Sunday, October 15, 2017

2017.10.15 Generational Threats and Immanent Hope

Every generation’s endangerments are equally threatening and of equal concern. I am suggesting that the way each generation manages threats has much to do with human ingenuity AND with that generation’s spirituality: how do they understand God/Godde/Higher Power/Allah/YHWH and themselves in relation to God?

I am positing that errant ideas about divine power contribute to disabling despair in the face of many threats.

There has been a significant spike in anxiety disorders (anxiety that is omnipresent, irrational, and paralyzing) in American teenagers since 2011. There have always been anxious kids. Why the uptick? It is not only about cultural performance pressure or national politics, and not simply about parental dysfunction, even over-parenting anxious parents. The two factors cited as most responsible for this anxiety are Facebook and Instagram. (See NY Times Sunday Magazine, 10/15/17 “The Kids Who Can’t’” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis)  Fear of cyber-bullying and public exposure is chronic.

There are few things as contagious as anxiety gone viral. And if there is anything an adolescent needs it is safe space—both socially and within oneself.

Is my school safe? What about the building where my parents work? Can I go to a movie without being shot or bombed? Is my neighbor secretly insane? Even a church isn’t always safe, and besides they’re locked! Can I trust that there is a God who cares and saves as I learned, or who even exists? Jesus didn’t do that hot.

Not feeling safe in your own skin is crippling. There are many good treatments and schools are getting on board. My focus is spiritual. What has happened to the immanence of God?  Has it been hijacked by overemphasis on a transcendent deity?

I believe that self-knowledge and God-knowledge are correlative, and that if there is divine power by whatever name, then God works from deep within the soul of all living matter—like a deep tissue massage—to bring forth life—even in death. The process seems to me to be akin to the way the biblical Genesis describes the creation process in which every living thing is intimately connected within the image and likeness of God by whatever name. One-time Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881-1944) wrote about this interweave, calling it the immanence of the transcendent.

Studies show that millennials and young adults long for quiet contemplative spaces in which they can, yes, escape the frantic pace of the culture, but also experience a non-threatening embracing Immanence. This could happen in designated religious spaces or not. Writer Pico Iyer seeks out chapels. “Chapels are where you can hear something beating below your heart.” This kind of spiritual experience happens mostly in solitude when one is free to be in touch with deep personal truth within the Presence of Loving/Listening Immanence.

Too much silence and solitude however can enable anxiety. Anxious teens often make bed their “chapel.”  That’s just isolation. But what if kids felt less alone because God was there—everywhere?

Why can’t we go public with this theology? Why don’t religions teach it more? To do so we’d have to change our ways—our public worship and language. Religions would have to talk, pray, sing, and ritualize Immanence more consciously and conscientiously.

Would more people attend public worship if the theology of immanence were proclaimed?  Though changes have happened in thought and language, and individual writers and speakers have made superb efforts to re-imagine the image of God with gender-neutral language, God in our liturgies remains trapped in transcendence, aka masculine omnipotence. Trickle-down theology apparently doesn’t work any better than trickle-down economics did.

When I pray with people in need I pray that God will be a spirit of strength, healing, courage, peace within them. This kind of inner divinity, believe me, is as “almighty” as the one we address most often in public prayers as “Almighty God . . .”

I don’t want to rob people of reverence and awe. I do wonder, however, if it is possible sometimes to feel those stunning feelings when the proverbial “sunrise” is not the object of your gaze, but instead your own inner power is.

I once felt a power surge of Immanence when I confronted a bishop to argue my case for ordination to the priesthood, which he was not disposed so to do for many reasons. I wanted to run but spoke out over my anxiety anyway. This was a very strong experience. I felt it was  me and God inside me together. Most of the time one feels this power more gently but just as firmly. It’s not magic it’s just God within.

