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 olé 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



Sunday, May 7, 2017

2017.05.07 Winged Words and Image

The Institute of Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School will host a conference, “Love Bade Me Welcome” on May 12-14, 2017.

It sounds by its title as if this conference is about social justice and supreme hospitality. So it is, of course, but its stated mission is to provide inspiration and practical guidance in the many uses of poetry for worship, liturgy, meditation, and education. “Our aim is to equip church leaders with the ‘winged words’ of poets as we seek to shape the minds and hearts of contemporary congregations.”

Here are the “winged words” of seventeenth century poet, George Herbert.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.


The conference planners recognize that “poetic sensibilities are always present within the Christian faith. From the remarkable poetry of the Psalms, Prophets, and Wisdom literature, to the splendid verse of Dante, Herbert, Milton, Dickinson, Hopkins, Levertov, and many others up to our contemporaries, poetry has brought life and light to the Church through the ages.  How, afresh, can poetry revitalize our worshiping communities today.”

Herbert’s poem is religious, yet its “winged words” take it far beyond religion. It thrills me to see such an effort undertaken on the campus of the school where I spent four of the most formative years of my life.

To Herbert, “Love” is God, welcoming him and noticing, with a “quick-eyed Love,” how much the guest doth protest all his sins and unworthiness. Love invites, welcomes without condition, then feeds the guest actual food while also bathing him with the grace of healing his fascination with his shame—now toxic. Are you secretly preoccupied with your inadequacy?

Jesus the Christ lived and taught that Love absorbed all such feelings. He was crucified for his efforts. It’s ironic that humankind has little tolerance for Love, especially the kind that does not demand excessive displays of repentance, the kind that’s Eternal, the kind that just plain bypasses the sin we allow to cling to our souls—so tightly, so tight. 

Like the rejection of a heart transplant, humankind rejects Love. We are simply not comfortable unless we have a way to atone. Atoning sacrifices give us a way to feel powerful, a way to take control over our salvation. Oh, for God’s sake let God do it!

Love, writes this poet, bids us welcome without atonement. There is no such phenomenon as Eternal disdain. Love is winged—too big to demand repayment for the sake of being bade welcome.

The music of Herbert’s words brought to my mind the Greek muse Polyhymnia, muse of sacred song—a winged art form if there ever was one. Polyhymnia has no wings, she is simply winged.

Artist Susan Sohl created this image of Polyhymnia, copyright, 2017.  In giving me permission to share her image, Susan told me a bit of her own story.  She wrote: “I look forward to reading this blog and seeing my "muse". I did the entire series of 9, and none of the originals remain in my possession. They found a variety of homes, and now I am ready to start on other icons from the ancient world.

‘By the way, I am a survivor of lymphomic cancer, lupus (chemo forced it into remission), open-heart surgery, and two spinal surgeries. Painting and creating gave me the strength and will to never give up.  Now I teach and continue to paint, sharing my sense of color and love of movement with others. Thank you for wanting to offer one of my pieces to your readers, Susan.”

 Below is the artist with the winged soul.


Thank you Susan for your generosity. Obviously, Love bade you welcome and gave you strength to love back through your art and your spirit of persistence. Love inspires that kind of thing.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

2017.04.30 The Road To Emmaus—Every Day

Jack Kerouac with his “On the Road” rolling homily, had nothing on the Bible. The story in Luke 24 about two travelers going home after the crucifixion of their beloved friend and healer, Jesus, is a poignant story. The travelers, likely a couple, are full of sadness and also dashed hopes for the long-awaited Messiah who would redeem their Israel. They thought Jesus was the one and now he was executed.

On the road, a stranger came and joined the bereft travelers. He listened to them talk and asked why they were so sad. They were amazed that he didn’t know all that had happened in Jerusalem, and how scared they were of the powers of oppression. First, he listened well to their grief. Take note of that compassionate habit. How he must have wanted to interrupt them with his spiritual intuition about resurrection!  But he listened first. Only after listening did he break in with an extended, and obviously compelling, recitation of the biblical history of God’s promises, the prophets’ visions of a divinely-sponsored grand socioeconomic program of justice, and Jesus’s own vision of God as unconditional love—now and forever for all creation.

Oh, they were crushed as they talked about their sorrow. Oh, they felt heard and taken seriously. And oh, how their hearts burned within them—burned with hope and renewed passion—as this stranger reiterated everything they knew, and had forgotten.

