Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age


Posted by John Montgomery on January 13, 2009


“Only willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty can account for the claim that the Bible is inerrant and infallible.” No truth-loving, God-respecting, Christ-honoring believer should be guilty of such heresy. To invest the Bible with the qualities of inerrancy and infallibility is to idolatrize it, to transform it into a false god.”

— Robert Bratcher – translator, Good News for Modern Man


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New 12th Gate – Celebrating Debbie Friedman

Posted by John Montgomery on January 16, 2011

The faith world lost a troubadour and spiritual leader this week.  Debbie Friedman, self-described child of the 60s set Hebrew prayers to folk-style music and changed the singing tradition in the Jewish world forever. As a feminist, she was viewed as a threat to tradition in the 70s, but Debbie helped enliven the singing tradition in Judaism.  Eventually, with performances in Carnegie hall and liturgical leadership at Hebrew Union College, Debbie Friedman’s music became standard in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations and crossed over to some Orthodox and Christian groups.  

Debbie Friedman – Jewish Songwriter

She was born in Utica, New York. She was the daughter of Frida and Gabriel Friedman. She moved with her family to Minnesota at age 5. She is best known for her setting of Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, which is used by hundreds of congregations across America. 

In the last week, many tributes have emerged. I was drawn into this one by the many wonderful pictures. Let me walk to a land that I will show you…

The New York Times, one of the few publications that mentioned that she was gay, wrote, “Many of her English lyrics concerned the empowerment of women and other disenfranchised groups, stemming, her associates said on Monday, from the quiet pride she took in her life as a gay woman.”   Jewish and LGBT communities are discussing how much to make of her choice to not be publicly out as gay. Those who knew her well feel like her need for privacy should be respected, even in death.  Jonathan Mark, in The Jewish Week, felt that after the New York Times identified her as gay, he would share her comments from a 2008 interview.  Debbie said, “I’m thinking, more than people need me to come out as a gay person, they need me to come out as a liturgist and a spiritualist. People are more uptight talking about God, more inhibited about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex.”

Maybe this is what she might be talking about!

As long as we are having fun – Adam Sandler would be proud of this.

Friedman had suffered since the 1990s from a neurological condition, with effects apparently similar to multiple sclerosis.[5]The story of her music, as well as the challenges she faced in living with illness, were featured in a 2004 documentary film about Friedman called A Journey of Spirit, produced by Ann Coppel, which followed her from 1997 to 2002.

In 2007, Friedman accepted an appointment to the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music in New York where she instructed both rabbinic and cantorial students.

She was admitted to an Orange County Hospital in January 2011, where she died January 9, 2011, from pneumonia.

In closing, let me share her wonderful rendition of God turns mourning into dancing. It is interesting, until I had actually read the words last week, what I had in ,y mind was morning into dncing. This is so much better.

Links:  A Journey of the Spirit

From the Union For Reformed Jusaiasm – Funeral and Tributes

* * * * * * *

The New 12th Gate is a virtual coffee house. Currently, we are undergoing renovati0n, but when occasions emerge like this one, we will open as needed.

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For ALL the Saints – unfinished business

Posted by John Montgomery on November 2, 2010

[Note: Much of this post was first published four years ago reflecting on the verses of the classic hymn, For all the Saints. In that original post, I made a promise to return to this reflection, intending taking up the identified issue some 12 months later. It has now been 48 months. This past week,  my friend Kathy, who is a student at Candler, ask for some help about a related subject. I dug out the old post and dusted my procrastination off. It is time to start to make good on part of my promise. I start with an edited version of the previous post.]


This is the season when our congregations celebrate the “Community of Saints” who have gone on before us and who stand now as beacons showing the way for our own journeys of faith and proclamation. Officially, the date is November 1. As I look around, some churches formally celebrated the tradition yesterday and others like mine will take care of liturgical business next week.

There are hymns marking these words and deeds. There are rituals memorializing congregational members who have died during the previous 12 months. And many of us whose closest loved ones have passed in the last several years mark the time in solemn reflection on the present shattered bonds of intimacy that will perhaps in the future be healed – as the old song anticipates, a time when “the circle will be unbroken.” This is always the case for me as I reflect on the life and death of my spouse, friend, lover and partner in mission, Judy Sparks Montgomery who passed now some ten years ago.

Four years ago, our church, broke with tradition and we did not sing the grand old hymn by William Walsham How, For All the Saints. We did not sing this hymn because my pastor, David Jones, feeling in his “mind and heart” that this is the right thing to do in relationship to a request that I had made that previous week in our worship committee meeting, he directed our music team to choose other songs.

