God of this place - a prayer

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God of winter and spring, of summer and autumn.

God of the day and the night and the beautiful in-between.

God of the north and the south, the east and the west.

God of the universe and the atom.

You are God of this place and this time.

Your presence is found in the present moment.

Help us to plant our feet in this place,

not because it is our place, but it is the place where we are.

Remind us of those who have planted their feet here before us,

who tended this place,

who lived in this place,

who encountered you in this place.

Remind us that our ancestors did not arrive to an empty land.

God of all places, we receive the gift of this place as a gift

not for some, but for all.

Amen.

Fave albums of 2016

These are the albums I most listened to in 2016. They are not necessarily released in 2016.

Songs From the Lough Swilly Delta by Little John Née and the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra

This is one of those albums that harkens me to a time and place. I saw Little John Nee perform at a house concert in Galway, Ireland. He is a wonderful musical storyteller who fills songs with charm and wit and this album is currently seeing near constant play in our car’s cd player. (He also introduced me to the cigar box guitar.)

 

You Want it Darker by Leonard Cohen

As a Canadian, Leonard Cohen has been on my cultural radar for decades. I would describe myself more as an appreciator than a fan. I've read some of his poetry, and a novel, and listened to his music, but I thought his song-writing ability surpassed his song performance ability. I went back to listen to The Future a month or two ago and struggled to get past the 80s synthesizer and the overproduction. But, his last and final album is the best match of song, voice, and production. The album is dark and rich.

 

Living On a High Note by Mavis Staples

A genuine highlight of my year was seeing Mavis perform and then getting a hug from this beautiful woman. I am a big Mavis fan and so I'm naturally inclined to like anything she does. I will admit, however, this album took a few listens to grow on me. My initialresponse was that the album was too cheery. The Jon Batiste song seems like it was written for a Pixar movie. Oh, and not enough gospel influences. But repeated listens has developed a deeper appreciation for the album. (Another Mavis involved release I listened to a lot this year was the Faith and Grace a 4 cd set of early Staple Singers music.)

 

Cruel Sunrise (Deluxe Edition) by Rick Holmstrom

I became aware of Rick Holmstrom in his role as Mavis’ guitarist for several years. So, along with seeing Mavis perform, I was delighted to closely watch and listen to Rick’s playing. I also got to briefly chat with him the morning after the concert, but I didn't ask him for a hug. Shortly after the concert I purchased this album which is straight-up 3-piece-band blues. My favorite part of the album is the “deluxe” extra cd of instrumental music. It seems like when the singing and the lyrics can be set aside that the musicianship of the band really shines through.

 

PanolaCounty Spirit by theWalker Family Singers

Another great release of, as my friend would put it “moanin’ gospel” from theDaptone Records label. If you liked their Como Mamas album, which I did, then you’ll probably like this. This album was recorded in the family's Mississippi living room and is simply about their powerful a capella gospel singing.

10 Recommended Podcasts

10 Recommended podcasts (in no particular order)

Podcasts are all about putting things on your ears and listening – and it’s best if it is attentive listening. So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I like podcasts that are about sound, or just sound great. Here is a list I would personally recommend today.

 

Sound/Music related

Twenty Thousand Hertz

A new podcast that tags itself as “The stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.” This shows is created by a sound design team and definitely requires use of headphones.

The World According to Sound

Yes, the first thing you will notice about the podcast is episodes are just 90 seconds long. They introduce a sound and play the sound.

Sound Opinions

A good music criticism show from WBEZ in Chicago. The hosts, Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis do a good job of expanding my musical awareness. Like most music critics, they have a fondness for music that I think only music critics enjoy.

 

Great Sounding podcasts

The Memory Palace

It took me a little while to warm up to this show, but I’m now a devoted fan. The stories are fascinating pieces historical research and the writing and the narration are wonderful to listen to.

Here Be Monsters

Love + Radio

I’m going to confess, I sometimes get these two podcasts mixed up, but that is because they are both wonderfully audio-rich explorations of often-challenging subjects. Before beginning an episode from either show I pause and assess whether I’m ready for this.

