "sermons" or messages for Sunday morning. The first is usually my "cranky" version - all the things I want to complain about - that are really complaints against myself but I'm not paying attention. I almost NEVER share this version in print or aloud because my first draft is deadly. Not untrue, but not of the Lord because it is half truth.

The second message bubbles up after I've walked around with my snark for a few days letting it co-habitate with my weekly Bible study. Often a few days of sitting with my message causes me to literally dream new dreams and edit out most my rhetorical complaints. Truth be told, the gospel regularly convicts me of my own need for grace - and stuffs a sock in most of my snark. That leads me to Sunday morning when I usually speak with only minor reference to my printed and amended notes. I have come to trust the Spirit of love to guide my words.  St. Paul was right: the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for human words.

This week I was REALLY cranky in my first draft - both with myself and those I love in the faith community - but nothing is worse than a preacher who doesn't listen to his own sermons. So I've been walking around with draft number one and totally hating it.  And just to make certain I got over myself, and stopped listening to my feelings of insecurity, I read these words from Jean Vanier today:

Can we accept people with disabilities as they are? When we want to change people, we have power. We have generosity. We have goodness. But we create a cleavage when we want to do good things for people.

My deepest desire as a person who follows the way of Jesus is to shut up and simply accept people as they are. Sure, we can always be better, but let's cherish what is and leave the rest to the Lord. Let me take the plank out of my own eye before carping about the speck in another's.  To say that version two is being born would be an understatement because round three is already starting to take shape - and it is only Tuesday.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

be the church hate-mongers want to surround with torches...

This morning as I led worship - including a challenging reflection on how God is at work birthing a new America from out of the dead hatred and fear we express as white supremacy, sexual oppression,
fascism, and immigrant bashing - I felt something wash over me:  "I am SO done with first world problems!" Privileged whining is not ministry - especially at this hour in our collective brokenness. I had the same sense wash over me five hours later as I gathered with about 300 of my neighbors in solidarity with Charlottesville. "What WOULD it take," I mused "for us to be a church that hate mongers surrounded with torches?" This is a question worth asking in a prayerful, honest, and vulnerable way these days. 
A prayer from a Charlottesville seminarian put it like this:

To the God whom we have forgotten;
To the God who is not male and is not white;

To the God who takes no pleasure in violence;
To the God who is Love;
To the God who is tender-hearted and warm embrace;
To the God who is not deaf to Her children’s cries and is moved to tears by their suffering;
To the God whose law is love of neighbor, hospitality for the stranger, care for the weak;
To the God whose touch is healing, whose gaze is compassion; whose way is lovingkindness;
To the God who is Justice;
To the God who tramples fear and hatred under Her feet;
To the God who convicts our hearts, stirs our spirits, transforms our minds;
To the God who revels in the joyful dance of community and invites us to do the same;

To the God whose own child’s lynched body hung limp on a tree,
not by Her own hand,
but because of the fear and hatred of those human beings
who feared the kind of world they were promised would be ushered in
and hated the changes they would have to undergo to get there;

Our memory is so short:
Our failure to remember the sins of our parents,
Our aversion to repentance,
Our refusal to make reparations,
Is killing us.

Our souls are wasting away.
And black, brown, female, queer, trans, Muslim, differently abled bodies
Are dying.
Every day, so many.

O God whom we have forgotten,
We do not even know how to call on your name.
We have not seen you in the faces of our sisters and brothers.
We have not felt you in the pain of our neighbors, strangers, friends and enemies;

O God whom we have forgotten,
Do not let our imaginations be infiltrated by war-mongering forces of violence.
Do not let our spirits be colonized by the depressing fear of our oppressors.

Transform our minds that do not know how to think of you
Existing without these heavy chains we have placed on ourselves
and on each other.

Hard times call for hard questions - and first world problems, carping and 
attitudes are so much over for me.  Like Lou Reed sings, "Stick a fork in them - their done!" Like Valarie Kaur, I too sense this could be a birthing moment, but it is clear it's going to be a damn hard delivery.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

a woman in travail...

