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:// 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 @ /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.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

i've been told there's a salon revival taking place...

My Brooklyn based buddy Pam tells me that salons are making a
revival in the US so I've been letting that truth percolate within for a few weeks. Four broad but interrelated ideas seem to be bubbling up now, taking a measure of shape and form during this time of gestation - and I wonder what you think? You see, I am very serious about abiding in the wisdom Gertrud Mueller-Nelson celebrates in her description of Advent spirituality (the four week liturgical seasons Christians observe prior to Christmas.) As a Jungian Christian Educator I find her work simultaneously stimulating and practical. And since coming upon her guidebook to "Family Ritual and Community Celebrations" back in my Cleveland days, I have tried to integrate her ideas into my own spiritual disciplines. "Waiting," she writes, "Can be made into a work of art.

And the season of Advent invites us to underscore and understand with a new patience the very feminine state of being: waiting. Our masculine world wants to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right and delay an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting. So we build Concorde airplanes, drink instant coffee, roll out green plastic and call it turf, and reach for the phone before we reach for the pen. The more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry. The tempo of haste in which we live has less to do with being on time or the efficiency of a busy life - it has more to do with our being unable to wait.

But waiting is unpractical time, good for nothing, but mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new 
understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of becoming and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a live of value, necessary to transformation.
To Dance with God, p. 62
First, I am fascinated with the history and form of previous salons. They have been described thusly:

A gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to please or to educate" ("aut delectare aut prodesse"). Salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, were carried on until as recently as the 1940s in urban settings.

Originally the provenance of affluent, beautiful and entertaining women in Italy, a salon would bring create a small community together for the explicit purpose of sharing thoughtful conversation in the midst of art and excellent food and drink. What's NOT to love about this idea?!? I feel like my semi-retirement was a part of destiny's invitation to join this revival. Think of it: art, carefully chosen words, listening, food, music and libation. It's got my name all over it!  And, it was born within the feminine charisms of culture. Not that I'll be greeting guests lounging on a day bed, but a careful, civilized conversation about matters of the heart in this dark and
testosterone driven era makes a world of sense to me.

Second, given the pedagogy of Parker Palmer, Richard Rohr, Carrie Newcomer, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier and Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, the salon's focus on "small is beautiful" speaks to how we might engage in meaningful cultural renewal in the midst of our resistance.It is prefigurative,right? It is sized for community and clarity, too. Bringing 20-30 people together in a tender way is something I can get my head around. It is both part of the "10 foot rule" (focus on what you can touch as the core of social change) and a style of spiritual formation born of beauty and relationship. I value the place of mass rallies. I am committed to civil disobedience in the face of evil, as well. And I know that I have learned and been transformed more often than not in small groups where trust and safety were clearly enforced.

Third, I have a small group of musical colleagues I would like to pitch
this idea to that would give us a chance to play together and share creativity on our own terms. This is not open mic night at the coffee house or hawking ourselves at a bar. And I like doing that, too. But this gives us deep artistic control and permission to explore the Spirit without trolls, drunks or oddballs looking for a fight. It also creates a forum for sharing music outside the mainstream while empowering local musicians to live into their deepest creative blessings.

And fourth, the revival of the salon creates a place to practice the "Living Room Conversations" ( that I have long wanted to explore. As the group's founders proclaim: the art of civil discourse means no soapboxes are allowed. "Ever sit on a couch in someone’s living room, trying to make conversation? Or listen to someone get on a soapbox and dominate the conversation by expressing their opinion with such fervor that no one else dares speak, let alone contradict? When we have authentic, respectful conversations we strengthen our relationships and advance our understanding of the challenges, opportunities and solutions before us."

I have much more to read about salons - and more thought and prayer to explore, too - but the notion that as late as 1940 Gertrude Stein was hosting salons that included Picasso blows my mind. Wikipedia puts it like this:

Contemporary literature about the salons is dominated by idealistic notions of politesse, civilité and honnêteté... Today, however, this view is rarely considered an adequate analysis of the salon. Dena Goodman claims that rather than being leisure based or 'schools of civilité' salons were instead at 'the very heart of the philosophic community' and thus integral to the process of Enlightenment. In short, Goodman argues, the 17th and 18th century saw the emergence of the academic, Enlightenment salons, which came out of the aristocratic 'schools of civilité'. Politeness, argues Goodman, took second-place to academic discussion
Dena Goodman, 'Enlightenment Salons: The Convergence of Female and Philosophic Ambitions' Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Special Issue: The French Revolution in Culture(Spring, 1989), pp. 330

Let me know what strikes you about this idea, please? And if you are in the area, know that very likely I will be in touch with an invitation to such a soirée si cela fait sens!

