Sunday, June 25, 2017

2017.06.25 A Retreat To Consider

Words Matter: A Conversation About Theological Language and its Impact

Tuesday September 12- Friday September 15
Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York

Led by Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman and Rev. Richard J. Simeone

A young rabbinical student raised her hand, and the Rabbi gave her a nod. “Rabbi, does G-d have a gender?” Students laughed. The Rabbi answered respectfully: “No.” The student had more to ask: “Well then, if G-d has no gender why do we use only one gender when we talk about G-d?” To this the Rabbi had no answer. It’s not easy to stump a Rabbi. He could have said that the Hebrew noun for god was masculine, but that, he knew, was inadequate. The student had awakened the teacher. The Rabbi who told this story some years ago still ponders that question.

How does theological language and imagery shape the divine image? How does it shape our souls? What about all that familiar and beloved liturgical formulae? What about pronouns? What would you change? Why or why not? Is this simply a women’s issue? Is it an issue of spiritual formation of human souls? Is it just politics? Or is it a theological issue? What would Jesus do?

Cost: $ 350; deposit: $80

To Register, call the Guesthouse Office: 845.384.6660, ext 3002


Holy Cross Monastery is the mother house of the Episcopal order of brothers (yes, monks) The Order of Holy Cross. The Monastery, in West Park, New York, sits atop a sloping hill, often dotted with deer, overlooking the majestic Hudson River.
The house is comfortable (nice new bathrooms), the landscape alluring, the food near-divine. The regular worship in the monastery chapel led by the brothers gives rhythm and structure to the soul and peace of the mind. You can follow from the Book of Common Prayer easily, or you can sit and let the chanting of psalms and canticles flow over you.

The retreat will include meditations by the leaders with ample opportunity for conversation, questions, humor, experiential learning together.  There will also be plenty of time for quiet reflection and prayer on one’s own. It’s a chance to have fun together and relish a few days away from the pace of the world in silence, solitude and community.  The monastery website is:  www.holycrossmonastery.com

Sunday, June 18, 2017

2017.06.18 When Your God-School Dies

What would it be like to have a school from which you graduated close its doors—for good? And what if it was a seminary, your God-school?  I can’t imagine. Maybe it would be like losing a beloved father/dad—too soon, which would be any time really.

My dad died at 71— too soon for the length of our love. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I’m so glad you were there when I graduated from my seminary at Yale, your undergraduate college.

Now I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the  Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) just closed.

A seminary is a particular kind of graduate school. It’s about learning to be who you are through studying who God is. How strange that sounds as I write it. How true it turned out to be… And how sad that many denominational seminaries are closing. Some, like EDS, are moving to affiliate with other thriving schools of theological education where they will maintain a presence, a dean, and some faculty.

The viability of independent denominational seminaries is obviously uncertain, but I wonder what the Spirit might be asking us to consider, besides just how to merge and survive as a kind of half-breed? I wonder if God might be calling us to examine the viability of denominationalism itself as a way of re-presenting Divinity to the world? 

I went to Yale Divinity because I could commute, and loved it, ironically, because it was not  denominational. I got courage there to sacrifice my fear of pushing for new ideas about sacred traditions and sacred language. Godde is bigger than all traditions. I will grieve if it ever closes. That said, I live now in Cambridge and will sorely miss having an Episcopal seminary right in my neighborhood—a presence.
I will sorely miss EDS, but not as much as its graduates, like the Rt. Rev. Alan Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts who wrote with candor about his own grief, memories and blessing.   

 “As a member of the EDS Class of 1987, I was marking my 30th reunion year.  My memories of EDS in the mid-1980s are not without complication.  It was a time of some considerable conflict and challenging community dynamics at the school.  Chapel life in particular was fraught.  And yet it was simultaneously a place of manifold grace and genuine formation for ministry in church and world, a blessing for which I have always been deeply grateful. At last week’s final Alumni Eucharist I found myself offering prayers of deep gratitude for that blessing.

What I had not anticipated was the level of deep grief that I experienced in that moment.  St. John’s Memorial Chapel and its surrounding campus was a place where I had been taught well by so many devoted faculty members; a place where I formed lifelong friendships; a place where our elder son was baptized; a place of altogether singular influence on my identity as a priest.

As we sang and prayed all of this was viscerally real to me, and I could not help but weep.  Momentarily present there in that chapel were all the remarkable, committed and quirky professors from whom I had learned, in both classroom and refectory.  Present with me were classmates and friends with whom I had exegeted Scripture; conjugated Greek verbs; wrestled with process theology; practiced chanting the collects; dreaded the GOEs; and contemplated resolving the campus housing shortage by turning the quad into a KOA campground.  Present also were support staff personalities who oversaw with an eagle eye my operation of the refectory’s Hobart dishwasher, and insisted (unfairly!) that I must have put coffee grounds down the kitchen sink at Kirkland Street housing.