A common theological god-idea is exemplified in this quote from a Boston Globe article (8.9.16) about a novel cancer treatment from Cuba. A U.S. patient discovered the drug, sought it out at great cost, and bought himself some time. His doctors here were flabbergasted and are now at work to test the new medication.  A U.S. oncologist said: “Outside of divine intervention this guy shouldn’t be living right now. If you believe in God it’s God. If you believe in science it’s CimaVax [the cancer drug in question].”

It’s not either/or. This healing could be God Immanent at work from within science, medicine, and the ailing patient himself.

Anxious teens learn strategies to combat their fears with good psychological support. Along with therapy and medication, a balanced theology of immanence helps overcome despair with hope, anxiety with action—one dash at a time. We just have to let it be known.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

2017.10.08 Clarity of Voice and Action

When news of extreme violence such as the recent massacre in Las Vegas goes viral we all cringe and crouch and feel horrified—and if we’re religious we pray. 

Christians try to do what we see in the life of Jesus the Christ as remembered by the writers of scripture. There is a time to let go and move on, to wipe the dust from our feet, a time to grieve, as in Gethsemane, a time for strong action like asserting God’s agenda in the Temple, and a time for prayer—all the time without ceasing.

What response is called for at this time?

May we suggest that now is not the time to flee or fear or freak, or even to let go and let God. There is reason to fear but no reason to hide. This is no time to indulge the greatest temptation of all: to huddle together inside the precincts of our own prized safety and wrap up in the warmth of community. Parish churches are often guilty of this behavior. Even the disciples ran for cover when their leader was violently executed, their world collapsed, and they were frightened. Such a response to violence is understandable, and for them it was in their “back yard”.

And today? Spiritual responsiveness knows no geography. We pray for all these things. Do we have the right to pray for what we are not willing to work for?

The Church too regularly falls into the sin of self-idolatry. It is hubris in this age to ignore global reality and needs. It is irrational to believe that all we have to do for God is be warm and friendly and take care of the gifts God has given us with responsible stewardship. In a word, there is imbalance between community outreach and community in-reach.

Are we called to correct this imbalance?

In-reach is spiritual consolation and nurture, yes. Outreach is noisy and unsettling.  It involves clarity of voice and action like Jesus took in the Temple, which had abdicated its role as a house of prayer, a place revealing the justice and compassion of God. Jesus acted on behalf of God and the people exploited by unjust social, political, economic, and religious practices. Such practices do as much violence to the will of God as does a hurricane or a deranged individual with an assault weapon he owned by right.  

We are a House of Prayer just like the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. What action do we create?

What about a Revolution of Compassion for the sake of God and our common humanity exercised by our clarity of voice?

A few suggestions:
    - Write and call your Senators and members of Congress, beseeching them to relinquish their own “warfare” and miserable inaction for God’s sake if not for our common humanity.
    - Lobby for legislation toward regulating gun violence.
    - Give money or volunteer for any cause that works to end political, economic, and social inequality. It’s the gospel! 
    - Educate yourself as a way to eliminate the pervasive ignorance about mental illness, addictions, and other causal factors behind eruptions of violence.
    - Remove the cliché “thoughts and prayers” from your vocabulary. It has become empty of meaning—a justification for inaction. Members of Congress Seth Moulton and the recently injured Steve Scalise criticized the traditional  “moments of silence”.
    - Exaggerate kindness and smiling, even to strangers on the street. Such energy raises hope and it spreads.
    - Give money to beggars. You don’t know why they are out there, so make no assumptions or judgments and risk generosity with a smile. You notice they usually bless you. Bless them back.Today we gave away $20 in fives just in Harvard Square. It is passive violence not to help when you can and where there is need.
    - Pray out loud in church. We offer Prayers of the People every Sunday and everyone is silent, lost in a sea of words. God hears your silent prayers, but the community does not. Speak up. You don’t have to shout. A prayer is not an announcement. Here’s one way to practice clarity of voice.
    - Love the earth. Never throw anything away that can be recycled.
    - Get to know your personal image of God. A religious sister recently said: “We are killing God faster than we are killing each other.” Think about it.
    - Disturb the peace peacefully.
    - Pray daily for your personal needs and equally for the world beyond yourself.
    - Vote for a candidate not a party.