The group of three walked toward Emmaus, a journey of seven miles, and as they went they talked and listened, and, in that process alone, their spirits were renewed, their hopes resurrected.

When I read this famous parabolic story, I think of this whole first part as The Word—the first part of every Christian Eucharist: biblical readings, collects and prayers, a sermon, hymns and chants—and community announcements and news. The Word takes up more than half of the entire length of the average Sunday Eucharist. Like the words of the stranger on the road to Emmaus, most of the mileage is taken up by listening to the travelers' concerns, and then teaching them once again to hope and trust God’s loving care. 

The Word is just as much of a sacrament, just as Holy, as the beloved Eucharist, the meal many of us think it the most important. Well, of course it is: we get fed at a table to which we ALL are welcome and ALL are beloved. The meal is a kind of tangible proof of all the proclamations and predictions and visions and stories that compose The Word.

Yet, the story tells us, only in the meal did the traveling Jesus-followers, aka Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, FINALLY recognize that this stranger was in fact the one they lamented as dead. They intuited the wisdom of their Jesus in the words of the stranger. They recognized Jesus as the Christ for sure, and finally, as the bread was broken and shared over a meal. Writers about Jesus's habits often juxtapose miracle and meal, like resurrection and eucharist.

Still, why did it take so long and require so much wordiness and WORD?

Well, I suppose it is because it takes a while for the message to travel from the mind, fourteen inches down to the heart, and another ingestive period of time for the body, at last, to consume the whole truth: God loves all Creation without condition. ALL are beloved.

Emmaus is a metaphor that tells us, over and over, that this Love is true, that is available. We know it when we experience it in conversing and listening, giving and receiving. This is how we know the Risen Christ. 

So we can practice Emmaus: give the next ten beggars you see on the street $5. (If there are no beggars, do the same or more with the next 10 mailings you get from worthy organizations—even if they’re not your usuals.)

After you give the flesh and blood beggars money, then offer them a greeting, good luck, and a word of hope for healing, or a God bless you. (Notice: they almost always bless and thank you!)  Don’t preach. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t assume or condemn. You don’t know why they are there, but you know they are there for a reason. Just honor their presence as their word, and your money will be their bread—yes, even if it buys booze. Then be on your way with prayers and the “high spirits” of hope Emmaus conveys.

Emmaus IS the Christian journey, each Sunday, and every single day. We too walk the symbolic Emmaus road of WORD and MEAL. As John Dominic Crossan wrote in the “Overture” to his book The Historical Jesus:

“Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”


Sunday, April 23, 2017

2017.04.23 Hoping Upon Stars

Stars light the way. I watch for them every night. Despite the glare of city lights, I can see a few stars. In the summer on Nantucket there is little ground light so my stars spread across the sky making a blanket of light. They are poetry.


“Poetry and other arts come from acceptance of little signals that immediate experience contributes to beings who are alive and fallible, and changing. Any conscience relevant to that kind of activity will tend to be un-national, not American or foreign, or North or South, or Black or White, or East—but alive and ready to confer.”  William Stafford, poet.

William Stafford (1914-1993) was poet laureate of both Oregon and the United States. He was a conscientious objector in WWII. He chose not to fight—for the sake of his country.  He also said that what our country is about is: “Creating emergencies that justify emergency actions.” Is this what we do? Really? By god, it sounds painfully like American politics right now. Ponder it anew.

This Stafford poem is from “Every War Has Two Losers.” Us AND them.

Home
by William Stafford

Our father owned a star,
and by its light
we lived in father’s house
and slept at night.
The tragedy of life,
like death and war,
were faces looking in
at our front door.
But finally all came in,
from near and far:
you can’t believe in locks
and own a star.

This poem gives me hope for a day when we do not have to lock doors or live in fear of our neighbors, near and far. A day perhaps when churches will not be afraid to remain unlocked, be open for prayer all the time—or at least during the day. How can anyone imagine that God desires to love them unconditionally when god-houses are shut up tight: no admittance?

Locked doors are easier to tolerate than locked hearts. As long as we lock our hearts there will be wars in which everyone loses. Easter is the time we are invited to open our hearts without reserve. Ponder the starry skies and pray.






Sunday, April 16, 2017

2017.04.16 Easter Morning: Choose Life!

Easter Morning
    by William Stafford.