All of those saints and more, living and dead, joined with alumni, faculty and friends as we celebrated the final moments of this final Eucharist of the final school year at EDS in Cambridge.  They were all there!

In coming days we will pray earnestly for the fruitful vocation of EDS at UTS.  On this day we pray with the deepest gratitude for the manifold gifts offered and received at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.  Thanks be to God.

Here is the final blessing which I offered at that closing Eucharist.

Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
May the God of faith grant you the courage born of the assurance of things not seen;
May the God of hope renew your confidence and preserve you from despair when that arc of the moral universe seems to have bent in the wrong direction;
May the God of love empower you as an agent of that love, having been strengthened in this place to strive relentlessly for the justice which incarnates love;
And the blessing, mercy, and grace of God Almighty, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit, be upon you and those you love and serve, this day and always.  Amen.”
 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2017.06.11 Graduating Into Godde

If I were giving a graduation speech or trying to explain the Holy Trinity to a bunch of eager, scared, impatient grads, I’d offer one idea to practice and a soul-poem that dared to mention God by name.

AT EVERY MOMENT, STOP TO WONDER AND ASK YOURSELF:WHAT MATTERS HERE? PAUSE. THEN ASK YOURSELF: WHAT REALLY  MATTERS HERE?

Do You Believe in Godde?
     by Lyn G. Brakeman
 
I say I believe in God
when I see a seventeen-year-old girl-child
catapult down
center aisle
–late–
 shot from a cannon.

Wait! she shouts;
her bright blue graduation
robe flaps open
to reveal bare knees ending in fuchsia sneakers.

She races— winged— up the steps
to the stage
then stops,
straightens her square hat
until it settles over her curls, then walks with slow steady steps
towards the school principal
—who waits.

I say I believe in God
when I see this girl
walk with no swagger.

The principal waits still.

When she arrives he hands her a diploma
He says her name
—all of it, out loud—
even the middle name she hates: Victoriana.

At the sound of her name she leaps into his arms.
He holds her tightly,
the diploma still in his hand.
It has her back.

I say I believe in God
when I hear murmurs of shock
ripple through the crowd of praise-addicts.

I say I believe in God when
—one-by one—they rise to applaud.

Two people in the very back row
keep on clapping
after the girl flings her tassled
hat into the crowd
and runs off the stage.
No one is there to snap her photo,
except the invisible Godde*
with the invisible camera that images all Earth.

I say I believe in God
when I witness such jubilation,
and keep on believing
long after the applause has died down.

I say I believe in Godde when years later
I see this girl
hard at work packing groceries
with neat precision into bags.
She grins at every customer
so broadly that the whole world can look down her throat.


*Godde is the Middle English spelling of God. It is used quite frequently in modern times, because it nuances femininity in the divine name and softens the hard "d" ending. 



Sunday, June 4, 2017

2017.06.04 Yirah

The word yirah (pronounced yir-aw/) is Hebrew for awe/fear/awareness. It does sound a little like a cheer—hurrah. And yet yirah is not a superficial “yippee” that passes quickly, as when you cheer for a sports team to win. Rather it is a sensation that grips your gut with a combination of awe and exhilaration—like seeing a bull fight.

When I went to a bull fight in Spain, I was horrified and disapproving. Taunted by my Spanish hermano in Madrid, I relented when he called me “timid Americana—grrrl.” This was not complimentary. I went with him to the fight. We sat in the cheap seats facing into the sun. Baked and pissed, I waited.

A bull fight is a ritual: hot and fiery, alive with music and the alacrity of picadors on horseback, toreros with sparkling costumes and red capes—the essence of macho eroticism. The crowd, intimate players in this drama, roars and sways rhythmically. Suddenly, I could not resist this dark power. There was something beautiful, sensual, unavoidable about this gruesome dance. I was swept into shouts of olĂ© and toro, toro. I was fully alive.

This was liturgy. This was biblical.

    -like being part of the multi-voiced multitudes of Jews gathered from all the corners of the earth on the day of Pentecost—expecting God’s promised Spirit to show up and make it all  better—lost in divine pulsation, knowing it is supposed to be ecstatic—but it isn’t, quite. Yirah.

    -like being present at Jesus’s crucifixion, a horror-show everyone thought would never happen, despite predictions. This scenario, even now, we Christians reverence and detest and do not understand and cannot forget as we sit in pews and pretend we are not part of the mob. Yirah.

The Spirit of yirah  is one of overwhelm. It can be frightening in a mystical way, as if one’s individual identity will be lost as all boundaries, even those of language, dissolve. The particular is subsumed in the universal. Believe me, Christians, this day we call Pentecost is no simple elation, no little Happy Birthday to the Christian Church. It is is much more, much much more. It’s breath-halting, heart-waking, near-intolerable yirah.