From Sister Stanislaus Kennedy of the Irish Sisters of Charity in her book of daily meditations Gardening the Soul:

“Many of us are taught about God rather than encouraged to know God. We are like children who have been separated from their parents at a very young age and whose only knowledge of them has come from photo albums and stories. Our alienation from God is a deeply felt deprivation, but often it is a misunderstood deprivation—deprived people do not know what they are deprived of, because they have never known or been helped to know God, who is the Divine in them.”   (October 3rd entry)

Dear friends in Christ, Jesus asked and prayed for the people of his day to help him spread the Embodiment of Love he called God, the Divine in us all. The Risen Christ asks and prays the same for us today. We too pray and ask the same.  May we be the prayers we pray.

© 2017 The Rev’d Lyn G. Brakeman and the Rev’d Richard J. Simeone
Priest Associates, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Charlestown, Massachusetts

Sunday, October 1, 2017

2017.10.01 A Turnaround—A "Baby" Found

I’m recently home from Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY where Dick and I led a retreat on my pet passion and peeve: the inadequacy of theological language as we use it to define—confine—the image of God.

Attendance was dismally small (6) and the participants were all superbly introverted. No one disagreed with the language inadequacy issue though. So what’s not to like? Nothing!  

After the second day we felt discouraged however, because the solution that presented itself as the most attractive to resolve disgruntlement with a sexist institution was to jump ship ie. leave the church. Negativity was up and tolerance was weak. Most felt conflicted.

We had provided some resources and some explanations. It was clear that everyone had come to this retreat seeking hope. No one wanted to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The question loomed large: What is the “baby” you do not want to throw out?

The morning of the final day of retreat and our last group meeting, I woke up, turned to Dick and announced: “It’s a bomb!”  He replied: “Let me wake up first, for god’s sake.” 

Just like the biblical Jacob, lying on his stone pillow dreaming of hope, restless, and later engaging in a wrestling match in the dark with the invisible “man-angel” in whom he recognized God, our retreatants wrestled through the night.  Each one lost sleep. Each one seriously contended with her or his doubts and sought right words.
Isn’t this how it happened for the early Christ-followers?  

A whole lot of wrestling with theological concepts and finding the best words to make them intelligible to the average faith-seeker, was the rule of the day for the early Church as it struggled to get established, even institutionalized. Even people on the street and in markets were wondering and gossiping about the nature of Christ. Imagine!! Everyone felt desire. Everyone groped for clarity. Is it really so different today?

Faith happens in the dark.

In the morning our group met for our last time. One member had to leave to be with her sick husband. I was prepared to throw more consoling crap around. Instead we listened—and probably threw out a few prayers like yikes and help.

Someone arose early and wrote—in purple— on our newsprint:
                      
       “The glory of God is the human person fully alive!!” 

Irenaeus of Lyons, a bishop of the church, had said this. A trip to the library revealed that Irenaeus said this in the second century, not the 13th, as this person supposed. “That long ago he summed up what we are saying in this retreat.”

Someone else snuck down to the fruit baskets in the night to get a banana for nourishment before sitting down to wrestle with the Nicene Creed. By morning a personal creed had been written. “At least I know exactly what I believe!”  This kind of activity gives one a strong spiritual anchor to overcome temptations to obsess about things one does not believe any more.

Another retreatant went to the official Episcopal Church website and discovered, with amazement, that the institution she found so offensively sexist was actually wrestling with the same issues as we were. "The institution cares about what I care about."
   
And one remembered words a cursillo friend once said: “Look into my eyes so I can see Christ in yours.” These unforgettable words came from someone whose Christian language system was so utterly different it threatened to interfere with the relationship. “Our language is so different, yet I knew he really cared about me.”

There were no clichés, no blue ribbon packaged solutions, no perfect clarity, just openings. Wow!

The Spirit came through and gave birth to some “babies” for these night wrestlers. It made us both very happy. See?
Thanks!









Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017.09.24 I'M THE FAVORITE!

With the innocent arrogance of a small child chatting away to God under a table I imagined myself to be God’s favorite, then spent much of my life trying to undo my shameful fantasy.

According to everything I heard in church about Jesus Christ being, not only the single favorite but the most beloved favorite of God, my inflated spirituality was errant, impious—and worse misgendered. I was proud, sinful, and a girl!!

Over time of course I’ve forgiven myself, know God forgives me, and have fallen in love with this Christ. Still, the melody of my original “sin” lingers on.

However, today in tiny Christ Episcopal Church, Bethel, Vermont, I heard this Word in a sermon delivered by my cousin, the Rev’d David Gillespie who boomed:

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

This message was, for me, the punch line in the sermon on one of Jesus’s most difficult and contrary parables—the laborers in the vineyard. The owner of the vineyard, meant to be an image of God, paid ALL the laborers the exact same wage. Fine and fair, right? Here’s the hitch, as there usually is in Jesus’s parables: some laborers worked the whole darn day and some only labored for the last half hour of the day—ALL for the same wage. So much for the equal pay for equal work ethic I so love, given my feminism. God in this story, however, is unjust and appears to play favorites.

But  Lo! I recognized the God I’d met as a child, the God who’d let me know I mattered. Me, a girl!  I felt as if I were right back under that table as God’s favorite. But this time I wasn’t
God’s one and only favorite. I had to share that status with everyone, just as Jesus did. This was not my idea, but God’s.

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

David opened with distress at all the crises of human suffering affecting our nation, some caused by humans. “It shocks me that we humans adapt to dangerous environments, both natural and political. This has us accepting hateful standards for living. The slow creep of hate is enveloping us. We are lulled into complacency.”

Then, with great skill David unpacked all the usual protestations about the world’s ills and sufferings being God’s fault or idea or desire. He left all these platitudes empty of their force. God does not desire, cause, or prevent the world’s sufferings. God only responds to them with compassion. This was my experience as a child and continues to be my faith, as I am able.

Yet today this message meant more to me, because it was delivered by my first cousin David Gillespie—not just any old preacher, but my very own cousin, only once removed. The personal connection made the gospel message intimate—not more true but more intimate.

Thanks to the ministrations of a good friend with a home in Vermont, I connected  years ago with David  and his beautifully feminist wife Jo. David is dear because he is my dad’s first cousin, but just being a relative isn’t enough. David is a Gillespie. I too am a Gillespie. Not all of us are extroverts like David—myself and his wife Jo, for example. But we share the family charism—vainglory charged by big-heartedness. And we marry in kind. 

This photo is David and Jo with my extroverted spouse Dick Simeone and me behind, all of us in front of the Restrooms sign. No messages at all in that!


                                 WE ALL ARE GOD’S FAVORITES!!


Sunday, September 17, 2017

2017.09.17 Holy Cross Monastery Retreat

A lot of funny stuff can happen under the sign of the Cross.

We, Dick and I, have just spent six days on retreat—and on the seventh day we do not rest, but drive home, chatting and full of unquiet zeal. 

The rhythm of retreat is sturdy and steady: eat, pray, sleep, pray, love, pray, laugh, pray, eat some more. There were three groups meeting with different focuses. Ours was on theological language, my pet peeve and passion. We all, monks and guests alike, are our prayer to God.

 Communal prayer is so regular it heals spiritual atrial fibrillation and provides rhythm—a beat to match each heart’s, no matter how erratic, unsteady, or broken. It’s astounding how the regular marking of time makes time seem shorter. I always plan to catch up on my reading, yet— mysteriously— there’s so much time there’s not enough time.

Prayers in the chapel are not compulsory for guests. No one has to go to prayer or pray. It is, however, a bit hard to abstain, because the chapel bell gongs—more than once— ten minutes before each prayer time: Matins, 7 am, Eucharist, 9 am, Diurnum, noon, Vespers, 5pm, Compline, 8.  The bell tones are beautiful and dutiful. The bell tolls for me and thee. So I go.