Maybe someone comes to the door and says,
"Repent," and you say, "Come on in," and it's
Jesus. That's when all you ever did, or said,
or even thought, suddenly wakes up again and
sings out, "I'm still here," and you know it's true.
You just shiver alive and are left standing
there suddenly brought to account: saved.

Except, maybe that someone says, "I've got a deal
for you." And you listen because that's how
you're trained––they told you, "Always hear both sides."
So then the slick voice can sell you anything, even
Hell, which is what you're getting by listening.
Well, what should you do? I'd say always go to
the door; yes, but keep the screen locked. Then,
while you hold the Bible in one hand, lean forward
and say carefully, “Jesus?”


A friend of mine, some years ago, opened his door on a Sunday morning to face a young man standing there holding up a Bible and his pointer finger, saying: “Repent!” My friend was suffering the pain of a serious hangover and was horrified. He slammed the door in the man’s face, and then made jokes about it for a few years, most of them mocking this stupid Bible-thumper. In time, my friend did “repent” in the way he needed to. He stopped drinking and joined AA.

The poet who wrote about Easter morning is William Stafford (1914-1993). He was poet laureate of both Oregon and the United States. He wrote relentlessly honest notes, in part gleaned from his own experience as a conscientious objector in WWII. During that war, Stafford worked in Civilian Public Service camps in several states. He wrote and spoke quietly about the sanity of nonviolence and the madness of violence. He did not fight for the sake of his country, as everyone thought was the highest value. He chose not to fight—for the sake of his country.

Personally, I think the choice NOT to fight for the sake of his country was a courageous one. What could happen if everyone in the world chose likewise? Seems like kind of an Easter choice to me.

Who knows how and when, or exactly why, our choices are made? Yet make them we do. In the Book of Deuteronomy the voice of God speaks to the people of Israel, saying: “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. . . ” (30:19)  I often remind myself: Choose life!

Every small choice, for better or worse, counts. Here’s one………

The Squirrel
    by Brian Doyle

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.









Sunday, April 9, 2017

2017.04.16 Palms, a Kiss, Betrayal, Prayer and Hope

Palm Sunday is a chaotic Sunday in the Christian church. Most churches pile in all our praise and stack up all our hopes in order that we will have enough stamina to get through the week ahead. We need all this triumphal hype. It wasn't so fine for Jesus who prayed his agony out in Gethsemane—while his followers slept. They didn't get it. Do we?

It's Holy Week. We are to follow Jesus out of Gethsemane and on his death march, inevitably leading to crucifixion and a hideous death. Will we hear him scream? Will we watch, or will we run away? We don't know.

For today, we are left with silence and hope. We've waved our palms. We've wept our tears. We've read our parts in the passion gospel very well, even standing up for the moment when Jesus is taken up to Golgotha to be executed. It is drama and trauma. We have done our part well. Now what?  Wait.

HOPE
    by Lisel Mueller

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
     it shakes sleep from its eyes
     and drops from mushroom gills,
          it explodes in the starry heads
          of dandelions turned sages,
               it sticks to the wings of green angels
               that sail from the tops of maples.
It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
     it lives in each earthworm segment
     surviving cruelty,
          it is the motion that runs
          from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
               it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
               of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.
It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.


Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg in 1924. She is a poet and translator, daughter of teachers. With her family she fled to the U.S. from the Nazi regime when she was 15 and settled in a suburb of Chicago. Mueller is fond of language, imagery and memory, obviously a writer after my now heart. She is aware of her good fortune and the grace of God—“the miracle and the accident it is that any of us are who we are.”  (from her volume of poetry entitled Alive Together.) “We all live together in the world and in my poems.”


We too wait today, and each day, in hope. We wait together. We pray and sing together. We are doing our part in the best way we can.

And so our hearts are shaped today
by palms, a kiss, a friend’s denial,
to hold a very simple prayer—
God, save us from the time of trial. 

                   Michael Hudson

Sunday, April 2, 2017

2017.04.02 Kindness

Confitemini domino. That’s Latin for "Praise the Lord for good." We sing it in chant—over and over to warm our hearts toward each other and Godde. It is a very kind prayer.

Does the phrase mean for good, as in, that’s the last hurrah for praise?  Or does it mean to give thanks to God who is good?  Probably both. Whatever its exact meaning is, it kindles warm love in me.