Yirah can cause a whole crowd of people to grow suddenly silent with collective quivering, simultaneously paralyzed and transformed.

My friend and poet Jinks Hoffmann wrote a poem called Yirah in her book It’s All God, Anyway.
The poem catches this mystical mix.

YIRAH

The hiccup between
here and there
now and then

is less

than a full breath
when you know

you cannot trust
your ground,

when you know

there is no-one,
no thing,

between you,
your life and death.

When you stop,
there is nothing
to do
but be aware of
how damn exquisite
how damn awful
is all is.


The feeling this poem first generated is me was puzzlement. I couldn't parse the words. Angry, I read it over and over. I looked up everything, trying to contain, interpret. Having no control is scary.

I even tried Google where I discovered that a Rabbi, Alan Lew, had defined this word. He at least is immersed in biblical Hebrew. He’s also a Zen Rabbi with a mystical bent and the author of One God Clapping. (No, I did not go to Amazon to order it.) According to Lew, one meaning of yirah is “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.” 

This is being IN God—a bit of what I felt at the bullfight and what I feel reading this poem —hanging among the stars helpless yet not dead. I am myself and not myself.

How damn exquisite and damn awful it all is. It all is—this particular moment of knowing and not knowing who the bejesus you are, and yet you are.

Yirah


Sunday, May 28, 2017

2017.05.28 Goodbye and Thank You Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle, a writer who made music with his words, just died yesterday.




I don’t write obituaries as news. I write today because I feel deep sorrow at the loss of a writer so supremely deft with words that I am left wonderstruck. (The formal obituary is below.) I did not know Brian Doyle personally. I grieve his writing, much of which I’ve read.

I would call Brian Doyle a Master of Words. He would, in his prose, pile words up—verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs—in heaps, and he never heeded the scorn of those who advise writers to use fewer adjectives and never an adverb. He wrote about everyday things and made them all shimmer with soul. He shunned no word that said what he meant and felt. Brian gave me courage to use as many words as I needed to match the energy of my emotional investment in whatever I was writing about. 

Here’s an example of my own attempt to describe the mysterious power of an experience which is not earthbound:  

There’s no telling exactly why such attractions take hold and cement themselves into the human mind and heart, yet most of us know the experience, and most of us admit it feels irresistible, indispensable, immeasurable, irreplicable, mysterious, and tidal, all at once. So we follow it.

If I hadn’t borrowed Doyle’s word-courage I would never have dared to use so many adjectives, one not even a legitimate word. But I felt each one. To pay proper tribute to Doyle’s faith along with his skill with apt words, here is a poem he wrote called God. 
    
GOD


By purest chance I was out in our street when the kindergarten
Bus mumbled past going slow and I looked up just as all seven
Kids on my side of the bus looked at me and I grinned and they
Lit up and all this crap about God being dead and where is God
And who owns God and who hears God better than whom is the
Most egregiously stupid crap imaginable because if you want to
See God and have God see you and have this mutual perception
Be completely untrammeled by blather and greed and comment,
Go stand in the street as the kindergarten bus murmurs past. I’m
Not kidding and this is not a metaphor. I am completely serious.
Everyone babbles about God but I saw God this morning just as
The bus slowed down for the stop on Maple Street. God was six
Girls and one boy with a bright green and purple stegosaurus hat.
Of course God would wear a brilliantly colored tall dinosaur hat!
If you were the Imagination that dreamed up everything that ever
Was in this blistering perfect terrible world, wouldn’t you wear a
Hat celebrating some of the wildest most amazing developments?

                        by Brian Doyle

Doyle had a vibrant sense of humor and was obviously passionate about God, his Christian faith, Roman Catholic brand, and basketball—not necessarily in that order. He also adored little stories and noticed absolutely everything that crossed his path, things others would pass by without a shrug. Everything, everyone, and every story is sacred—maybe religious and always soul-shaking. To perceive in this way is a gift—let’s say it’s Holy. 

Here is a poem he wrote in A Shimmer of Something. Lean Stories Of Spiritual Substance about tiny unnoticeable events of eternal magnitude. Call these poems Incarnation, Resurrection, Creation—or just plain Life, true and on the bone. 

THE SPARROW

Or, hey, listen, here’s a story for you.
A friend of mine who is 96 years old
And blind but still living in her beach
Cabin hears her cat capture a sparrow
Which the cat then presents as a prize.
My friend cradles the bird in a sponge
And goes to the front door and throws
Out the sponge, and then goes to wash
The dishes, only to realize she’s using
The sparrow, who objects strenuously.
Now, this is terrific story from every
angle imaginable: deft murderous cat,
Sparrow who didn't die, lady giggling,
The grin that just opened on your face,
The child who will fall down laughing
Later when you say now here’s a story . . .

And a favorite of mine.