I had not asked that we would not sing the hymn. I simply indicated my hope that we did not make this hymn the “summary” of our worship experience.

David felt that a one year pause would not be improper. David’s gesture to me as both a member of the worship committee and as a friend was particularly humbling.

So what is this all about?

My witness had to do with my deep existential experience of this particular celebration of worship over the last several years. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ majestic tune and How’s poetic words are indeed classic. But as I have repeatedly sung this hymn, it has been harder and harder for me to see that this is about Judy and others like her. The military tenor of the language does not paint a picture of my late wife’s sainthood.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not being anti-soldier, many have given the full measure defending not just my country but my country’s values and I am more than willing to acknowledge their contribution. My difficulty with the hymn particularly as it shows up in our hymn book is not what is there, but what is missing.

For example, our current United Methodist hymnbook cuts some very important verses that speak of our forebears in faith – the preachers of our message, the writers of our gospels and the martyrs who stood their ground even when threatened with torture (a lesson, we seem too easily ready to forget these days).

Listen to these words…

3) For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4) For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5) For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For All the Saints was written as a processional hymn by the Anglican Bishop William Walsham How. The hymn was first printed in Hymns for Saint’s Days, and Other Hymns, by Earl Nelson, 1864. The hymn was sung to the melody Sarum, by Victorian composer Joseph Barnby, until the publication of the English Hymnal in 1906. This hymnal used a new setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams which he called Sine Nomine (literally “without name”) in reference to its use on the Feast of All Saints, November 1. It has been described as “one of the finest hymn tunes of [the 20th] century.” (Thank you Wikpedia)

Why Bishop How also included four full verses using military imagery must remain a mystery. At this point we cannot recover the historical context that informed his decisions. Perhaps they partake of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In this country, we were deeply divided over the question of slavery, although I have found no documentation that How had this in mind when he wrote the verses.

We are generally used to singing three of the original four.

2) Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

7) O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

8) And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

9) The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Alleluia, indeed.

Of course, How introduced the hymn with the stirring words that we all know by heart.

1) For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

How concludes his hymn with verses reflecting on the day when in its fullness, the Kin(g)dom does arrive.

6) O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

10) But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

I’ve always taught my children that if they see the need, they do the deed.

In my follow-up conversation with David, I suggested two particular responses that could be made in the future allowing us to re-appropriate this glorious hymn. First, we must sing all the verses and we need to find the time in our worship to make this happen. Secondly, we can create additional verses that celebrate the sainthood of all. I have now committed to crafting several of these new verses. I’m including two. Part of the purpose of this post is to invite your aid. I would welcome any and all contributions. Here is my first draft – you will quickly see why I am asking for help.

O great physician, hear now our fervent prayer
Guide our doctors, our nurses in their care
That brings health and wholeness to our deep despair,
Sing alleluia, Sing alleluia

Yes, I know it needs work! Try this one.

Deep well of wisdom, our passions still ignite
Strengthen all teachers, together we seek light
That frees all from ignorance, that discerns the wrong from right
Sing allelulia, Sing alleluia

My next verse would be for relief workers – I’m thinking particularly of those firefighters related to 911 both during the bombing and the clean-up afterwards. I’m thinking of those who are still rebuilding after our Coastal hurricanes. I’m thinking about those saints digging half mile holes in Chile to rescue trapped minors.

And then, we need  at least one verse about those whose sainthood was worked out in constant care, year after year, for our communities and our local churches.

If we really worked at it, we could sing for the whole hour. What a great service of worship and thanksgiving that might be.

11) From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia

Alleluia, Indeed!

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Tillich, Kierkegaard, and Jon Stewart

Posted by John Montgomery on October 16, 2010

I keep reading about the tea party movement(s) and I must say the more I read, the more I get confused. So, I thought I would put my own theological two-cents into the discussion as well. Why not?

Now I’m going to make some generalizations about alienation and reconciliation, themes Paul Tillich and Soren Kierkegaard associated with sin and grace. I’m not saying these comments apply to anyone in particular, even Glen Beck. But having said this, I think we have got to struggle with transforming the present climate of anger based debate, and in that context raise the question how we might move our conversation (if it really is a conversation) to a different level.   

