Wednesday, February 27, 2013

2013.02.17 Why Heaven Now? A Modest Proposal

Reading Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven, and finding it as engaging as his talk, but with much more detail, both personal and scientific, including some fascinating backstory, I sort of wish I’d nearly died and had such a glorious taste of the spiritual realm.

I wondered, why now? Why has this book come out just now?  I predict it will be a bestseller, and Eben Alexander will promote it with all he’s got, because he is earnest about the message of ultimate eternal love he calls God. 

When I was very young I had a similar experience, though not as grand. I called it God because I’d seen God in a book and figured God was the right name for feeling so utterly affirmed and accepted without question.  I have spent most of my life trying to preserve, protect, even simply remember and retrieve, this experience of pure being-loved. I have wanted to shield it from my own doubts. I also it hasn't magically made me a perfect person!

My sister remembers me under the table a lot, but I have no proof of my own small but ultimate experience. All I can do is trust it, and write about it, and try not to get preachy-insistent about it.

To me, the most resonant thing Alexander wrote about God was: “One of the biggest mistakes people make when they think about God is to imagine god as impersonal. Yes, God is behind numbers, the perfection of the universe that science measures and struggles to understand. But—again, paradoxically—Om (means One and is another name he uses for Divinity) is “human” as well—even more  human than you and I are. Om understands and sympathizes with our human situation more profoundly than we can imagine because Om knows what we have forgotten, and understands the terrible burden it is to live with amnesia of the Divine for even a moment.”

That’s like what I felt as a child and I can’t go abstract with it, no matter how much I think I should, and no matter how much I know God remains Mystery to be grasped occasionally by sheer grace. Believe me, however, I’m in no hurry to die.

Alexander  doesn’t refer to God as He. Okay with me. Might the Holy Eucharist be, for Christians,  a ritual of anamnesis, a state of no amnesia about Divinity?  Could the “human” God have many identities, like Jesus, Buddha, Moses, and how about Betty Friedan, or Anita Hill, or Gloria Steinem, Julian of Norwich, Pope John XXIII, or you, or me—and so many more. 

So, why now?  I think it is because most of the world has made science an idol. There is lots of evidence, biblical and beyond, that God finds a way to insert a “punctuation mark” into this universe to remind people that science, as necessary and wondrous as it is, is not God.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013.02.24 BIG FAT UNMANAGEABLE THEOLOGICAL WORDS

Most people today palaver on about our tendency to use too many words, especially in the Church.  It’s true. We do.

Talk is cheap but words are precious—and remain our primary symbol system for communication and formation.

Words are also spiritual. I love languages, even Latin, and majored in Spanish. I clearly recall the moment when I suddenly realized that I was actually reading Spanish words in my head without first translating them into English.  You wouldn’t call my feeling ecstasy, but you would call it awe.

Christians use a lot of loaded words. But we have lost the meaning and truth of many of our words. Rather than throw our ancient words out, perhaps we need to reclaim and re-understand, our precious vocabulary. Here is an invitation to join me as you wish.

BIG FAT UNMANAGEABLE THEOLOGICAL WORDS—BROUGHT TO HEART

Saturday March 16, 2013, 10 to 3, a quiet retreat day offered by Episcopal priest, author and spiritual director, the Rev Lyn G. Brakeman, at Miramar Retreat Center in Duxbury, Massachusetts.  Retreatants will be invited to explore, through meditations, conversations, journaling, and personal prayer, some basic Christian vocabulary, words we often use without really knowing what they mean in lived experience. Little things like grace, sin, salvation, the holy are not cereal brands, but rooted in ancient and biblical contexts. What do they mean to you?  Individual spiritual direction will be offered for anyone who desires it. The goal is to enrich and enliven Christian spirituality in a beautiful space with lots of places to rest in God and pray, and enjoy a good warm lunch.

You may register on line at Miramarretreat.org, email at miramarma@aol.com, call 781-585-2460. Check website for more information.  Fee is $39 with a deposit of $15.
 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

2013.02.19 Proof of Heaven?

Hearing Eben Alexander, author of the book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, speak was a moving experience for me—not because I needed proof of heaven or bolstering for my religious faith. In fact, I’d pretty much decided to wait till I was much older to worry and wonder about resurrection theology—and never have fretted about “getting in.”

