Friday, April 26, 2013

So many books, so little time

Titles on the Sabbatical Bookshelf:

The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul With Monastic Wisdom, Christine Valters Painter
Lectio Divina: Transforming Words and Images into Heart-Centered Prayer, Christine Valters Painter
Abiding, Ben Quash
This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin Kelley
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr
Immortal Diamond: the Search for Our True Self, Richard Rohr
Holy Play: The Joyful Adventure of Unleashing Your Divine Purpose, Kirk Byron Jones
Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers, Troy Bronsink
The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevski

And the biblical text to keep the time grounded: 2 Corinthians.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Poetry slows us down

Here is a newsletter article that I have just put together for my congregation. It is springtime, and I have poetry on the brain. Not a bad malady, by the way.
Dear Friends -

“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, my favorite springtime poet. Hopkins is regarded as one of the great poets of the Victorian era, and he was a complicated soul. He loved poetry as a child and wrote many “verses.” While attending college in 1866, however, he gave up poetry for Lent. Later that summer, he converted to Catholicism. Less than a week later, he set fire to all his own poems and abstained from writing any more for another seven years. He joined the Jesuit order and traveled to the countryside of Wales to be ordained as a priest.

It was the happiest time of his life. As he prepared for his ordination, it dawned on him that he could write poetry as a way of praising God. And so, in the year 1877, he wrote a burst of poems that are still enjoyed today. One of them is titled “God’s Grandeur,” and goes like this:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
   And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The poem travels from line to line, wandering through memory and observation, creating its own experience. To read it is a Sabbath experience, slowing us down to dwell in God’s beauty. With poetry like this, Hopkins pushed words into new forms. But he was not to be celebrated as a poet during his lifetime. The Jesuits directed him to teach poor children in the cities of Ireland, Scotland, and Northern England. He expected a life of hard work, but he never took to living in dark, smoky cities. He contracted typhoid from polluted water in Dublin, and died from it at age 44.

Father Hopkins might have been forgotten, had it not been for his correspondence with Robert Bridges, a friend from college. After Hopkins’ death, Bridges began to publish his poetry. Those who worked side by side with Hopkins had never known that he saw the world so charged with God’s beauty.

Let this be a reminder to us all. Do something beautiful today, even if nobody else knows about it. Take the time and space to fall in love with God - and God’s world. Risk writing down what you see, if only to let God know that you are paying attention to this good life.

See you on the Sabbath,
Rev. Bill

Me too

I enjoyed a gathering of church folks last night. Our deacons had convened to talk about the ways that they care for the people of our church. It's a capable and compassionate group. They offer rides, provide meals, send get-well cards, and organize food drives. These are the kind of people that bless our church, and it is a delight to serve with them.

When the topic of this summer's sabbatical came up in conversation, there was a dead calm. A moment of silence. A musical fermata. Then somebody asked, "Can I ask where you are going?"

Oxygen entered the room as I began to speak. I didn't find it necessary to give a travelogue and brag about all the places where I will go. I spoke instead of the benefits of the time away: time with my family, time with God, time to unplug from an active schedule, time to be healthy, time to have my soul replenished. After a few beats of silence, someone said, "I would love to have time like that." Another echoed, "Me too."

All of us want time like this, but few of us take it. Every day is full of time. Why don't we take more of it to address matters of the soul?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Gentle JourneyMan

Last night, a number of church folks gathered to spend some time with Kent Groff, our favorite spiritual director from Denver. He is a world-class author with a deep, deep soul. Kent led two events at our church, both focused on a line from the poet Rilke:

I am the rest between two notes, which are somehow always in discord

It is a pungent phrase, appropriate for the musical nature of this upcoming sabbatical. Kent led us in an exploration of the discords in our lives. Where is tension and discord? What are the uneven demands? What - or Who - is the rest we desire?

Thanks, Kent, for sounding the tones and pointing to the Rest. We were blessed to have him in our zip code. And for those who want Rilke's poem, here is one translation:

My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me: I stand before it like a tree;
but I am only one of many mouths
and at that, the one that will be still the soonest.
I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because deaths note wants to climb over -
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
They stay here trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Random reservations

Many moments have a greater purpose that we may not realize at the time. So I'm starting to schedule some of these moments through the sabbatical.

My youngest child is graduating from high school, and has selected American University as her college of choice for the fall. We are planning a big graduation party for Father's Day, the same day that the sabbatical begins. As daughter Meg said, "Let's get it done." It will be a send-off for her, anticipating her bittersweet departure in mid-August.

She has already invited a thousand people to invade our back yard, and invited a few friends to return for the party-after-the-party which will involve a bonfire and s'mores. We are looking forward to celebrating the end of high school with her, and surrounding her with love as she prepares to depart.

At the end of the summer, after the dependents have departed to become independents, Jamie and I have booked our tickets for the Canadian Rockies. We expect to ramble around those big hills for two weeks, hiking, spotting wildlife, and gazing at extraordinary landscapes such as Peyto Lake. The trip gives us the time to explore how we will return to an empty nest. I suspect we will chat about the blessings and lessons we have received thus far, as we chart our future ahead.

One of the coolest moments during the summer is a workshop with Bobby McFerrin, scheduled in late summer. Sometime around seventh grade, a public school music teacher told me that I couldn't sing. I know that isn't true, but it is difficult to get that harsh voice out of my head. Bobby is leading a gathering for those who wish to replace such voices with our own melodious voices. I am thrilled to be going to this event.
It promises to be another soul-refreshing moment.

Friday, April 5, 2013

What we want to do

I recently met Sammy Nestico, renowned composer and big band arranger. He was coming to town for a festival that celebrated his music. We chatted cordially, I mentioned a couple of his tunes that I enjoyed, and then he told me a story: "When I was young, maybe twelve or thirteen, I heard a great big band in Pittsburgh, my hometown. I said to myself, that's what I want to do for the rest of my life." And so he has.

His website mentions his background: staff arranger for a Pittsburgh radio station, music degree from Duquesne University, music teacher for a Pennsylvania high school, fifteen years in the Airmen of Note jazz band of the U.S. Air Force. I remember him for a few of the many recordings that he did for the Count Basie Orchestra. They were stirring and fun, and he has rightly been acclaimed for what he has done with his life.

Mr. Nestico has a storied career, and promises to tell me more stories while he is in town. But the best story is how it began: "I heard a great band... that's what I want to do..."

Many of us have had those moments. As I reflect on twenty-seven years so far of pastoral ministry, I can still remember my youthful excitement of hearing the Bible opened to me in sermons and studies. I recall the stirring feelings of serving communion to folks in a nursing home. I can picture the faces of those who were assisted by acts of service by Christian people. To separate ourselves from the origins of our life's work is to diminish our passion for what we are called to do.

There are reasons for why we are here on earth. God is not aimless or indifferent in creating us, and sets some essential work before all of us. Perhaps we get paid for it. Or perhaps we get paid elsewhere, so we are free to do what we need to do. Our life's work is the work we will do regardless of whether we are honored or ignored. It's just that important.

My occasional daydream for all of us goes something like this: what if money did not exist, and we were simply fed and sheltered? If so, how would we spend our time? What would we be doing?

Here's my answer. I would be doing exactly what I am doing right now. That's how I know that I am in the place where God calls me.

How about you?