 

Religious

Spiritual Steps

Each episode is a brief invitation to a spiritual discipline. Steven Hovater is a gentle teacher and okay, some of the charm is his southern drawl.

The Rhythm Divine

Combining my appreciation of audio and spirituality, this show from Australian Broadcasting Corp Radio National features spirituality and music from many different traditions. And yes, here you get to listen to a lovely Australian accent.

 

Miscellaneous

How to Be Amazing

Michael Ian Black is my favorite interviewer (sorry Terry Gross.) He really listens to the people he’s interviewing and asks insightful, follow-up questions. I also appreciate that he is quick to ask clarification questions when he doesn’t understand something. (I loved his interview with Krista Tippett.)

HowSound

HowSound is the “How it’s Made” of radio storytelling. In each episode, Rob Rosenthal dissects a radio piece. It is a wonderful and learning opportunity to listen to radio stories through his critical, professional ears.

 

 

 

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When the storms of life are raging, Testify

My sermon preached on Nov. 13, 2016 The text is Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

What do you do when the world around you seems to be falling apart? What do you do When things you had placed great confidence in begin to crumble, or you discover they are a lie?

How do you prepare for predicted disaster and devastation?

Many in this country have predicting and proclaiming the end of things as we know them. Internal and ideological wars and rumors of wars have filled our tv screens and Facebook feeds. Many, many people have appeared and said I am he, or I am she. Only I can save this country.

People have been arrested while protesting the value of black lives and protecting sacred land. Nations have risen up against nation, party against party, neighbor against neighbor.

The times we live in don’t sound that different from Jesus’ words in our gospel text this morning. So. What does this mean? Are these the “End Times” – that time that people since even before the time of Christ have felt are imminent? And if these are the times that Jesus seems to be talking about – what are we to do? Our temptations range from sticking our head in the sand and ignoring what’s going on around us to mounting an angry rebellion. And either of those responses seem reasonable – and were common to Jesus’ time as well.

Let’s step back a little from the emotion and the rhetoric from our reading and from current events and look a little closer at the text. 

Jesus and his disciples have been hanging out at the temple in Jerusalem. Just before these verses they had watched the widow drop her 2 coins into the offering plate. Once again, Jesus was using an old woman, a widow to teach these young men what life in God’s reign looked like. After that I guess nothing much was happening and the disciples started laying back and looking around. “I can’t get over how amazingly big and beautiful this place is. All that gold and gems everywhere. And all this to glorify God. Have you ever seen something like this Jesus? Isn’t it wonderful?” Those seem like perfectly legitimate responses to the grandeur of the temple.

Jesus quietly looked around for a bit “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

“Say what?!”

This temple was a symbol of Yahweh’s relationship with God’s chosen people, and a symbol religious security and strength. Announcing its destruction would be a little disconcerting. 

Now, this temple they were sitting in was also known as Herod’s temple – this wasn’t the Herod that tried to kill Jesus as a baby, but that of his Father. Yes, this was a place for the Jewish people to gather to worship, but like any good political leader, Herod had spent time visiting neighboring countries and saw the amazing temples built to their gods, and well, like any good politician, he didn’t want to be outdone. So, he made sure “his” temple was as good as theirs, if not better. Public works projects and personal vanity have been with us for millennia. And, let us not forget that Herod was an agent of the occupying Roman empire. As we know from the story of Jesus’ passion, local religious and political leaders were pretty intertwined. It seems that as much as the temple was a place of worship and religious identity, it was also a symbol of political domination and hubris.

Political and religious forces had taken an institution that was supposed to be a place where the people of Israel worshiped Yahweh, and turned it into a political tool to help uphold the empire. 

So, even though this place still had deep religious resonance for the people – and for Jesus as well – perhaps we shouldn’t be too startled that Jesus essentially declares “The foolish man built his house on the sand and the walls will come tumbling down.”