Tomorrow I am throwing out my prepared notes and will lift up a perspective of hope and resistance in worship @ 10:30 am.  I, like Valerie Kaur, believe this present darkness is more about the womb and birthing than just about death (although as a Christian I honor the Pascal Mystery wherein good can come from evil and death when love is active.) At the heart of my reflection will be the often neglected wisdom of Isaiah 42.  Lauren Winner put it like this:

Here is what is going on in the verses just before the laboring woman image. God announces that old things are passing away, and that soon God will bring about something new. Then a narrator invites a large convocation to celebrate God and God’s declaration by singing “a new song.” Next, God speaks again, describing the new, redemptive action that God is about to undertake on behalf of God’s people. “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”

Isaiah’s metaphor, which is much more specific than “God is like a woman in labor,” derives its punch from real women groaning in labor. Isaiah focuses on God’s breathing and the sound of that breathing: in this one verse, Isaiah uses three verbs that pertain to breath. The first is pa’ah, often translated as “cry out”—but “groan” or “bellow” is a better translation. I have often heard women describe the sounds they make in labor in animal terms. “Deep guttural, almost animal noises came from within me. Loud noises. Noises I soon had no control over.” This animal breathing is what we hear in Isaiah’s first verb. The next two breathing words in the verse continue to stress that God’s breath is not at ease: God “gasps” (nasham) and “pants” (sha’aph).

Clearly there is a wailing and bellowing among us as the old racist fears die and a new way of living in compassion struggles to be born.  Winner goes on to note:

...more important for Isaiah’s metaphor is the centrality of breathing to a woman’s experience of labor. Panting and groaning are part of how women manage the pain of childbirth. “The key to the patient’s ability to suppress pain lies in her . . . breathing,” wrote Priscilla Richardson Ulin, a nurse, in 1963. The groans of labor signal the woman’s active participation in the birthing process, a participation that does not fight the pain (fighting labor pain only makes the pain worse). Isaiah gives us this groaning woman as a picture of the sovereign God, the God who is in control of redemption: God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting. God chooses a participation that does not fight the pain, but that works from inside the pain.

God will be identified with humanity, utterly, even in those things that testify to our sin. As the laboring woman, God takes on the very punishment God assigned to us. God pointedly enters into the parts of our life that bespeak our finitude and “misdirected desire”—and Isaiah’s metaphor converts the groans of childbirth from a sign of humanity’s fallenness to a sign of God’s intimate identification with us. The groans of childbirth are both a sign of humanity’s distance from God and a sign of God’s nearness to us (they’re the second exactly because they’re also the first). in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me.” For a moment—before Jesus says: “Yet, not my will but yours be done”—he is the mother in labor saying, “I cannot do this anymore.” Jesus knew that new life would be born out of his suffering on the cross, yet he still asked God to take away the cup.

"When did we see Thee, Lord?" they asked and Jesus replied:  "Whenever you cared for one of the least of these my sisters and brothers." Join me at 10:30 am on Sunday, August 13 - and then plan to be a part of the community in solidarity on Park Square @ 6 pm.

Solidarity with Charlottesville Stand Out in Park Square

Friday, August 11, 2017

feels like a new music is a'bornin'

The time has come for me to start thinking seriously about creating new music. Now that I am in my part-time gig - and loving it - it has become clear that my old ways of making music have run their course.  It was beautiful in its time, but to everything there is a season, n'est-ce pas? (Ecclesiastes 3)

This thought has been wafting through my heart for the past year and a half but I haven't tried to make anything happen. Too many conflicts to take the next step. But after visiting with my sisters again yesterday, and reflecting on how much death we have encountered together over the past five years, I found my heart calling me back to my first love. Listening to the "All Songs Considered" podcast re: the 150 greatest albums made by women was another catalyst. (Check it out here @ paraphrase Jean Vanier, this would be a "second calling," one that is more tender and less ego driven than before, more collaborative, easy-going and intuitive, too. "Life is too damn short to do otherwise" was the song that kept playing within as I sat by the lake with my precious sisters and their families.

So, as this stunning summer slowly winds down, I am starting to take the next steps in turning my dreams into deeds. (Hebrews 12) I want to play in support of a few other's music. I want to deepen the connection between the inner and the outward journey. I want to lovingly challenge the culture of cruelty that dominates so much of public discourse. And I want to celebrate the exuberance of music shared for the pure joy of creating and sharing it. For whatever time remains for me - and I know it is certainly fleeting - let Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, "Kindness" be my creed.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend

And may sister Lisa Fischer be my muse as well.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

sometimes i think about...