THE SQUIRREL

Here you go. Here’s a moment to ponder carefully.
We think that there are greater and lesser moments
But how immensely and ridiculously wrong this is.
For here is a boy riding along the street in summer.
He is perhaps six years old. His bike is wildly blue.
He sees a smear of squirrel in the street. He pauses,
Using the heels of his sneakers as brakes. He looks,
He dismounts, he sets his kickstand, he looks down.
He kneels and gathers up the shredded creature and
Walks to the shady ravine where we saw the coyote
That time and he gives the squirrel to the tiny creek.
He washes in a muddy puddle and then he rides off.
I am the man who saw and testifieth of these things,
And what I say is true. I saw a boy bow before holy
Things, for all things are holy, and he reminded me,
And so now I remind you. Go thou and do likewise.

            


Brian was born in New York, my own home city, in 1956. He has been the editor of  the University of Portland’s (that’s Oregon)  quarterly Portland magazine since 1991. Author Annie Dillard called this “the best spiritual magazine in the country.” Brian died on May 27th, 2017 at age 60 of complications related to a brain tumor. He leaves his wife and three children. Here's the obituary link.

https://www1.up.edu/news/2017/05/Brian-Doyle-passes-away.html






Sunday, May 21, 2017

2017.05.21 The Way It Is—Words of Wisdom



     Wisdom, to me, is the fruit of much well-digested life experience combined with intellectual knowledge, the kind that comes with “school”. 

    The dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment”. Pretty close, but I called the “good judgment” part, well-digested.

    A popular aphorism of Benjamin Franklin advises:"Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  For some strange reason this advice wasn’t meant for women. :0)

    The Bible calls Wisdom divine and names her Sophia (in Greek), a feminine name because Wisdom is portrayed in biblical Wisdom literature as a woman, her shadowy counterpart named Folly.

    In the Book of Proverbs, it is written that Wisdom as a child was present with God from the beginning when God created the world. Then again in Proverbs (1ff), a much-neglected yet often taken literally and over-quoted, book, it is written (paraphrased):
    “Wisdom has build her house. She has set her table. . . .  She calls: ‘Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity. Live, and walk in the way of insight.’”  

A biblical scholar once proffered this as a good invitation to the table of Holy Communion. We took him up on the idea and used it in a former parish.

"Groves of redwoods . . .are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy."  Colin Tudge, "The Secret of Trees"



Socrates, a wise thinker in ancient times, said. “Wisdom begins in wonder.” If I were delivering a  commencement I would use this wisdom, elaborate very little and dismiss the grads with this advice: Whatever you do, always remember to wonder—and too, allow yourself to be wonderstruck.


American Poet Laureate, William Stafford (1914-1993) offers a recipe for daily life wisdom.

There’s a straw you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the straw.


Personal wisdom: Whatever comes your way in life is an opportunity to enhance or impede the flow of divine Love. That's ministry. That’s my “straw.”

Madame Owl sits among trees, observes, and wonders.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

2017.05.14 Mother's Day Letter to My Children

To my dearly beloved children,
 
I am writing to let you know that what honors me most as your mother on Mother’s Day is your presence in my life, being able to see and hear how you manage to love life in spite of its many difficulties, your willingness to include me in the midst of your own busy lives, and your capacity to forgive me my clumsiness as I sorted out my own life messes. 

To say that I love you is a silly understatement. But it’s true, and the only word we have for deep affection coupled with admiration and gratitude. Because of you I don’t feel anonymous as I age out. Thank you. (BTW, I can hear you all laughing and saying: Oh, it’s a mom special.) True, I get more mushy with age.

Here’s a poem Rob wrote. I treasure it for its simplicity. It’s not dated but I’m guessing it’s 30 years old. I know it’s old because I tried to remove it from its frame to see if it was signed  and the backing began to crumble. It has hung on many walls over the years.

It was you, Mom,
  who brought me
From two to ten
Ten to two tens,
Crayons to pencils
pencils to pens.
       And
For that I love you
        Dearly


Each of you is a beautiful poem with your own unique personality, character, and special gifts. You are radically different and equally beloved.

It was you, Bev,                                                   
  who mothered me
when I couldn’t mother you
  and most needed the help.
     And
For that I love you
     Dearly



It was you, Jill,
  who  spoke a truth to me
when you called me a “wimp”
  and we laughed and cried together
     And
For that I love you
     Dearly



It was you, Rob
who wrote me poems and
dared to sob after a car accident:
“I nearly killed my brother.”
   And
For that I love you
   Dearly


It was you, John,
who, so ill in hospital, told me
“When I opened my eyes,
I saw you just sitting there, and it was enough.”
      And
For that I love you
     Dearly



“We have to work with what life presents to us, and we have to work as well as we can while we can.” (Martha Graham)

You all have done that and are doing that. Me too.


love,
Mom