I think of Psalm 136 in which— over and over— we give thanks for the goodness of God’s imprint on the world and say in refrain: “ . . . for his mercy endures for ever.”  In Pamela Greenberg's translation of 136 the refrain is. “. . . for God’s kindness is toward the world.” Kindness sounds fresh to my ears and to my heart. Why?
    -it’s more intimate than mercy
    -kind relates to kin….I think of kindling to get a fire ablaze
    -it’s not condescending, toned with superiority
    -it’s not love, love, and more love
    -it’s not gendered
    -it’s reverently vernacular
    -I can imagine myself being kind, without aspiring to divinity

Let’s call kindness manageable. It goes a long way when you’ve lost your grip and/or your ground. The poet knows.

KINDNESS

Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.



Naomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She is an award-winning poet, songwriter and novelist. A visit to her paternal grandmother on the West Bank was life-changing for her. She lived there for a year and says that being part of both a minority and a majority in cultures influenced her political views and the message of her poetry. Naomi calls herself a “wandering poet”.




Nye's poem “Kindness” came to my attention through a friend who told me that an unknown woman in an elevator on 9/11 gave him the poem, saying, “Here, you will need this today.”  The woman was right. When my friend, professor of pastoral theology at Boston College, teaches on 9/11 he always begins his classes with this poem.

May I suggest that we begin each day with this poem—not just for Lent but into Holy Week, all through Eastertide and beyond. God’s kindness is toward the world. We need it now.  Oh, we need it now.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

2017.03.26 Hail Mary/Ave María

Dios te salve María, llena tu eres entre todas las mujeres. El Señor es contigo. Bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre Jesus. Santa María madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora ye en la hora de nuestra muerte. AMEN  

(Hail May, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb: Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. AMEN.)

Congratulations on your big moment, Mary: March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1) when the angel told you you were to be pregnant—with God, no less—and you said OK, adding a few questions of your own.  Good woman!

And congratulations to me as I remember the 29th anniversary of my priestly ordination on March 25th, 1988. Mary’s day in ancient times—and mine in 1988. We share.

I first learned to say the "Hail Mary" in Spanish when I spent a summer with a very pious family in Santander, Spain. In 1960, Santander was a smallish fishing town in northern Spain. Now it is my bank. I love the connection, and, despite complaints about questionable banking practices, I will never change banks. Nor will I ever forget Spain, the cradle of my devotion to Mary. I lived with a family who said prayers every single night. The Señora would clap her hands loudly like two small shofars, and we would all come running—for our food, yes, but first for our prayers. 

Lucia Perillo, who wrote this poem to Mary, was known for her humor and being shaped by living with multiple sclerosis. She was born in New York City in 1958 and died in 2016. I find her humor most attractive, because it does not attempt to hide truth but rather expose it. Perillo was a Pulitzer finalist, a blythe spirit. May she rest in peace and make angels laugh with her as they pray.
HAIL MARY

The worst of it was the fruit of thy womb business,
through which the boys muddled in pig-latin sniggers
but being a girl you thought of plums, then grapefruit,
a catalog whose offerings led incrementally
to the one in school who’d gotten breasts,
her mother alky and her dad a pencil mark rubbed out.
After the bell rang she bundled her sadness
and walked it home in her serious coat,
the kind of girl who carried an umbrella, whose socks
defied the gravitational tug. And if other prayers
had someone offstage fumbling sheet metal, this one
made the woof of a broom swatting a rug,
a rhythmic thump below the scream
of the laundry tree she sent off on its wheel
around the backyard like a minor angel
flapping underpant-and-towel wings.
Someday she’d get pregnant by the shy and not-
unhandsome captain of the variety baseball team
without even getting a bad rep; everyone knew
they’d marry quick and he’d die slow
from all those years of Red Man packed behind his lip.
But she wouldn’t have loved him if there wasn’t something
about him to work on; you know the type:
you loved her, you hated her
for ruling your life as penmanship queen,
and you wanted to be her friend except you knew
beside her you’d be dirt. As far as Hailing Mary,
all you wanted to do was get through its last word,
though everyone knew this death was second-rate.
A man-god could get you bread or heaven, but pray
to a woman and all you got was prayed for in return.

    Lucia Perillo, Luck Is Luck. Poems. Random House, 2005


Red Man, in case you didn’t know, which I didn’t, is chewing tobacco. But if you don’t pick the poem apart too much, which is a great temptation because you want to understand it, you get the full picture of a Roman Catholic girl trying to make good as she tries to grow more than breasts and wombs in a patriarchal world and Church full of Mary-Hailing. 

