Sunday, June 30, 2013

Let the music play (Part 1)

Wow! What a beginning to "Music Week." Just enjoyed a two day jazz festival at Saratoga Springs, NY. It is not for the faint-hearted: non-stop jazz on two stages, pretty much from noon until 10:30 both nights. The music was astonishing, deeply swinging, and life-giving.

My good friend Jeff Kellam was able to join me. It was his birthday weekend and we celebrated in style. He took all the pictures in the slideshow below, except one:

I found myself wondering: if I love events like this so much, how come it has been twenty years since I attended the last one? Hmm...

It was great to see - and hear - Donny McCaslin, a good friend and fellow Presbyterian. He is a Grammy-nominated saxophonist who has played in our church. One of the true up-and-coming musicians, he is also a wonderfully nice man. We enjoyed reconnecting after some years, and chatted about finding some opportunities to make music together.

And a side note to Susan Kelly, John and Connie Weiss: he attended last week's Montreat Worship and Music conference, mostly as spouse to the Rev. Sarah McCaslin and as dad to their two kids. "Loved the choral music!" he exclaimed. I asked if the staff asked him to sit in, and he said, "Um, no..." We have to work on that.

Another big highlight was the dedication of a star honoring Dave Brubeck in the "Walk of Fame" at the Saratoga performing arts center. Introduced by rousing music from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a large crowd celebrated Dave's great musical legacy, which included thirteen performances at this festival over the years.

His daughter Catherine was on hand, and it was good to chat with her for a bit. She heads a foundation that works with kids in Haiti, so we exchanged business cards and promised to keep in touch.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Let the music begin

Up and at 'em at dawn. The sabbatical is designed to a certain rhythm: rest, time with family, time alone, time in prayer, time in nature . . . and now, time with music. This sabbatical is about listening for the music of God's Spirit in a variety of places: in human relationships, in the natural beauty of the world, in the silence of our hearts, and from the performing stage of great artistry.

Today I begin "music week": eight days saturated with syncopation. Some of it will be with family, as I will later report, and some of it with great friends.

Jeff Kellam is the first great friend. To treat him for his birthday, I am taking him to a major jazz festival. It will be about twenty hours of music in two full days. Just us - and about twenty thousand of our closest friends. We will listen to a wide survey of some of the best improvising artists of the world - - - with a dose of Tony Bennett on Sunday night.

Stay tuned. Don't touch that dial!

Friday, June 28, 2013

In memory of a friend

Word has reached us that Bob London has died. This remarkable man has been a good friend for many years. We met on the very first day that I began work as a minister, and that was a long time ago.

My heart is sad. Very sad. I will have more to say in a later post.

Bob London, a friend of historic proportions
Thanks to Dave Porter for drawing him so well!

Out of the woods

Back from the monastery by way of the woods. It was a prayerful week, concluding with a stop at the end of the world. Quite literally.

It is a beautiful patch of earth, tucked away in the mountains. I enjoyed a long walk in the solitude, and took in the view.

To get there, you have to pass through the most unlikely villages . . .

There are streams to ford, and ancient bridges to cross . . .

A carpet of ferns grows without your help . . .

and the water keeps rolling along regardless of your encouragement . . .

Sometimes it seems you can see forever . . .

When you come to a village with its own clock tower, it seems time stands still.

Then the road takes you home . . . and you are changed by the journey.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sleeping through church

There is little hope for me to get up in time for the first worship service of the day. If I were to be awake at 4:45 AM, something would have to be wrong. So I go gentle on myself for missing the first service this morning.

My hosts
But there was no excuse for nearly missing the 7:00 AM Lauds service. The chapel bell pulled me from my slumber. I had set the cell phone alarm to go off at 6:35, but apparently the phone spent the whole night searching vainly for a cell tower and the phone fell into a deeper sleep than mine. When the dong-dong-dong sounded nearby, I sat up, confused and incredulous. Throwing some clothes on, I arrived in time for the chanting of Psalms.

Breakfast followed – Cheerios with a sliced banana. The coffee is not particularly good, but the brothers don’t go in for a lot of comparison shopping. The rest of the morning is spent in reading, reflecting, and a bit of resting. In the middle of it all, mass comes at 9:00 and I watch everybody else have communion.