Three songs keep running around my head this morning - and I'm wondering if they might fit together - and what story that would tell? The first is a 1966 relic from the Blues Magoos: "Sometimes I Think About." From time to time my high school garage band, Creepin' Jesus, used to play this one in all its haunting, angst-ridden, and bluesy-ness that only those in a mid-60s psychedelic mode could accomplish. I'm wondering what it might sound like now with upright bass, piano and electric guitar?

The second involves Cartlon Maiaa II's jazz arrangement of "Shalom Chaverim" with my addition of the Islamic greeting, "As-Salaam-Alaikum" interwoven as a pre-figurative prayer.  It uses a similar descending bass riff. I wonder if it fits?
And the third is an arrangement we created of the William Billings' choral tune, "When Jesus Wept" for our John Coltrane Good Friday two years ago. It, too, uses an extended jazz blues improvisation built on a descending bass line but climaxes in a haunting a capella round interspersed with sound clusters and percussion. (I am searching for this clip and will post later today.)

Like Frederick Buechner advises about our lives, the same is true with songs:
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Sometimes the insight is immediate, other days require more time for the haze to burn away and the wisdom to come into focus. Today is an inwardly hazy day for me. I'm just going to let those songs swim around inside for a spell and not try to force any clarity to the surface. It feels melancholic and vulnerable, but there's more going on, too. Apparently, this is a time for waiting...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

in the tender and humble heart of jesus...

When I was in Montreal after Easter I fell in love with the Chapel of Notre-Dame de Bon Secours. It is one of the oldest Christian worship centers in the city as well as being part of Leonard Cohen's inspiration for the song, "Suzanne." A huge statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary sits atop the chapel facing the port as a sign of blessing for sailors and those who traverse the seas. Inside, besides the quiet and candle light, are small devotional pamphlets with words from the writing of Marguerite Bourgeoys.  She was the founder of an order for non-cloistered women religious in New France (1658.) One prayer particularly speaks to me:

Loving Heart of God - in this sacred place of prayer, I lift my heart in union with all peoples of the earth who call out to you in faith, praise and gratitude. Be with me on this journey. Expand my heart to hold as sacred all those you h ave given me to love. Amen.

That gets it just about right for me at this moment in my journey: let me be connected to all people of whatever faith who live into praise and gratitude. Today felt like that is exactly what I was called to do. I listened and shared, I laughed and wept, I prayed and received blessings.  It was a day given over to both accepting and sharing the simple gifts of life. Jean Vanier of L'Arche speaks of this as humility.

Humility means accepting our place in the body of a community and respecting the place of others. It means obeying others and serving them. Humility means recognizing the importance of doing small things for the community.  Humility also means having the courage of one's convictions and being fully responsible so that the community can become more loving and true. By being in communion with Jesus, who is gentle and humble of heart, we can be freed of our tendencies to judge and condemn others. We can live humbly with the humble and build with them places of peace and love, places of hope in a wounded world. (The Heart of L'Arche: A Spirituality for Every Day, p. 63)

Monday, August 7, 2017

missing big jim...

I spent the half of yesterday with my daughter, my sisters and their loved ones at Lake  Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. 
Today would have been my late father's 86th birthday. It was a tender time to gather together in the place that once nurtured the whole family. We feasted, toasted, swapped stories and listened to the highlights of our respective lives since we gathered last year at this time. There is so much to say about those who were unable to be with us since crossing over into that great cloud of witnesses. But that is for another time. Tonight, I think Horace Silver gets it right...

Saturday, August 5, 2017

more thoughts on cultural appropriation...

Let me amplify a few observations I set out in yesterday's "invitation /challenge" re: cultural appropriation blog post (check it out @ html) In raising my concerns about the "absurd logic" of the current status of anti-appropriation combatants, I am not trying to inhibit or prevent squashing the unethical violations of another's culture, religion, aesthetic or art. The socio-economic hegemony of my own dominant US culture has long abused the beauty of First Nations' talent, stolen African American music and dance, sanitized immigrant folk songs and stories, and appropriated the handiwork of women's crafts in pursuit of naked financial gain. Turning the iconography of one people's culture into the kitsch of souvenir shops is vulgar and degrading. To intentionally cheat artists out of the financial reward their creativity has garnered is criminal. 