I was a Protestant girl of twenty-one in Spain, also trying to grow more than breasts and wombs while ingesting Catholicism on steroids—too much and never enough. I found a woman who prayed for me.

Yes, Perillo is right: when you pray to a woman all you get is prayed for in return. I will take it with gratitude and affection. Gracias, María, and all women who pray with open heart and blessed intention. I will pray back.




Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017.03.19 The Loveliness of the Sow

"To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment."

Contemporary American poet Galway Kinnell, born in 1927 in Providence, R.I., said this. Kinnell, I first surmised, was Irish—I suppose because of the name Galway, which makes me think of the virtuoso flutist James Galway who is Irish, from Belfast, and sometimes know as “the man with the golden flute.”  Although our Kinnell was a New Englander, ending up in Vermont, where he died in Sheffield in 2015, and in which he was Poet Laureate from 1989-1993.

Kinnell also said: “Never mind. The self is the least of it. Let our scars fall in love.”


The quote about poetry being someone standing up and saying what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment brought to mind the biblical story (John 4:5-42) about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the town pump, so to speak. Jews and Samaritans were arch rivals, having very distinct religious practices. Nevertheless, the Jew and the Samaritan in this biblical story, made a kind of poetry with their theological conversation—debate really.

Jesus stood up with little concealment before a woman from whom he wanted a drink of well water. To her, a foreigner, a divorcée many times over, or perhaps a widow, and a woman whose religion and ethnicity the Jews did not countenance, Jesus revealed who he was on earth at that moment: the Christ of God with access to Eternal Life aka, “living waters,” and the slaking of all thirst forever.

The woman, for her part, likewise stood up with no concealment before Jesus in total honesty about her situation—not precisely sinful by today’s standards, but not exactly stable either, being on her sixth intimate relationship, this time with a man not her husband. Yet she was truthful, open, and theologically astute in her perceptions of this Jew. Jesus took due note.

And the poet takes due note of the loveliness of one of the most maligned creatures in God’s array of critters: the sow. St Francis blessed and beheld ever living thing as sacred. So must we.


Saint Francis And The Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath
them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

© 1980 by Galway Kinnell  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

2017.03.12 Life's Blood—Born and Born again and Again

God, I feel sure, has many wombs. One is the baptismal font. Womb-like, it evokes birth and is filled with water, which breaks when we emerge. We are sealed by baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Another is the womb of Earth, the planet we call our island home. From it we derive all our nourishment and a full supply of water and air for Life. We cannot sustain biological life without this womb. It must be born again and again. Too often we take it for granted and abuse its rich yield— to our peril and to our shame.

Another womb is the womb of Incarnation: the womb of our own flesh out of which we birth God’s life over and over again. We live in this womb all our life, and each time we connect with enlivening feelings, we are born again. 

Finally, there is the womb of the tomb. From that womb, God births us back into Life forever in God’s own soul.

Here are two poems that bring the mystical experience of being born— and born again—down to  flesh and blood and embodying divinity at once. Both are by the Rev. Regina Walton, a colleague, poet, and Episcopal priest in the diocese of Massachusetts. Regina is the author of The Yearning Life. Poems 2016, Paraclete Press. With her permission and with gratitude, I share these poems.


AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL POEM

I started out small
And got smaller.
Loved, humiliated, self-enclosed.

Some days lifting up my hands,
Others carrying my cross
where my shoulders meet spine.

I was knit together,
And know I’ve knit someone else
Thoughtlessly

Not that it happened without a thought,
But surely
It wasn’t the thoughts that did it.

I bled out when he arrived,
So they filled me back up
With the blood of another.

Now I am the same
By half.
Thank you


FIRST DAY
   
The baby: hale and pink and strong and fine.
But beached and bleached, you are much less sanguine
And so, two pints of blood by plastic line
Leach their slow way into your opened vein.
The scarlet bags like lungs suspended from
The scarecrow pole, unwanted hanger-on
This trinity: child, mater, sire gone
To sleep in a hard chair.

                                     Now the bald sum
Of all your pains naps in a plastic bin.
Your web of tubes a tether to the bed;
The buzzing, ringing, beeping, healing din.
Who thought, on your first day, who expected
So soon, to find so much of yourself gone?
In time, you will get used to being wrong.



from Songs for the Cycle by Michael Hudson.