A couple of weeks ago, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) withdrew its endorsement from the One Nation: Working Together march (which frankly was for the majority of the 400 or so endorsing organizations a self-select process activated mainly by pressing a button on the website and uploading a logo). The decision was made primarily because the rally had evolved into a political gathering self-consciously mobilizing voters for the Democratic party in the upcoming November elections. Parallel to these developments, the rally had become for many a counter demonstration against Glenn Beck and his tea party followers. Jim Winkler was correct in that while our church can advocate for certain values and strategic policies, it can not become a partisan organization.

As Jim Wallis so famously taught us, God is not a Republican, nor is God a Democrat. I still have that bumper sticker on my car. Now I’m looking for someone to produce one that suggests that God drinks coffee as well as tea.

In the long run, One Nation became a partisan pissing contest to use a theological term. Most estimates suggested that Beck’s rally gathered more followers. Few lives were transformed and the public debate was simply reset expressing a deeper separation between the parties than we started with.

An alternative approach has been emerging that might in the long run actually serve  as a grace event in the midst of the growing chaos defining current public debate. Of course, I am speaking about the upcoming rally/march sponsored by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Stewart has indicated that the rallies are not responses to Beck’s Restoring Honor event, but are meant to satirize the political process, and the news coverage spawned from it. But whether it is a direct or indirect response, their joint call for a Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear qualitatively changes the essentials of the conversation. If you stay with me, I even have a theological justification for why that might be true!

So, let me start with Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was for many the father of 20th Century existentialist theology. SK was a 19th Century Danish pastor and theologian who wrote a lot, but the center of his reflections at their best had to do with sin and faith and how those traditional notions were tied to our own most intimate experiences. If you are looking for a book, I would begin with The Sickness unto Death.

I’m going back to Kierkegaard because as I look at the present Tea Party Movement, much of what I see looks to have more to do with anger, despair and paralysis than a new movement generating effective proposals.  If one is going to talk about despair, then SK is the place to start.

SK’s existential analysis begins by pointing out that human beings are relational creatures through and through. We are relationships that take relationships to our relationships and in taking a relationship to those relationships we posit a relationship to the one who put us in these relationships to begin with.

Despair (the sickness unto death) is defined as the intensification of alienation and separation and understood as the reality being talked about when we Christians talk about sin.

SK describes three “stages” in the faith journey, if you will three modes of despair. It starts in immediacy, turns inward to circumspection and then moves to defiance (first active, then passive). One might notice that the first and last are more reflective of a public, outward posture and the middle stage is more private, and inward.

Immediacy has to do with despair that the world is not the way we think it is supposed to be. 

Circumspection focuses less on the world and more on the self – I’m not what I am supposed to be, so I withdraw.

Active and passive defiance, which in one way or another is where one shakes a fist in the face of God is a series of lived rants that proclaim if the world and if my selfhood are not as they are suppoed to be, then God is not what God is supposed to be and I’m going to let the world and others know it. I’ll be the best mistake that I can be.

Paul Tillich discusses these dynamics in several places. Obviously, for the most thick conversation, one might look to his systematics. The Courage to Be contrasts the Christian transformation occasioned by a grace event with Stoic grit/n and bear perserverence. But, where  time and again I find him most helpful is in his short sermon, You Are Accepted.

Tillich contrasts sin and grace as a state of being versus a transformative event. A witness to grace leading to faith is not a process of making an argument for a better way, but the shattering of an illusion leaving one with a choice to either move forward in faith or reassert ones despair.

Grace is an event that happens – it happens at the moment of one’s deepest despair – it happens or sometimes, it doesn’t – it certainly doesn’t happen if one does not think it is necessary. Now it seems to me that in the context of SK’s model, the grace event might be somewhat different depending on the stage of despair.

So, it seems to me that immediacy is transformed by expanding the context – putting the basics in perspective. I am struck that given the current trend of mission trips, when folks return in one way or another they report that while they went to serve, they discovered that in reaity they had been served.  Given a new perspective, a new sense of unity was at hand.

The shattering of the illusions undergirding circumspection is transformed not by expanding the context, but by “rubbing one’s face in the fact of innocent suffering.” You’ve got it bad and you just want to sit and feel sorry for yourself.

One of my favorite stories of late is the witness of a man who was dutifully but reluctantly serving in a soup kitchen because his wife pushed him to do it. Suddenly, standing in the line, he finds one of his friends from work looking to get a box of food to help his family to make it through the next couple of weeks.

In such a shocking encounter, he witnesses that his arrogant charity suddenly became compassionate solidarity.

Finally, it seems to me that defiance is not transformed by attention to a larger content or a deeper identity with that context. Defiant despair is a lucid response and is not transformed by new information. Such despair is only tranformed when one grasps how silly defiance is. Perhaps, this is the power of a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert addressing our current malaise. Humor, even sarcasm, satire, even gentle teasing can become the event of grace.