Noontime prayer calls an end to my study, and following a brief worship service with three psalms, we dine with the brothers. I would be perfectly content to settle for the large garden salad, but then the cook brings platters of meatloaf and roasted vegetables. It is followed by homemade custard pie. All through lunch, we are silent as the guest master reads a spiritual history of the Cluny monastery to us. When the abbot sees 1:00 on his wristwatch, he dings the bell and we depart.

A brief siesta will precede an afternoon of reading. There will be prayer services at 3:00 and 6:00, and sometime before the latter, I will take a walk among the fields.

Then it’s more prayer, more reflection, and another blessed night of sleep. Anybody want a few prayers while I am here?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Going to the chapel, gonna get praying

I arrived at the monastery in the early afternoon, after a lunch stop on the way to meet my parents. It’s located in the Appalachian hills just above the New York-Pennsylvania border. A working sheep farm, the community fits in within the rural landscape.

St. Joseph stands guard over his flock. The namesake of the guesthouse, he was recently carved from a tree. I am one of three guests residing here, with a couple more arriving tomorrow.

No sooner do I pull into the parking lot when a fierce thunderstorm hit. As the guest master points out, this is the Feast Day of John the Baptist’s Birth, a day for everybody to get wet.

I enjoy a leisurely afternoon with a brief nap. When the 6:00 p.m. bell calls us to the sanctuary, I notice the place has been spruced up since the last time I was here. A fresh coat of paint, new prayer books, a bit of new art. And a new habit too: the sanctuary filled with a huge cloud of incense, shifting in the early evening light. Smells like prayer!

My undisclosed location
Afterwards, the guests are invited to dine with the monks. They are free to chatter on feast days, so I have hit it right. I discover something about my two housemates. One is a young man from Switzerland, preparing for his baptism in a Protestant church there. When he Googled retreat centers and sent out a query for lodging, this was the only monastery to reply (which they did within twenty minutes). The other guest looks familiar – he was a brother here in 2009, and left to do Ph.D. work in theology in California. He is back here to write his dissertation to the sound of bleating sheep.

Dinner is pizza and beer, with chili and hot dogs. There’s a scoop of ice cream at the end. When you get twenty guys together for a feast day, what else do you expect? J

I look forward to a good night’s sleep, in spite of the unfamiliar bed. There’s something comforting about the songs of farm animals as you nod off at night. One could almost expect bagpipes to augment the soundtrack.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday is Fun Day

I had the opportunity to worship with my wife this morning. That doesn't happen very often, as she plays the organ for a church over the mountain from where I work. She showed me the Sunday routine - stopping for a DD iced coffee on the way, setting up the organ for worship, and greeting everybody as they came in.

The service was a hoot. It started a bit late since the regular preacher wasn't there, and the substitute preacher did an admirable job. It was a good way to devote a Sunday morning. I was glad to be there.

On the way back, we stopped at the Fifty-Acres-of-Food Emporium to pick up the fixings for some Pad Thai for supper. The place was swarmed! I murmured, "Who are all these people and why aren't they in churches?" I suppose one can be a bit cloistered by a regular Sunday morning commitment. But it was sobering to see how many people were there, dressed for the back yard, apparently indifferent to the hymns and scriptures that we had just shared a few minutes before.

That was my major discovery for the day: just how many people have no need for the church in any obvious way. And I knew some of them by name.

Returning home, our spunky offspring would not let me mull this over too long. They were ready for splishing and splashing on a very warm day, declaring "Sunday is Fun Day." Indeed it was. I napped with a book in my lap, then woke long enough to finish it. After a bit more puttering, I made good on my promise to make a small Thai feast. Just right for a summer night.

Tomorrow I head off to a sheep farm that doubles as a Benedictine monastery. It will be a change of pace.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Rolling out the first week

Week one feels like a vacation - floating with no Sunday deadlines, puttering on deferred chores, and a good bit of family time. By Thursday, I didn't know what day it was -- evidence of some needed rest.