You’d think that, being drenched in so much piety, these brothers would be stern and boring and stiff. You’d think that so many aging voices would be off key or cracked. You’d think you’d fall asleep to the lull of so much chanting. But these monks are alive, happy monks—ready and able to grin, crack jokes, laugh, and sing with gusto for deep joy, even in silence—even in prayer. 

Everything here, including the majestic strip of the Hudson River at the foot of the long green hill on which the monastery is perched, is an invitation to love God more deeply— and yourself in God.

Here’s how they let you know there’s no smoking:
   


Then there’s always plenty of another substance available on tap as advertised:

These signs are calligraphed by the Rev. Roy Parker, OHC. Each is framed and hung on the wall heading toward the chapel. They are funny. My heart can’t help but be lifted, my cup filled to the brim, my soul drenched in the generous faithfulness of God.

As we prepared to leave we felt a gentle sadness. While waiting for the vintage monastery elevator, really a single person lift, we chatted with a black woman here for a visit with a group from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  She said: “I'm always a bit sad when I leave. I love this place. I’ve told the brothers that I want to be one of them. That’s been my prayer for years. So far though, they haven't figured it out, and I’m running out of time.”  

A retreatant in our group summed up the charism of this community, using ancient words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, second-century bishop in the early Church. “Long ago someone, even a bishop or other, was saying just what we are doing today."

The oft forgotten second half of Irenaeus's famous quote is: "and the glory of the person is the contemplation of God."

In cas you think that being drenched in holy prayer is easy, it is. 












Sunday, September 10, 2017

2017.09.10 On Change—A Wee Parable

In between aimless transportations of soul— letting myself get lost in the vast expanse of sea, sky, and white sparkling sand of summer— I ground myself in reading. I’ve been reading Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. It is structured in short chapters organized to present, one by one, the story of all the world's religions in historical order. How little I knew. My favorite chapter is our Anglican one of course, “The Middle Way”—how England’s church reorganized itself after the Reformation.

Holloway, former primus of the Church of Scotland now retired and admittedly disillusioned with religion, offers some wisdom, gleaned as a young student from a church history lecturer who began his course with a parable. 

“You have a wee son and he’s been out playing with his pals. When he comes home at bedtime his face is filthy, covered in mud from the fields he’s seen playing in all day. When you see the state he’s in, what should you do? You have three options. You can send him to bed as he is and lay his dirty wee head down on your clean pillow case. You can chop off his head. This would get rid of the mud certainly, but you’d kill him in the process and no longer have a son. Or you could give him a bath and clean him up before tucking him in for the night.”

These three choices signal: continuity with no change; change with no continuity; or continuity with some change. The16th century English church chose option three— not to get rid of the established Church altogether, but simply to wash its face, clean up the grime, and go forward with a new Book of Common Prayer and a broader view of authority i.e. no Pope.

In the wake of a successful effort to raise capital, there is money, and with money comes opportunity and many decisions—all meaning change. Change could mean change in attitude, change in priorities, change in traditional ways of making decisions, both personal and communal, change in personnel as needed, change of heart, and God forbid, a change in theology, the way we understand God, including words we use to speak about God.  Shivers!

No wonder most of us fear change. Today many of us fear continuity about as much as change.

I have chosen to be an Episcopalian, choosing the "middle way" as much as I can and embracing brave change with some continuity. It’s always messy and always a blessing at once. But this kind of change, ironically, grounds me more deeply in continuity.

Raimundo Panikar ( 1918-2010) Spanish Roman Catholic priest, scholar of comparative religion, and proponent of inter-religious dialogue, puts it the way:  “I left Europe for India as a Christian, and I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.”


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Psalm 23, Beloved Prayer Song Re-potentiated

A word is dead when it is said
Some say
I say it just begins to live
That day

        Emily Dickinson, 1924

Hear an old favorite psalm with just a few fresh words that change its complexion. 