Nor was I interested in hearing one more, albeit from a medical scientist, testimony about near-death experience. 

No, I was moved because Dr. Alexander was NOT charismatic. That is not meant as an insult. 

Alexander spoke almost casually and in a low-key way about the exhilarating, exotic, colorful, yes, heavenly according to age-old religio-spiritual imagery, experience he had while he was in a week-long coma induced by bacterial meningitis (inflammation of membranes that line the skull and enclose the brain and spinal cord).

“My neocortex was not running at all,” he told us. It was dead, or more graphically, a “neocortex soaked in pus.”  In such a condition, the physical organ we call brain, could not manufacture  consciousness such as Alexander experienced.

Does human consciousness exist outside the brain? It would seem so. The brain, in fact, actually limits consciousness, according to Dr. Alexander.  

Alexander came out of the coma and back into life, armed with a life-transforming experience, and a memory. His son, a physician studying neurosurgery himself, told him not to talk to anyone or read a thing before he wrote everything he remembered down. He wrote 20,000 words in six weeks. 

Medical doctors, who had all but pronounced the case hopeless, called his recovery a medical miracle. Alexander called it the result of being in heaven. The publisher chose the book's title to promote sales, but it's really about Divinity. He described his vision of divinity (his word) in great detail, including a perfect mystical melody, a beautiful woman, swirling colors, an infinitely knowing presence, and a powerful message of unconditional love. All the ingredients of a perfect first date, I’d say.  

No stranger to religion, in part because of a physician father with a strong faith, Alexander, nevertheless, looked to science to answer life’s questions. But after his spiritual awakening he testified: “I knew what happened to me was beyond science, and that if I said anything at all as a scientist ever again, I had to say this.”  

Science and theology are not at odds, as many in both camps have maintained.  They are soul mates driven by similar quests and using different methodologies.  Such an interface, to me, is not “brain” (or rocket)  science!  Still,  for such a conversation to succeed, both camps must be motivated by respect, accord the project the dignity it deserves, speak with mutual respectful, and have no attachment to agenda or outcome.  

I will not describe more of Alexander’s compelling details, save to add that he left us with a tantalizing  cliff-hanger, the final discovery that, for him, secured the truth of the heavenly realm as he experienced it.

Do I find this witness credible?  Yes. Why?
    -I didn’t feel the impulse to argue with him or critique, one of my favorite resistances.
    -He never used the word resurrection, or tried to pump a Christian agenda. 
    -He was humble, far from culture-bound celebrity, although he has achieved media fame.
    -He did not point to himself, but beyond himself. When asked if he thought God “arranged” all this with a higher purpose, Alexander said, “No. I was not chosen.”
    I was glad to hear that theological line of thinking dispelled. God doesn’t choose anyone, make anyone special, or manipulate human freedom, even for a godly agenda  (That’s our specialty.) We are all called, and chosen. 
    -The message of Love was clear, as was the message that Alexander would go back and be a messenger—the job of “angels.”
    -When he, against all odds, awoke, his first words were: Thank you.
    -His second words were: All is well.
    -All “near-death” accounts are consistently the same at the core, though there may be descriptive imagery from earthly culture or religion ie. seeing Jesus, Buddha, etc. Atheists would leave it abstract, Alexander noted, but made no fun of that approach. 
    -One does not have to almost die to have such experience.
    -If you have such an experience you will never forget it, although you may question it and try to understand it by many means.
    -Images sync with biblical and other ancient and modern mystical witnesses.
    -Extended consciousness is not a new topic.
    -All things are one in God.

I felt affirmed in my own spiritual experience and pleased that Alexander’s witness answered some of my questions:  Why, in spite of being exposed to lots of traditional negative God images, even in the Bible, have I never believed a single one? Why have I never believed that God created goodness, and therefore must also be the author of evil?  Why have I never thought God was judgmental or controlling, never? I was never afraid of God.

My theology comes out of my own spiritual experience and often has made me feel out of step, although, thankfully, I didn’t have to get pregnant, exiled, crucified, or nearly die for it.