. . .Seek to grow as all things grow
and trust what grace assumes—
That time will manifest the Life
Received within the womb.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

2017.03.05 Steadfast Love

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never
        having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the
        rich or in the presence of clergymen· having denied these
        loves;
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having
        grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these
        loves;
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by
        a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers
        of their alert enemies; declare
That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied
        interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.

"Modern Declaration" by Edna St. Vincent Millay from Selected Poems. © Yale University Press, 2016.
My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night, but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1852-1950) was born in Rockland Maine. Her mother raised three daughters on her own, after asking her husband to leave when Vincent, as Edna preferred to be called, was a child of seven. She was a tomboy who loved to write poetry. Her poem “Renascence” won a prize in a contest and earned her a scholarship to Vassar.

After graduation from college she moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village where she lived in a one-foot wide attic and wrote anything she thought an editor would publish. She and other writers were, according to Millay, “very very poor, and very very merry.” From her experience, and others like her I suppose, we get the romantic stereotype of the starving artist in the garret. At least we know these artists were merry.

Millay was openly bisexual and wrote a lot about female sexuality and feminism. In 1923 she won a Pulitzer for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Millay, openly bisexual, married a widower Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist. They lived like two bachelors. Today we’d call it an open marriage. He died in 1949; she died in 1950.

Intense romantic love comes like a godsend and excites. To me the best kind of love is one that is steadfast—through thin and thin— something like the way the Bible describes divine love. Love is essential to human well being. There is nothing more glorious or soul-quenching than love. By its lack, love is soul-starving. Love is elusive and indescribable, though it is not fickle. Poets and profaners through the ages have tried to capture love in words. Glimpses must suffice.

Millay get to the eternal quality of love in her poem. She does not limit her affections to one  person but to just a “few things” all of which she will love always. This sounds impersonal yet the never-waveringness she describes is true love. It does give a lovely light.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

2017.02.26 Poetry Review: Setting the Mood for Lenten Reflections

I plan to post a poem or two each Sunday during Lent to signal the season and also to remind myself and others that the gift of good poetry is that is gets to the heart and soul of an idea with perfect words and not much persiflage……………  I begin with this review to kick off the season. 

It’s All God, Anyway. Poetry for the Everyday
   by Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann
2016, Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications


Jinks Hoffmann’s everyday poetry is the perfect mix of earthen and mystical. As I read Hoffmann's poems I was reminded of Jewish memoirist Etty Hillesum’s wisdom about scraping raw reality down to the bone before one can dare to be mystical.

Jinks Hoffmann is a spiritual director and the poetry editor of Presence, an International Journal of Spiritual Direction. She was born in South Africa and has lived in Canada with her husband Alan, to whom she dedicates this collection. The poems are organized into five sections: A Way of Being in the World, Mysticism, The Work, Family and Friends, and Roots> The collection is like a psalter—intimate and profound enough to sit on my bedside table.

Etta Hillesum died at Auschwitz on 30 November, 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. She wrote: “I am sometimes afraid to call a spade a spade. Because nothing will then be left to the imagination? No, things ought to be called by their proper name. If they can’t stand it, then they have no right to be. We try to save so much in life with a vague sort of mysticism. Mysticism must rest on crystal-clear honesty, can only come after things have been stripped down to their naked reality.” (An Interrupted Life, Diaries 1941-1943)

Hoffmann and Hillesum are spiritual soul sisters. In Hoffmann’s words: “Everything is God: sunsets and a baby’s death; the stillness of a mist-clad lake at dawn and a hurricane; joy and gratitude, grief and despair; kindness and ‘schmutz’ (messy humanity).”
Hillesum
Hoffmann
Reading Hoffman's  poetry, I experienced the deeply sacred quality of all life—with no overt religious doctrine or academic aridity. Like writing, prayer, and the keen observation of minute details revealed in their varied elaborations, Hoffmann’s poetry exposes the profound oneness of all life—and all religions, in fact.

To my delight, I learned many Hebrews words—one of them schmutz, a perfect descriptor of the human condition without reference to sin.  That there are seventy-two names for God in Hebrew delighted me.  And we Christians are picked on for having a mere three?  “Love” is the name Hoffmann uses to address God, as in: what now, my Love?