Not surprisingly, the disciples are surprised by this declaration and want more information. “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 

There they are lounging underneath the high ceiling and heavy walls of the temple, and Jesus says that this place is going to crumble – so, yeah, they want to know when and if they should leave, now. But I find it curious they also ask “What will be the sign this is about to take place?” They want to know what will happen before this destruction is about to happen. They want to know when and how to prepare.

To recap the story so far. The disciples are marveling at how beautiful the temple is, Jesus tells them it is going to fall apart, and the disciples urgently want to know when.

In response to the question Jesus begins a progressively dark and discouraging description of future events. (With language that feels all too current.) 

Early on in his reply, however, Jesus gives a warning to their pressing question of “when will this happen.” He says people will come saying the end is near – and Jesus tells the disciples – ignore those people. His instructions in these couple of verses – “Don’t be deceived. Don’t follow them. Don’t be terrified.” The disciples’ big questions are when will this happen, and how do I prepare, and Jesus recognizes their anxiety and tells them to chill. Jesus knows that the events he is discussing have reason to cause people to be anxious and afraid and he knows that fear is not conducive to good decision making. Jesus warns, Don’t feed into the chaos going around you. Don’t become another cable news head yelling idiotic things at other people yelling idiotic things. And don’t trust people who offer easy answers that feed your fears. Be wise, be cautious, and don’t be afraid. My very loose paraphrase of Jesus’ response “Don’t forget to breathe, and don’t be stupid.”

But then he goes on to describe horrible future events. But his description of all the horrible events messes up with anybody’s attempt to create a timeline. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you”

Jesus is not trying lay out the linear flow of future events. In fact, it seems like Jesus is trying to intentionally thwart any efforts to draw out a logical progression of events. I think Jesus is simply describing the world as it is, or as it can seem.

It is a noteworthy to remember, that the Gospel of Luke was written in the latter half of the first century – scholars suggest around the year 85. This temple that the disciples were sitting in and admiring – it was destroyed in 70 AD, 15 years earlier. All the people reading this text know the temple as a destroyed ruin, and these people live a deeply persecuted life. So, for the first readers or hearers of Luke’s gospel, their reaction to Jesus description will likely be (like ours is) “Yes, that describes the world as it is right now.”

And all this brings us to what I think is the key to this passage – this is the message that Jesus had for his disciples and for us. “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” 

All these things that are happening – the war, the portents, the persecution – they are going to happen. And what should your response be?

“Testify.”

“Go out and make disciples.”

“Testify.”

“Make a joyful noise to the lord.”

“Testify.”

Testify that the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Testify that the one who is able to destroy the temple, in three days will build it up again.

Testify in word and deed to the love and justice that you know is true.
 
And because Jesus knew well his disciples (and us) and our propensity to anxiety and worry, he knew to immediately add “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” 

As Jesus so often tells his disciples he once again tells them – don’t worry. Don’t worry about when these things shall happen, don’t worry about what we shall say, don’t worry about what we shall eat and drink. I am with you, and that is all you need. 

After Jesus warns against being anxious about preparing, he ends this passage with a challenge. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Earlier Jesus called us to testify, and he ends by telling us not to stop testifying. We are to respond to the never-ending flow of news and of our own experience of war, violence, and persecution with our own endless testifying to the love and forgiveness of God. 

Another translation ends this section with “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” This topic of perseverance should be a familiar one for some of us as a few Sundays ago Melanie preached about the widow who kept bothering the judge and Jesus’ instruction to persevere in prayer. 

This past Monday I sat with the group in the basement of St John Student Center where we prayed and meditated on this scripture. And within that time of silent meditation the theme of perseverance came to the foreground as something for me to pay attention to. Then, Tuesday morning, I was up early as and resumed listening to an audio book about Lakota Native American stories and teachings and the very next chapter was all about the value of perseverance. All this may all just be for me – but I feel like God is trying to tell me something.

Testify, and don’t give up. Our relationship with God, and with others, and the coming of God’s reign is not a one and done event. They are the results of our continually putting one foot in front of the other – even when you feel discouraged and even when you cannot see more than a foot ahead of you, even when there are wars, and false leaders, and persecution. We don’t testify to the love of God only when we really feel it or when it fits our schedule or when it feels safe to do so, but we keep testifying. We persevere because we have hope.