Friday, February 10, 2017

bread AND roses...

Every day I discover a new song that speaks to my heart. Yesterday it was news that John Legend was reworking Brian Wilson's masterpiece, "God Only Knows," for Sunday's Grammy Awards. (check it out:  According to Paul McCartney, this may be the most perfect pop song ever crafted - and I would agree. And having been moved often by Legend's insightful reinterpretations, like this take on U2's "Pride in the Name of Love," heightens my anticipation.
This morning, while sipping Sabbath tea and reading the newspaper, I saw that a new biopic about Django Reinhardt is soon to be released after opening the Berlin Film Festival. Director Etienne Comar focuses on the early hopes of the Gypsy Jazz guitarist who believed that the joy of his music would keep him from the clutches of Nazi white supremacy only to flee Vichy France in 1943. By this time, thousands of Jews, Roma, trade unionists and other "undesirables" had been transported to death camps. (check it out: The joy and jump of Dgango's music certainly offers a refuge from sorrow, but only organizing, prayer and solidarity can beat back a monster (in his era or ours.)

As a musician steeped in the practice of theology and social change, these two tunes keep my head out of the clouds even as they strengthen my heart. As the early feminist trade unionists in Lowell, MA taught:  "Give us bread AND give us roses!" The late Henri Nouwen put it well:

Consolation is a beautiful word. It means "to be" (con-) "with the lonely one" (solus). To offer consolation is one of the most important ways to care. Life is so full of pain, sadness, and loneliness that we often wonder what we can do to alleviate the immense suffering we see. We can and must offer consolation. We can and must console the mother who lost her child, the young person with AIDS, the family whose house burned down, the soldier who was wounded, the teenager who contemplates suicide, the old man who wonders why he should stay alive. To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, "You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don't be afraid. I am here." That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as to receive it.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

reviving our hearts for justice...

Today is a snow day in these parts - looks like about 9" so far with no end in sight - so it is chill time in the Berkshires. Last night I had the privilege to be a part of a diverse "reviving our hearts for justice" gathering.  Young poets, dancers, jazz musicians, Christians, Muslims, SBNRs, politicos, labor organizers, old time activists and newbies, Black, White, Asian and Latino, students, men, women, children, gay, straight, trans and questioning allies embraced one another in solidarity. As is said in the spiritual directors realm, I "noticed" a few truths worth commenting.

+ First, the young poets were vulnerable and angry.  Speaking from the heart, each artist shared a part of their story with us in ways that helped us experience their fears and alienation. Sometimes it was jarring, other times tender, and always honest. Poetry can evoke deep truths and insights using words and tone that are greater than words alone - and this cadre of poets did so with verve. They gave shape and form to what they feel in a world gone mad much like Ginsberg did in "Howl" 62 years ago. 

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated....

I am so glad that poetry from young artists held such an essential role in driving this revival.

+ Second, the music was passionately eclectic. There was a crazy symmetry at work in this event that kicked the night off with a student group playing their take on Ornette Coleman's free jazz. Coleman spent time in the Berkshires at the influential but short-lived Lenox School of Jazz. During his 1958 summer of resting and practicing the sax in this integrated gathering of artists and students, Coleman discerned a way to take the freedom of his music and the heart of the civil rights movement in new directions. Next came a visiting scholar from Williams College who shared a freedom song from his native Zimbabwe. He played a large kalimba-like instrument, taught the participants to clap lightly to a highly syncopated rhythm and then sang over and through our shared sounds. A classical music choir sang a setting of the Prayer of St. Francis, the NAACP speaker started with his version of an old gospel tune, a young dancer shared a jazz track evoking the experiences of Black women in the USA, I played an unplugged version of St. Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" on acoustic guitar and an a capella gospel choir brought the night to a rousing close. 