Psalm 23 translation, Pamela Greenberg The Complete Psalms

God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
You lay me down in lush meadows.

You guide me toward tranquil waters,
reviving my soul.

You lead me down paths of righteousness,
for that is your way.

And when I walk through the valley, overshadowed by death,
I will fear no harm, for you are with me

Your rod and your staff—they comfort me,
You spread a table before me
in face of my greatest fears.

You drench my head with oil;
my cup overflows the brim.

Surely goodness and kindness
will accompany me all the days of my life

and I will dwell in the house of the Holy
for the length of my days.


The psalms are prayers—startlingly honest emotionally. No feelings are absent from these prayers, even violent ones, the ones that let us know where and how we are hurt and want to hurt back. Yet psalms are also poetry and we chant them. Pamela Greenberg has translated the psalms in creative new ways without allowing them to lose their poetic power and spirituality.

I love familiar words that lull me; I love fresh words to awaken me even more. These latter force me to pay attention, to tune in. That’s how I grow. Even in discomfort, there is soul. Besides, who says scripture must always comfort or edify?  Poetic words soothe and disturb in equal proportion, and psalms are poetry.
                                         *  *  * *

The Rev. Dr. Judith Fentress Williams, Old Testament professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the Massachusetts clergy recently about the Old Testament—its value and its power, its connectedness with the fullness of earthly expression and experience. “Don’t be afraid of it. Preach from it,” she said.
I’ve always loved Old Testament. It was required in seminary, and the very first course I took at Yale Divinity School. The instructor began in solemn tones; “In the beginning, God potentiated……….. 

I wrote that down and tried to still my heart. Potentiated felt more powerful than created. It signaled the spiritual power behind/within everything that lives breathes and has being. It spoke to me of God’s agenda: ongoing potentiation. Whenever you are potentiated, by anything at all, you awaken. You feel suddenly lifted….in a word, resurrected. It’s a scary and a wonderful feeling.

The Spirit of God potentiates Life in the beginning, at the end, and in every second in between.
                                               *  * *  *


What do you notice in Greenberg’s translation of Psalm 23 that is different from what your ears are used to hearing? Say it aloud.

This translation is familiar —and brand new. The first thing I notice is: “God is my shepherd”— not the Lord. God is a name not a noun. God is free of royal role and all its accoutrements.

Then I notice is “there is nothing I lack.” It sounds different from: “I shall not want” or “I shall not be in want.”  “Nothing I lack” means I have everything I need. Do I? Even as I age and feel lacking in many joints, every sag of skin, every short-term memory lapse: what did I have for breakfast today? But with God I lack nothing.

This 23rd psalm hums along, and all of a sudden your mind is jarred. You expect: “You lead me in green pastures” And you hear: “You lead me in lush meadows.” The words mean the same and yet have different tonality, sensuality. Lush!

“You spread a table before me in the face of my (fill in the blank)—enemies, we all say. But we hear: “my greatest fears.”  What is potentiated by these new words? Are your fears like enemies? Do they not make you skulk, cringe, cower and hide? Are they at war with your aspirations? Do they help you sin against goodness? Is this translation as accurate as the idea of having real enfleshed enemies out to get you?

And “I will dwell in the house of (fill in the blank)…the Lord, we shout?  We hear instead: “the Holy.” Lord implies ruler; Holy suggests a quality of Being, a Presence within and without. This Holy Presence  “drenches” our heads with the oil of healing. “Drench” is more literal and stronger than “anoints.”

What do these new words potentiate in you? Maybe contempt or distaste? For me, it’s the knowledge that great words I love do not die when they are altered, but they do acquire a different flavor; they inspire me to think—again and again. As the poet says, these newly spoken and heard words live.

What am I saying? What am I thinking? What am I meaning? What words do I use?

Lastly, the image of the shepherd is softened by these new words. Real shepherds are rough and tumble, not so gentle with sheep. The divine shepherd accompanies yet neither drives not coddles. This shepherd is just be a little more, well, divine.