Oh, I’ve been hurt and lost connection with the God I early experienced, and I’ve doubted my self and my own memory, but I NEVER forgot what happened. And yes, I’ve felt angry at patriarchal images and language, plenty, but, from my beginning I knew it was NOT God—not simply, not MY God, but NOT God at all.    

I write about the talk I heard with some trepidation, because I may have heard some things wrong, and I haven’t read the book, only reviews and articles. But I will read the book, then keep on writing my own book. As Alexander said, it’s good timing for this message—and its source. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

2013.02.14 V-Day Excerpts

I came down to breakfast today to see two large red envelopes on the table. Love and humor cards from my beloved husband. Oops!  I forgot it was Valentine’s Day, and immediately justified myself by saying love was every day all year round.

Then, I went to my email and there was a beautiful e-card from a friend in Estonia where it is “Friends Day.” 

Then, three heart-shaped cookies arrived from another friend, theologian and professor at Boston College, who also sent an email with an article he’d written in 2005 in defense of Eve Ensler’ s Vagina Monologues, which students perform yearly at this Catholic college. It is as an educational experience, he contended—and more, it is empowering, even if it offends.

My oldest daughter’s beautiful blog post humbly and eloquently extolled the merits and complexities of maternal love for her two daughters. An “unrhythmic jaunty dance” she called it.

On today’s Writers’ Almanac, I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love poem to Robert Browning that begins,” How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” and ends “ If God choose, I shall love thee better after death.”

Now ..........I’m out the door to get a card—or three for my at-home Valentine.
                                                    *******

Walking home with my cards in my pocket and love in my heart for my family, friends, God and my own self, I remembered my own V-experience. 

Of course, not everyone will think the Monologues is education or art, but most agree it is politics with a punch and a large dose of chutzpah.  

I performed a script in the V-Monologues when I was in Gloucester. It was to benefit the Coalition for the Prevention of Domestic Violence on which I then served.  My monologue was about a mid-life woman who went to a vagina workshop—in secret, in trepidation, and in hope. In the workshop, the woman discovered and explored her own wowser secrets while lying on her mat with a group of other women, all being instructed by a slim young chippy who probably had at least three vaginas, or clitorae:)  Anyway, I wore my clerical collar in the play, and added a line about the institutional Church and its need to discover its own vaginal power. Well, I didn’t say it quite that way, but it was clear that religion needed women and it mustn't dry up.

The parish I served got two new young women parishioners out of that show.  They sheepishly admitted that they came to the parish because they'd seen me in the Monologues. I was identified as an Episcopal priest in the playbill.  Also, a lesbian friend in my Yoga class brought her 90-year old mother to see the play, and after it the mother said to her daughter,  "Can we go to that church?" This is called V-evangelism. 

May I add that six women from the traditionally more conservative 8 a.m. liturgy sat in the front row!  Never heard a word from them,  but I saw a grin or two.  

Life is love, and there’s plenty of both left in all of us. Happy St. Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Up for Ash Wednesday—AND Choose Life

So many avid Christians use Lent as an opportune lead-in to-Easter season to take off pounds, exercise more, get healthy—or at least prepare to fit into the Easter outfit they’d planned to wear for their twice-a-year visit to Jesus.

I suggest instead: take on new ideas and practices that delight, sort of like the famous Eden “apple.”  You won’t die, so grab for life. I swear it’s just what God ordained in the first place.

Here’s a witty and wise message from the late May Sarton—great poet and contemplative thinker.  This is in her little 1981 book of meditations The House By the Sea, April 29 entry.

Sarton has taken a “heavenly” train journey down the Hudson to NYC where she heads for Bloomingdales’ to find some summer shorts and jackets . . .

“. . .as usual, in total despair because I wear a size 18 or 20. I was shunted from floor to floor, on each seeing exactly what I needed. ‘But, oh no madam, we only have sizes 8 to 16. Try floor 3 . . . ‘Finally I managed to find a pair of very expensive jeans to garden in and a couple of shirts on the unchic, sad floor for half-sizes!  Meanwhile, two thirds of the women going up and down the escalators were obviously not size 16!  Why do we lie down and allow fashion to dictate our lives and to humiliate us?  I think the Fat Panthers (emulating the Gray Panthers) had better launch a crusade—large posters showing gaunt, thin women looking tense and one hundred years old beside round, rosy, happy women might be a first attack.”