I plan to watch the impact of these susprisingly effective manifestations of the word. Camus has something to say here as well, but I’ll wait until my next blog post!







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Shall we gather at the DC mall?

Posted by John Montgomery on October 3, 2010

I’ve been singing, “shall we gather at the river” all weekend long. Words like the Potomac or mall or memorial or DC don’t quite fit the rhythm, but I am still working on it. For the last week this question has been the subject of intensely active conversation by social networkers on United Methodist Communication’s Facebook page (The United Methodist Church). It is a conversation that is a bit bizzare.  If one was checking that page to learn about World Communion Sunday, one would be quite surprised by what was there to be found.

This facebook discussion had been occasioned mainly by the NYT article that mentioned (wrongly) that GBCS was a sponsor of the upcoming  One Nation Working Together march that was held yesterday, Saturday, October 2, 2010.

Much of the passionate, but confused rhetoric in the comments came because the NYT article failed to make a distinction between endorsing an event, i.e. inviting one’s associates to participate and sponsoring an event, i.e. engaging in the planning and financing of the agenda. When one looks at the broad list of 400 or so endorsers, the presence of  socialist and communist groups (don’t leave out unions and gay groups) associated with the program catalyzed anger that blew the cover off the pot and rant after rant followed as it boiled over.  

The other part of the problem is that the NYT portrayed this march as a counter-demonstration to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor gathering last month. As far as I can tell, the march was originally proposed before the Beck event was planned and it was to focus on the sort of DC standstill regarding progressive issues like employment and health care. 

I know we have tea-party Methodists, but in these conversations, their imitation of Glenn Beck is staggering. Since UMC tea-party activists can’t seem to make distinctions between anybody to the left of right wing, you can tell where the discussion went.

This is not to suggest that the original intent of the rally did not change. The opening talk by MSNBC’s Ed Schultz signaled with no ambiguity the event’s new face: in the end it became a rally to get out the votes for Democrats on November 2. NCAAP President Jealous’ statement with its denigration of Beck followers saying that “we” are the antidote to Beck and the tea-party did not tone down the offense.

Anticipating these developments, this past Friday as Jim Winkler announced that while GBGS stood by the rally’s original goals and concerns, partison statements made recently by the original sponsors signaled that the agenda had shifted and GBGS withdrew its endorsement.

In the end, Winkler’s statement was carefully written and I have come to believe exactly the decision that was needed. Finally, Saturday was what it was – four whole hours. Now it is over.

But for me, what also remains to be watched is the apparent deepening of the polarization of our public debate and its impact on conversation in our church. In his statement, Winkler noted the increasing lack of civil discourse within the United States.

Perhaps more troubling, discourse within The United Methodist Church has taken on a very un-Christ-like tone.  E-mails and phone calls made to the board by clergy and laity have been shocking in their vitriol.

Winkler’s off-hand report that clergy are participating is quite scary to me.

In fact, my immediate response was critical:

With all respect, this feels like GBCS has been bullied into this decision. While I know that some of those groups who were on the larger list are controversial and partisan, doesn’t that go with the territory. On the larger United Methodist Church page, progressive Christians like me have been subjected to vitriolic nonsense and I am now sure that these tea-party commentators are going to celebrate because they put the church leaders in their place. GBCS has pioneered in these matters. Let’s not lose our nerve now.

I need not share the bullying comments. You can imagine – the attack on social justice as the Marxist redistribution of wealth, the suggestion that people ought to read the Bible (something that I assume is already true), Spong-like heresy, can’t speak for the church as a whole, etc. If you really enjoy this stuff, it goes on for pages.

But, the more I have thought about it, I want to be careful and not challenge the integrity of the GBGS staff. They have seen this before and I take it that the timing had to do with more than submitting to pressure.

So should we gather at the river?

It seems to me that if I was going to stand on the Mall to witness against Beck and his followers, I would go to a qualitatively different event…like Jon Stewart’s Take Back Sanity. We didn’t need a pissing contest this weekend. The timing of this move did not stop the debate, but simply reset it and frankly sides just started talking past each other again. The question becomes not how we can yell louder, but what we might do to occasion the transformation of such defiant despair.

My next post will seek to address the question of why Jon Stewart’s satire might help. The answer is found in Kiergegaard and Sartre and a late night discussion in University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library back in the 80s with my M.Div. colleagues.

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