To recap, let’s look once again at Jesus’ instructions to his anxious disciples.
•    Don’t be deceived and don’t be misled.
•    Don’t be afraid. Don’t be anxious.
•    But testify. And despite everything going on around you, or more importantly because of everything going on around you, keep on testifying to the thing you know to be true. The love and justice that God desires for everyone and for all creation.

Amen 

Taking Me There

I’ve been on a journey with Mavis. 

Mavis is Mavis Staples. Is there any other? She’s 76 year-old gospel and soul singer and all around purveyor of good vibrations. She was the youngest daughter and singer in the Staples Singers a gospel group lead by the patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Their music and presence was an instrumental part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s performing at many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. 

The good news of their gospel, heavily influenced by Mississippi delta blues and soul, included the liberation and freedom from oppression of all people. The Staples Singers repertoire eventually expanded beyond pure gospel to more soul and r&b music, but always with a positive, and uplifting message. Mavis’ solo career has continued with music that matches her positive and hopeful spirit. Her music continues her “march up freedom’s highway.”

While I feel like I’ve always been aware of Mavis, I took particular notice of her with the release of her 2010 album “You are Not Alone.” This album drew me in to her voice and her charm. As good as that album is, I was even more drawn to her previous album with Ry Cooder “We’ll Never Turn Back.” Something about that that music and that voice found a Mavis shaped home in my soul. 

Mavis has a wonderfully rich low voice. She’s had it since she was a teen. Like an overdriven guitar amp, her voice moves from a low rumble to a thick and warm tenor. There are times when she sings what feels like it’s a hug from the divine.

I remember watching an online video of Mavis when she was touring with Billy Bragg. She called Billy onto the stage and then greeted him with a big hug. A switch suddenly went on in my heart: “I want a hug from Mavis.” What should have just been a fleeting thought stuck with me, “I want a hug from Mavis Staples.”

Having a “bucket list” was never something I considered, but after that moment I started telling people that the only thing on my bucket list was a hug from Mavis. I said it with no real expectation of accomplishing this, and no plan on how to accomplish it. I just liked thinking about the idea of hugging Mavis, and liked the image of me it created for others.

My wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary and jumped at the chance to celebrate by seeing Mavis in concert at the Kalamazoo Community College. We decided o make a special outing of it by staying overnight at a nearby hotel.

 Rick Holmstrom & Mavis Staples

Rick Holmstrom & Mavis Staples

The concert was everything I expected. Mavis was as much the beautiful soul that I expected. She sang, told stories both funny and serious, laughed, and exuded warmth. As a hobby guitarist I’m also a fan of her guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, and was pleased to be close enough to watch him in action. It was a glorious evening and I returned to the hotel aglow.

The next morning I made my way to grab my complimentary hotel breakfast of a bagel, yogurt, fruit and coffee. As I sat down I looked across the table and saw a gentleman. I was certain, mostly, he was one of last night’s backup singers. As he stood up I excused myself and asked if he was a backup singer for Mavis Staples. Yes he was. I thanked him for the wonderful show. He smiled and said, “Yeah, it was a good audience last night.” And went to dispose of his dishes. “Mavis may be in the house” immediately raced through my mind.

A few giddy minutes later my wife joined me and I told her of my encounter. She then spoke up, “There’s the guitarist.” I looked over, saw him in the breakfast area, and without a pause I immediately walked up to him. “Excuse me, Rick Holmstrom?” “Yes?”

I thanked him for the wonderful show and how inspired I was by his guitar playing. I told him I appreciated how his playing paid homage to Pops Staples, but was still his own. We talked a bit about guitar gear and he seemed genuinely please at my words of appreciation. 

I returned to my seat and “debriefed” with June, when she suddenly blurted “There she is. She’s leaving. Go, Kev.” 

I looked up and saw her nearing the exit. “No” I said. 

“Go” she insisted. 

So, there I went, briskly walking out the door calling “Ms. Staples, Ms Staples.” 