I can’t resist the next entry, which Sarton calls her “other experience in New York.”

“After my discouraging rove through Bloomingdales’ I went to a small French restaurant, Le Veau D’Or, took refuge there during a thunderstorm, having bought a book to read—an ideal one, as it turned out—Helen Bevington’s Journal of the Sixties. The place was jammed; my table faced the door; I could observe people as they came in while I sipped my drink and it was good not to be waiting anxiously for ‘one person,’ to be free, no entanglements, no little thread pulled taut inside me, so that in an hour there I had the feeling of a whole holiday and enjoyed myself immensely.”

Whole and holy holiday.  Must’ve been Passover or Easter—and both.

I wish I’d known this woman, so compatriot with my own soul.

Please notice that Sarton’s journal is spiritual writing par excellence— high, wide, and deep—looking beyond, all around, and within, all at once.

In order to escape the term spirituality getting lost in a mush of eclectic meaninglessness, we ought to honor it by making Spiritual Writing a genre in its own write, or rite.
                                                              *  *  *  *  

Oh, and I do love that Pope Benedict, a pontiff with whose every word and pronouncement I have strenuously disagreed, has, with his reasonable recent decision to retire for age and health reasons, defrocked the Roman Catholic Church of its hierarchy-of-being delusions, and clothed it in humility.

As our President said last night, we are all in this together, and if we don’t act in bipartisan ways we will decay. I for one will not again vote for any local or national candidate with extreme partisan politics.

It’s the beginning of a new day. Carpe diem! And as the prophet Hosea says: Walk humbly with your God—yourself and your neighbors.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

2013.02.10 Thirteen-End Stereotypes for Lent?


How about we give up stereotypes for 2013, starting with the superstitious demonization of the number thirteen as unlucky?

Today we are shoveling out from under the snow blizzard of 2013. Such abundance of white natural beauty fills me with awe. Awe is, stereotypically,  supposed to elevate my gaze to the heavens, but instead it immediately plunges me downward and into awareness of earthen reality: Please God don’t let anyone freeze to death. And I never thought of carbon monoxide deaths from snow-clogged tail pipes. Remember to clean them if they've been buried in snow.

Still, the shouts of joy and delight of all the children sledding in the park brought tears, and warm memories.

Nothing is all good, or all bad. 

This morning on the Interstate I looked over to my left, and there was a woman in a brand new Cadillac doing 65 mph with her face up next to her rear view mirror putting on her eyeliner.



I looked away for a couple seconds--to continue shaving --and when I looked back, she was halfway over in my lane, still working on that makeup.



As a man, I don't scare easily. But she scared me so much, I had to put on my seat belt, 
and I dropped my electric shaver, which knocked the donut out of my other hand. 

In all the confusion of trying to straighten out the car, using my knees against the steering wheel, it knocked my cell phone away from my ear, and it fell into the coffee between my legs, splashing and burning Big Jim and the Twins, ruining the damn phone, soaking my trousers, and disconnecting an important call.



Damn women drivers!

This joke made me laugh and also reminded me again how stereotypes can rule our hearts and make us certain, for example, that all women are bad drivers, and all men are unconscious. 

For many women today, 13 has come to be the number of the divine feminine.
And consider the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution with the Emancipation Proclamation proclaiming that all people are equal under the law.  Also see the movie "Lincoln" that proclaims the astonishing political process of that challenging time. Sometime politics works for good— and for God, who shapes souls through the chaos of politics, and the quiet of prayer.

And how many of us know, or remember,  a 13 year old freshly-minted teen?  Grounded in glory—enough to trip over.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

2013.02.16 Leaving God?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air."

Emerson was born in Boston (1803). His father, who died when he was eight, was a Unitarian minister, as were many of Emerson's family members before him. He was a quiet and well-behaved young man, not an exceptional student. He graduated in the middle of his class, studied at Harvard Divinity School, and got a job as a ministerial assistant at Boston's Second Church. Not long after his ordination, he was married. He was happy at home and in his work, and soon he was promoted to senior pastor.

All was well.