Let there be no ambiguity, therefore, in my position: stealing, degrading, and manipulating the art, music, and craft of another culture is morally wrong and aesthetically destructive. On this point, Holiday is spot on: "Cultural appropriation, properly defined, is the exploitation or co-opting of a culture to which one has no rightful heritage."  A brilliant example of an artist and producer getting this right might be Sly Stone and his inter-racial band. Not only did those cats celebrate Black and White cultural influences in the turbulent 60s respectuflly, they made certain to give both camps their propers so everyone else could joyfully danced their booties off. Here was jazz, funk, classical, proto-rap, Black, White, and Latino all mixed together for the common good.

Two other examples from American pop culture tell a different story involving
white entrepreneurs capitalizing on the emerging popularity of African American music and intentionally stealing it through legal machinations. The Chess Brothers, Leonard and Paul, were Polish immigrants who created Chess Records in Chicago. In time, they hosted our nation's most important blues artists including Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. To be sure, the brothers Chess loved the "race music" they recorded. They made certain it received the distribution beyond the ghetto it deserved. And, Chess Records will always remain a beacon in the early days of popularizing rock and blues music.  At the same time, it must be noted that the contractual relations the Chess brothers negotiated with their African American artists regularly rewarded the brothers more than thei "brothers." Was their business cultural appropriation in the strict sense of the term? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Did the brothers Chess benefit from American racism and unequal power dynamics of the 1950s? Beyond the shadow of a doubt. And is American music richer because of their risk taking and creativity? Absolutely in ways that continue to fill my heart with gratitude. (For more on Chess Records go to:

The story of Pat Boone's outright rip offs is much less ambiguous: his producers /handlers simply stole songs from early rockers like Little Richard and Fats Domino without paying royalties or rights. They had their white bread singer "cover" black songs for a nervous white audience and made money hand over fist doing so in the early days of rock'n'roll. Not only was this blatant cultural appropriation in all its shameful arrogance, it was aesthetically offensive. Just compare the exuberance of Little Richard and then try to listen to Pat Boone's weak ass cover of "Tutti Fruitti."  (For more of the back story, go to "Tim's Cover Story @

From our vantage point in 2017, Pat Boone's music and actions are a clear rip off. Can the same case be made against Paul and Leonard Chess?  I think not, even while calling out some of their unethical and overtly racist business practices. Shades of gray are as important in art as in ethics. The current black or white rigidity of some in this conversation dumbs down the whole debate. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

an invitation and a challenge re: cultural appropriation...

Today I want to lay out both an invitation and a challenge involving critical thinking, popular culture, exploitation, art, racism, creativity, and the movement of beauty, truth and goodness.  On July 31, 2017, Ryan Holiday wrote a provocative and nuanced article about "cultural appropriation" in the realm of music. To be sure, there is polemic and hyperbole as he is not writing a scholarly critique, but rather a think piece for popular culture. So if you are interested in wrestling with this beyond ideology, my invitation to you is to first read the article and then give yourself time to think critically about it. You can find it here: I would welcome your insights.

Holiday's reflection begins by noting that in August 1968, Robbie Robertson recorded a song with The Band that evoked great emotional and popular success.  "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" describes "a particularly painful moment in American history told from the perspective of a group that had experienced merciless violence at the hands of the US federal government." His presenting question is simple: given the rigidity of contemporary thinking re: cultural appropriation in art - a movement committed to righting the wrongs of the past when dominant culture profited from a minority community's creativity - why was there no public outcry over Robertson's identity "theft?" The musician is after all a Canadian First Nations artist; what could he possible grasp about the American Civil War from the vantage point of the vanquished? When asked about motivation, the best Robertson could say was that he wanted to write a song that worked well for Levon Helm's voice. (Helm was the only American in the group.)