In the middle of the week, I took daughter Meg to Washington D.C. for her orientation at American University, with her sister Katie in tow. We got over to the zoo to check on the relatives (see right), and to give Meg a chance to try out her Parseltongue with the serpents. Dinner was a Thai restaurant in Meg's future neighborhood.

As she moved on to her orientation sessions, Katie and I vowed to see every museum on the Smithsonian circuit (four down, a hundred to go). We climbed the steps to chat with Honest Abe, descended into the Viet Nam memorial, and paused to check out the WW2 monument. If that weren't enough, we ate ice cream sandwiches as we ascended Capitol Hill, and arrived just in time to see a bill defeated on the floor.

At the end of the day, our feet hurt and we loved every minute of it. Meanwhile Meg was developing crushes on numerous male specimens. She is really looking forward to college.

We arrived home this evening and will regroup. A really, really nice beginning to this extended Sabbath.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Prelude to a harvest

A three-line poem by Wendell Berry, from his collection of Sabbath poems:

The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.[1]

Don't know why this poem hit me, but it did. Sounds like a prayer for a fertile season. 

[1] Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (New York: Counterpoint, 1998) p. 131

Monday, June 17, 2013

A beautiful send-off

a good benediction
Here is my last view of the congregation on Sunday. After a final litany of mutual blessing, I walked down the aisle as we sang "God Be With You Til We Meet Again." Roger Griffith, our temporary supply pastor, was with me. He gave the benediction and I can affirm that the congregation is in good hands.

It was a good day. Full house in worship, the baptism of a wonderful kid named Mira, and the blessing of being with these good folks before I departed. The Deacons had a pre-service pancake breakfast, and the food was generous and delicious. Thanks to all who made the departure so special!

Margaret Rose, graduate
That afternoon, we threw a graduation party for daughter Meg. My whole family came by the house - Mom and Dad, two sisters and a brother, their spouses and kids.

Meg also invited a hundred of her closest friends and fondest acquaintances. Naturally, she included some church folks in the mix. It was a grand way to celebrate her departure from high school.

Seven years ago, my first sabbatical coincided with Meg's eleventh birthday. The picture that I took at a birthday breakfast is a reminder of she has now matured into a wise young woman with deep insight and many abilities. We are very proud of all four of our kids; this week belongs to Meg.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Preaching my way out the door

Here is a clip from my departure sermon for tomorrow. It was really hard to get this one written! Based on Psalm 92, it takes its title from the editorial comment in Hebrew: "A Song for the Sabbath Day." Here's the clip:


In the last stanza of the Psalm, I love the three verbs: flourish, grow, planted. The well-balanced life is compared to three trees.

  • The righteous flourish like a palm tree. Ever see the lushness of a tropical palm? They are so full of life they have to be trimmed so they can flourish even more.
  • The righteous grow like the cedars of Lebanon. These cedars were the legendary trees of antiquity. They grew tall and straight, were reported to have medicinal powers, and were cut for the great temple of Solomon.
  • Then there is the tree laden with fruit, described as still productive in its old age. Old age in the time of this Psalm, by the way, was somewhere after fifty. If you were fifty, you were old – but you could still be productive, still green, still full of sap, and still pointing to the Lord, the source of all life.
    So this Psalm pushes us to ask ourselves what it will take to flourish, to grow, to stay planted and to remain productive. These are the Sabbath tasks, the Sabbatical tasks. The poet of Psalm 92 believes that Sabbath rest  makes room for us to flourish and be fruitful.


To read the rest of the sermon, you can click here. See you in September...

Friday, June 14, 2013

Be Kind to Roger

Rev. Roger Griffith
We are blessed to have a seasoned minister to fill in for me. The Rev. Roger Griffith will be our temporary supply pastor during my three-month absence. Recently retired as the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in nearby Dallas, PA, he will be our acting pastor and head of staff until September 15.

Roger is a very gifted individual. He has a warm heart and a gentle manner. He also have a good head on his shoulders. I am delighted that my beloved congregation will be in such capable hands. He will preach weekly, show Christ's care to those in need, and generally be available for whatever comes up. We are grateful for the Lilly Endowment for the grant that makes his residency possible.