She was standing at the open door of her car and looked my way. Her assistant said “It’s cold, she needs to get in the car.” So she sat in the back seat but left the door open for me to approach. 

I said “Ms. Staples, thanks so much for the show last night and I just want to thank you for a lifetime of singing the good news.” Then I added. “You know how people have bucket lists? Things people want to do before they die?” 

“Bucket lists. Yeah.” She replied seeming a little bit puzzled about where this guy was going. 

“Well, I only have one thing on my bucket list and that is a hug from Mavis Staples.” She showed her big smile, threw her arms wide and I leaned into the car for a big hug from Mavis. As I pulled back she added “I hope that takes your there.” 

“Oh yes it does. Thank you so much.” And off I went.

Any moment the following week when I wasn’t giving attention to something else, I was relishing in the high of that weekend. I’m still not certain why this idea of a hug from Mavis became such a significant. I am just so grateful to be on the receiving end of her hope and faith-filled generosity. 

My Prayer Chapel

I begin my walk to the chapel for daily morning prayers. With the change to daylight savings time I’m once again walking in the dark. When my mind isn’t already racing with the day’s schedule and anticipated challenges, this walk is a time for gratitude and preparation. I’ve learned to “thank God for my waking up, clothed in my right mind” from a traditional African American prayer. I thank God for my ability to get a good night’s rest in our comfortable home and my physical ability to walk. I thank God for the chance to feel the bite of the cold or the sweat of the heat. I’m not particularly grateful for the cold or heat, but I’m glad that I can experience them. As springs rolls around it is easy to give God glory for the morning chorus of birds. Occasionally, I receive the gift of walking toward a sinking full moon and my soul sings.

After the short walk I arrive at the chapel and step inside. It is a long narrow structure, well-lit in the dark hours, and abundant with windows to let in daylight. As I make my way to an empty pew I recognize faces I see each day, some that show up occasionally, and a few unfamiliar faces. As with any chapel, many people stick with their same pew. I gladly go to wherever there is space, although I too may have unrecognized patterns. Some mornings there is only enough space to stand.

We gather corporately but our worship is mostly private. I sit down, close my eyes, and begin my regular breath prayer. Inhale “I am.” Exhale “here.” It is a simple prayer of presence and awareness. Some months ago this prayer emerged from within and it has stuck with me. Each word feels like a gift.  “I” my identity. “Am” my very being. “Here” my awareness of this particular moment in time and space. It is good to bring my awareness to this moment and this place. Soon, I will be at work with its challenges and I may be distracted by places I’d rather be and things I’d rather be doing. But for now, “I am here” for that is truly the only place I can be.

Many in the chapel also sit in silent prayer, while some are distracted by their phones, or engaged in conversations about anything from political campaigns, to comparing the services of various homeless shelters. People arrive and depart as their schedule allows.

After a while, my prayer changes. The words don’t change but rather than me speaking them, it is God who speaks: “I am here.” I am assured that God, the great “I Am,” is also present here in this time and space. I believe that God is always here, but it often takes this time of silent prayer for me to recognize God’s presence. 

The members of the congregation are disproportionately African American, and my hunch is, disproportionately poor. Each day I see people coming from, or departing toward, the local homeless shelter. Some arrive with bags of empty cans to be turned in for cash. The space easily accommodates people in wheelchairs and parents with strollers.

After continuing this prayer for a while it occasionally changes once again. The “I” who prays becomes the corporate “I” of the gathered congregation. The prayer becomes a chorus of voices. I as myself, I as God, and I as the gathered congregations exclaim “I am here.”

My time then shifts to prayers of blessing: blessing the gathered congregation and our shepherd, wishing them all a day of affirmation, love, and safety. I extend this blessing to my coworkers who I will soon see and to others in my life. I ask that with each person I encounter this day, I act out of God’s abundant love.

As my time of prayer nears an end, I reach up, pull the cord, and the driver of my prayer chapel, CATA bus #8, stops near my office. As I depart I offer a wave and a word of thanks to the driver and step off into the day.