What spoke to me was the breadth and depth of beauty honored in each musical offering. I was also moved by the way each different genre fit into the whole. To my spirituality, this was an audible parable of the blessings diversity promises rather than the all too regular cries of fear from the America First crowd.

+ Third, the most moving spoken address came from an imam who reminded us that we are to move and change the world with love. If timing is everything, it was serendipitous that I played my gentle love song celebrating the heart just before he spoke. His words of meeting the challenges of the day with strong love resonated with my counter-intuitive, non-movement song of protest. Fascinating the way the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for human understanding. Kudos to my colleague, Mark, who organized the event and planned its unfolding. 

As the snow keeps falling, I give thanks this day for the totality of the revival and each of its discrete parts. It was, as Carrie Newcomer likes to say, a bit of the beautiful but not yet...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

sweet jane and reviving our hearts for justice...

Tonight I will join with my colleagues and new student friends from Williams College for an evening of song, dance, art, prayer and spoken word. "Reviving Our Hearts for Justice" is an invitation to "revive our hearts for resistance and action" to the current madness. 

Through song, poetry, dance, speakers, this special evening will inspire our hearts for the urgent work of justice and peace that is so threatened in our nation. Think of it as a community gathering to galvanize moral dissent to the injustice unleashed against so many people, particularly refugees, immigrants, and people of color. Community and student organizations are invited to table before and during the event. Confirmed speakers include Williams College Chaplain Rick Spalding, Williams College Muslim Chaplain Sharif Rosen, Eleanore Velez (Berkshire Community College), Peg Kern (Northern Berkshires for Racial Justice), Brian Morrison (Berkshire Central Labor Council), Sherwood Guernsey (Four Freedoms Coalition), Warren Dews and many more to be confirmed. Music curated by Brad Wells, Williams College Choral Director.

Yesterday I was invited to bring a tune to this happening - and was delighted to be asked. I
spent time playing through a variety of possible songs from Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" and U2's "Pride in the Name of Love" to Bob Franke's "Alleluia, The Great Storm is Over" and Carrie Newcomer's "If Not Now Tell Me When?" All are powerful and each share a unique gift in the practice of reviving our hearts for justice. But none resonated with me as I was looking for something wildly counter-intuitive. And then it hit me:  my quiet and even tender take on Lou Reed's rock and roll masterpiece "Sweet Jane." And here's why:

+ I see St.Lou as the link between the best of the Beat Poets in the 50s - think Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti - and Lady Gaga or Beyonce in our era. Specifically, Lou Reed was the consummate people's artist. He was high brow in his aesthetic and low down with his delivery. He mashed up words, sounds, time, space and grooves in a way that celebrated freedom in all of its unruly forms. He was a true genre bender empowering outsiders to trust their God-given identity as a blessing. And he challenged us all to understand and honor our quest for liberation sexually, politically, artistically, emotionally  and intellectually.

+ Brother Reed was never sentimental, but always a champion for love. He put himself into the middle of conflicts on behalf of the wounded and discarded, just like Bonhoeffer described Jesus. In "Sweet Jane" he offers us a vision of love that starts with a couple who look buttoned up and unhip. Jack's in a corset - gender bending or just uptight? - and Jane's in a vest - like Annie Hall or something more trans? - while Lou is wearing the uniform of a rock and roller. Jack and Jane listen to classical music and save their money while Lou rides in his Stutz Bearcat acting out of control. But they did it for love.  They sacrificed for love. They played their parts for love. And that's something each new generation is called to celebrate: we ALL have to make choices and compromises, so do it for love and blessings will follow.

"Sweet Jane" is an anti elitist -protest song on one level directed to all the 60s hipsters who derided the Silent Majority as square and evil without ever knowing them personally. It is a metaphorically creative expression of the many nuanced layers to a person's life. And it is a hymn to love in all its saving glory.  As some of you know, I was knocked on my ass by St. Lou's death four years ago. In ways that are mystical to me, I feel called to carry the flame of his devotion to unsentimental love to those who might never have heard him. And so, as part of our reviving our heart for justice, I'll share "Sweet Jane" as a gritty song of grace.