If anybody needs him for an emergency, contact him through our office at (570) 586-6306.

Oh, and one more thing: be kind to him. When I return, I don't want to hear of any instances like this: "The minister's a sub, so we're all going to sing the wrong hymn... Pass it on!"

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Temporarily closing up shop

It's my last day in the office. There has been a flurry of activity in the past week, which is why there are no new posts. The bulletin for Sunday is prepared. We had a Session meeting on Tuesday to organize for summer and fall. Yesterday was spent in summing up some denominational details, then meeting with our top-notch Sabbatical Planning Team.

This afternoon, I feel like Warren Schmidt, Jack Nicholson's character, as he watches the clock count down to quitting time. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick...

There are some things yet to do, of course. This afternoon I will make a couple of house calls on church members. Tomorrow I will go to the hospital to visit a member. And then, I have to write the sermon for Sunday. But it is winding up nicely.

Note to self: find the DVD of "About Schmidt" and watch it again. It will be a good reminder of how life goes on in spite of us. Or with us.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Burst of office tidiness

I am cleaning my study. It feels good. I did not realize how much unnecessary stuff I have kept. It has piled up and I've made room for all of it.

Why the purge? It's not merely to give my temporary replacement the sense that I am supremely organized (what would he need in my files, anyway?). Rather, it is the beautiful feeling that external order gives internal peace. If the world around you is orderly, it frees you in wonderful ways. And it affirms that some things are not really worth keeping any more.

I cannot imagine that I need the minutes from a 1997 committee meeting. Or that I need to keep a book purchased twenty years ago that I have never opened. Or that the drawer full of clippings that could someday become potential sermon illustrations must be kept, even though I have not opened that drawer in over ten years.

I have three books on clutter management; two are identical. Each book declares that clutter comes from (1) emotional attachments to stuff, and (2) not shutting down the question "What if?" As in, "What if I need this some day?"

Hmm. Do I really need the hundred cassette tapes of sermons by famous preachers? I love Fred Craddock's preaching and have learned much from his sermons. But cassette players are becoming difficult to find. Fred isn't even preaching any more.

What about those VHS tapes that were helpful in teaching classes but are now losing their magnetic juice? A few can be digitized on discs and the rest discarded.

I'm not ready to empty out the office. Oh no! But from time to time, a good purge is needed. It feels good to travel a bit lighter.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Overheard in the hallway before the pastor's departure

Person 1: What if something happens while he is gone?

Person 2: I guess somebody else can do it. Or it doesn't get done.

Person 3: Maybe God will get it done some other way.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A book that does what it says

I've spent a little time re-reading The Sabbath, by Abraham Heschel. It is the best book that I know on the topic (and there are many such books). But that doesn't mean it is an easy read. The first few pages leave me in a fog. The rabbi's brilliant prose forces me to slow down, to ponder, to reflect, to imagine -- and then it dawns on me: this is exactly what Sabbath does.

There is no reason for me to summarize the book here. It is a wonderful work that every person of faith should read.  Heschel states that Jewish faith is a religion of time, not a religion of space. It matters what we do with our minutes and how we keep our time-appointed festivals. For Heschel, time-keeping is the primary human practice. It reveals our greatest priorities. We make our time holy by offering it to God.

For kicks, I have occasionally done a time survey of how I spend a day or a week. Not being prone to annotating every minute, this is a demanding chore for me. But it reveals so much. You see where you have been distracted. Or when you have been interrupted or called away. You discover how hard it is to follow a to-do list, and why it is often important to have that list. You look back in review and discover how much you have done.

What doesn't show up on the time survey, of course, is Sabbath time. We really have a difficulty with Holy Pauses. We avoid them, or consider them unnecessary or unproductive. It is hard for the Driven Person to sit in a chair. To put it in neutral and put on the parking brake. This, too, is what we can do with our time. We can direct it to God and offer our Sabbath as our response to God's invitation for Sabbath.

So I ponder this, thanks to Rabbi Heschel. And it occurs to me that it is time to pull my favorite Adirondack chair out of the back shed and point it toward the squirrels.