Two years after Emerson was married, his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis, at the age of 19. He was devastated. He began to have doubts about the Church. A year after Ellen's death, he wrote in his journal: "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers." He took a leave of absence and went on vacation in the mountains of New Hampshire. By the time he returned, he had decided to resign from his position as minister.

I don’t know whether Emerson left professional ministry, or whether he left some ideas that should be left.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

In this 21st century, there is much doubt and query about God, religion, ministry, church, et. al.  It’s not new. Myself, I have no plans to divorce God, if you mean the One whose love is immortal and available to everyone. Or the Church I love to hate—it still offers me Jesus, some grounding prayers, sacraments, and a community that will bring me casseroles—and pray. 

If you doubt and fear and are uncertain, so?  Speak your words honestly in prayer and in conversation. Many gods and god-ideas live and die, and pass us by. And ministries evolve.

A word from Goethe in a portion of his poem “Holy Longing.”
    “And as long as you have not experienced this,
     To die and so to grow,
     You are only a troubled guest on a dark earth.”




Sunday, February 3, 2013

2013.02.03 Book Review, Face of The Deep

I’ve been reading Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep and let me tell you it’s deep—and dense, full of scientific and theological language  worth puzzling. Keller is a scholar and theology professor at Drew University. Oh, how I wish these fine scholars would teach to a world of hungry non-academic students who could access their texts easily.

Still, Keller’s ideas are intriguing. She writes about quantum entanglement and gives it a theological pulse. When science explores beginnings and hits a brick wall of explication, there is an opening for theology and its ideas, read G-O-D or Creative Divinity—an option not explicable or provable, so far, but enlightening.

Quantum science and theology admit that this biblical Creator is intimately entangled energetically with cosmos—through chaos. Thus, Creation never stops, but constantly unfolds—like a pleated whole unfolding as it goes.  

As a writer I know that an opening sentence has to hook a reader into wanting more. So here is the Bible’s first sentence.  
            1) In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth   (Ok, I’m drawn in.)
            2) the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters.   (Suspense.  What will this spirit-wind do? I’m hooked. My dopamine levels are up, and I haven’t even taken a Sudafed. I must find out what happens.)

Keller makes a lot of this second sentence. The action has already started before God says the famous and oft-quoted dictum, “Let there be light!”  Shapeless darkness therefore is not nothing. God tangles with matter before God speaks a word. Many will find that shocking. Why?  We’ve been carefully taught that God created ex nihilo—from nothing, making God a real superpower.  

But no. There’s a verse in between God created and God said. The between God messes with chaos and darkness, up to His or Her divine neck. 

The patriarchal church has taught an almighty omnipotent Divinity (all male to be sure) by ignoring verse #2 and establishing the doctrine of creation from nothing.  But no.  The Spirit vibrates (Keller’s lively translation) over something, not nothing.  That something is The Deep. 

Here is a deity who creates NOT on demand and command, who is NOT omnipotent and utterly transcendent, NOT a He-Man-God, but a Godde who, like a curious scientist, plunges into the depths of dark chaotic matter—tohu vabohu in Hebrew.  Keller calls this process Creatio ex profundi vs ex nihilo and develops a theology of BECOMING. Genesis is a becoming text, not a fait accompli text about divine executive function.  

How do this Deep and this God work things out together?  Does The Deep resist God’s engagement? How much power and energy does matter exert? What happens when God creates Humankind?  Process theologians call this process co-creation. 

What thrills me is that Creator God of verse 2 desires relationship over obedience. Keller suggests that there is in this cosmic quantum entanglement an ethical call, bidding us to join God in this work of transforming darkness and chaos. Think of a God who is entangled as much as we are in injustice, hate, war— a Divinity that energizes for change, not legislates about it. The ethical charge is IN creation itself.  

Keller’s exploration of this one small verse (Genesis 1:2)  does not support a patriarchal male- stereotyped Divinity.  What then?  To me it suggests that God is fully male and fully female—an idea that charges me, and frankly, demands my cooperation to help transform traditional perspectives and language, for the sake of new life. One day the image of God itself will be whole.

I end, as is my wont, with some humor, hopefully apt.  

Rita Mae Brown said:  "If you can't raise consciousness, at least raise hell."  But I hope for heaven, myself.