Holiday then carefully unpacks some of the issues in our current dilemma: "Cultural appropriation, properly defined, is the exploitation or co-opting of a culture to which one has no rightful heritage." Opinions differ widely on the magnitude of this ugly reality ranging from chastising Katy Perry for wearing a kimono at the American Music Awards (she is not Japanese) to decrying the wealth Elvis Presley made when he blended Black R'n'B grooves with White Country'n' Western sounds to popularize what we now call rock'n'roll. As one who celebrates the creativity of Elvis, noting that another rock pioneer, Chuck Berry, did much the same thing while working from the opposite direction - taking Black music and mixing it up with White country twang - I appreciate the way Holiday presents his concern in contemporary terms: "Who does Robertson think he is trying to speak about the plight of the poor tenant farmers of Dixie?" The remainder of this lengthy article suggests a simple but nuanced answer: Robertson is an artist. His creativity honors both another's culture in a genre bending manner while also creating something new, true and beautiful in the process.  The author notes that the same cannot be said about the Joan Baez cover that is all schlock and sentimentality. Her version does to "Dixie" what Pat Boone's cover of "Tutti Fruitti" did to Little Richard.

This is where it becomes tricky for me: in a climate that neither values nor understands art, and is so self-absorbed and insecure simultaneously, how do we legitimately combat cultural appropriation without becoming neo-Stalinists in the process? This isn't a new question.  Back in the early 60s Bob Dylan nearly quit writing and performing songs because the New Left demanded more social justice folk anthems from him when he was on an inward journey. Irwin Silber, the self-styled Commissar of Art for the American Left, regularly called Dylan out for his deeper, introspective experiments in poetry, music, emotion, and rock and roll. (see "An Open Letter to Bob Dylan @ http://www.edlis. org/twice /threads/open_letter_to_bob_dylan.html) It took a chance radio program playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles for Dylan to rethink an early retirement. "I can do that too" he concluded near New Orleans and began to refashion his music with the same verve as the Beatles but from a new American reality. Dylan blended the blues, the Beats, T.S. Eliot, and rock and roll in a way that changed popular culture forever.  And in his genre bending critique, he raised social commentary in music beyond the confines of tradition into art.

Robertson, who played with Dylan when the master went electric, spent a few years learning the songs of "the old, weird America" after Dylan's motorcycle accident allowed him time to recover in Woodstock, NY. Listen to "the Basement Tapes" recording and the roots of "Dixie" begin to become clear.  That's the invitation: read the article please - and think about it.

The challenge is this: share with me your understandings of how far ideology can be allowed to trump art.  As you can probably tell with my celebration of genre-bending, I favor Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Antonin Dvorak, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Carlos Nakaai, and others who have chosen to honor tradition while playfully expanding upon it. I contend that the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, Van Morrison, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Janis Joplin and others did exactly this without ripping off traditional culture and its purists. To be sure, some of these artists profited from the music of others, but they were paying tribute to forgotten genius - and made certain to pay royalties as well.

Over the next few days I would like to think critically with you about how to call out those who are genuinely exploitative without imposing the straight jacket or censorship upon our artists.  Thoughts? Comments?  Critiques? Until then, "I'm going to Graceland..."

Thursday, August 3, 2017

a man wanders into the forest...

Today was "stay away from church thoughts" day in spades. Having four days each week to be something other than spiritual leader not only mellows my heart, but helps me appreciate when I am connected in community. Last night I let myself read late into the night. It was 2 am before my lights were out. Then I slept late this morning and spent hours weeding my way through my home library of jazz, theology, spirituality and culture texts, and poetry. In the end, I whittled my collection down by about 200 books. That's a good start with more to come. Two years ago, I gave up another 300 volumes from these shelves and another 700 works of fiction from the basement went to the library book sale last month, too.

There are books I will never give up: D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, Leonard Cohen, Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, Rumi, Souls on Fire by Elie Wiesel. I spent time actually cherishing one anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade. It was the first volume of poetry I purchased as an adult. It spoke to me with a hint of hope after divorce, failure, loneliness, and a serious encounter with humility. I was smitten with Rilke and actually wept in the bookstore on a cold, rain-soaked night in Cleveland.

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I have been both men and Rilke gave shape and form to my deepest truth. This will always be my awakening poem. But Michael Blumenthal's "A Man Lost by a River" continues to inspire me as well.

There is a voice inside the body.

There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, that sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings
for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.

But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin,
he sees the thrust and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.

And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost -
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.

So now it is time to make fattoush - Lebanese cucumber/pita salad - and sip a rich, red Cote du Rhone wine as I savor the close of a glorious day.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

god bless the grass...

I saw it today - the massive tree in the wetlands with yellow and orange leaves at the top - an incontestable sign that the season is shifting. I felt it in my bones on Monday, the first tinge of autumnal melancholia, and now there's empirical evidence. Parker Palmer put it like this:

Where I live, summer's keynote is abundance. The forests fill with undergrowth, the trees with fruit, the meadows with wild flowers and grasses, the fields with wheat and corn, the gardens with zucchini, and the yards with weeds. In contrast to the sensationalism of spring, summer is a stead state of plenty, a green and amber muchness that feeds us on more levels than we know. (Let Your Life Speak, p. 106)

Given this "muchness" I was back in the yard: sweating amidst day lilies, whacking the weeds into the semblance of order, and cutting the grass. Always the grass. It is relentless at this time of year. So, like Malvina Reynolds, I chose to return thanks to the One who is Holy and sang "God Bless the Grass" to myself.

There is a wisdom in my lawn that I am trying to listen to, an insight far more healing than anything I read in the news. It clearly eludes our leaders as they foment fear of scarcity among my neighbors. Today alone there were fears that people of color are crowding whites out of our universities as well as fears of dark, immigrant people crowding natural born Americans out of their homeland. In our local paper, one of the region's finest antidotes to fear, Music in Common, discovered that fear of Islamic terrorists has cost them a federal grant. The Berkshire Eagle's story began:

A local music nonprofit whose mission it is to sow peace between cultures and religions has suffered a devastating financial blow as one of 11 groups recently stripped of promised federal anti-terrorism funding. Music in Common, which was inspired by the journalist and musician Daniel Pearl, lost a $159,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Countering Violent Extremism program after the department took a sharp turn under the Trump administration, pulling funding from some organizations and redirecting it to law enforcement agencies.

The department had awarded a total of $10 million to 31 recipients in early January under the tenure of former Secretary Jeh Johnson. Later that month, President Donald Trump appointed John Kelly as secretary. A statement by the department said Kelly had reviewed awards made under the previous administration. Previous recipients were replaced, mostly by law enforcement organizations, or an increase was made to some of the previous awardees.

"The money never came," said Music in Common Founder and Director Todd Mack, who started the organization in response to the murder — by Islamic extremists — of his friend and bandmate Daniel Pearl, a former North Adams Transcript and Berkshire Eagle reporter who at the time of his death was working in Pakistan for The Wall Street Journal.
"This was the lifeline that we were looking for that would allow us to expand," Mack said of funds that would have helped continue the work of reaching into diverse communities with Pearl's spirit of merry music-making and goodwill.

check it out:,515406

Nature knows better than most of us that whenever there is a time of scarcity, it is only part of a larger cycle of abundance. In fact, from Scripture and Nature, the norm is abundance, generosity and grace - and still we stay addicted to the fears of scarcity. "The fact of nature," Palmer continues, "is in sharp contrast to human nature, which seems to regard perpetual scarcity as the law of life."

Daily I am astonished at how readily I believe that something I need is in short supply. If I hoard possessions, it is because I believe that there are not enough to go around. If I struggle with others over power, it is because I believe that power is limited. If I become jealous in relationships, it is because I believe that when you get too much love, I will be short-changed... The irony, often tragic, is that be embracing the scarcity assumption, we create the very scarcities we fear.

The wisdom of my lawn and garden, however, suggest an alternative:  God provides. Not in a simplistic or naively pious way, but consistently and humbly; my work is to stay present and nurture what has been given, not hoard or defile. Like the nighttime, I must sit with this gift in silence - even share it with those I rarely see during daylight. During the morning hours it is time to return thanks for its blessings. Then I must care for it and tend it as the day progresses, never taking it for granted. Palmer writes that nourishing community is the way we honor abundance in our public and political lives. In fact, he speaks of community as the embodiment of abundance.

Here is a summertime truth: abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole. Community doesn't just create abundance - community IS abundance. If we could learn that equation form the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.

Currently the fear-mongers of scarcity are making policy. Their decisions are ugly and mean-spirited and, for a time, they will triumph. Sisters and brothers will suffer and the bonds of love will be tested. But then, when we least expect it and often beyond our abilities, the blessed grass will break through the harsh concrete with signs of new life. Summer is ripening now and autumn is just around the corner: so God bless the grass. To every season there is a time and purpose under heaven even the current cruelty and fear.

PS:  Later in the day, while waiting in the doctor's office, what should I read but Psalm 65: 8-14:

Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your
marvelous signs; *
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.
You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.
May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.
May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.

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:...