She does not mean, or imply, that God causes everything that happens, but rather that everything that happens and exists is in God. God is transcendent and also intimate. Is this a particularly female perspective? Maybe, yet it reminds me of the biblical Paul’s insight: “In God we live and move and have our being.” This is what Hoffmann’s superbly crafted poetry accomplishes.

The best way to get myself out of the way and let Hoffmann’s poetry speak for itself is to share a poem, my personal favorite.

 I Don’t Believe in God.

My wife complains a lot.
Mind you, two small children,
my working all those hours,
I don’t blame her. Once,
I was driving along the Don Valley,
and a mattress was laying
right in the middle of the road.
I guess the young men driving
the other car didn’t learn
good knots in Boy Scouts.
Mind you, I shouldn’t talk.
My parents couldn’t send me
to Scouts. I needed to help
in the store. I’ve done better
than they did. I almost own
this cab. When they came
from Pakistan they had nothing.
They don’t have much, even now.

It was a bad winter this year.
Lots of snow. Icy too.
Once my car slid all over
the highway and ended up
in the opposite direction.
I don’t believe in God, but something
saved me. My passengers too.
They were nice, didn’t yell or shout
or anything. My parents came to Canada
with nothing. Look at me now.
A Wife. Two kids. She complains
a lot. It’s hard with small kids.
I get to work seven days a week.
Almost own this cab. Sometimes
I even bring Swiss Chalet
home for a treat. Maybe God
believes in me.


You see what I mean. Buy this book, available on Amazon the “almighty” or from the publisher Wipf and Stock, my own publisher.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017.02.19 HIstory on Trial

Recently we watched an intriguing—also superbly well done—movie called “Denial.”  It sounds as if it’s about addiction or the common and dangerous psycho-emotional defense called denial, however that is only true secondarily. 

“Denial” in a 2015 film about a legal trial which took place in the UK in 1996 in which David Irving, an historical writer filed a libel suit against American history professor (Emory University) Deborah Lipstadt and her British publisher Penguin Books for publishing the British edition of Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust, first published in the US in 1993. Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier and bigot, and said that he manipulated and distorted real documents. Irving fought back with the libel suit.
The fascinating dynamics of this trial are the subject of the movie. We have watched it twice, each time marveling at the intricacies of the British legal system in which the accused is guilty until proven innocent. In our American legal system the accused is innocent till proven guilty. This assumption has always seemed ethically right-minded to me, yet seeing another system work justice from such a different starting point kept me riveted—in awe and admiration really, especially watching the attorney and an on-high judge in all those top heavy white wigs.

Another difference is that the UK court has two attorneys, specialists, simultaneously at work representing one defendant. The solicitor is the attorney who, with a team of able trainees, researches the data on the case, gathering relevant data to use to prepare the case. The other attorney is the barrister—the one who actually tries the case in court. This latter is the one with sharp legal skills, a steel trap mind, eloquence and calm persuasive presence under stress.

These differences alone make this movie worth watching. What is on display at all times is the value of teamwork, each member, including the defendant herself, bringing individual gifts and passions to the same case for one purpose alone: to win.

Some of the questions raised seemed eccentric but are tragically relevant today: what IS a fact anyway? What IS history anyway?  What kind of data helps most to make a case without direct witness testimony? What is on trial in this movie is the integrity of history itself. How do we tell the truth, swear on Bibles to speak the facts and nothing but the facts, without slant? Is that even possible? What about perspective? What about perception? How do you prove that something happened you know happened but for which evidence, except human testimony, is scant if not absent?

David Irving, the plaintiff, claims to be a Hitler historian, having invested much effort in exculpating Hitler. Annoyed by Lipstadt’s book and her accusations against his manipulations of facts, Irving represents himself, claiming the Holocaust never happened.” He goes on to say: “Why more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car in Chappaquidick than ever were killed in the Holocaust.”  He calls attention to the arrangement: he—as “David” (chosen of God of course)—stands alone, while she is surrounded by her team—the mighty Goliath. The visual is telling. The solicitor at one point quotes Goethe: “The coward only threatens when he feels secure.”

What needs to be proved is that Irving manipulated data that proved that Auschwitz was “a killing machine.” And further, that he did not make honest mistakes of commission or omission in his own case against the historicity of the Holocaust, but that he deliberately falsified data in support of his own antisemitic bias. Freedom of speech is a human right. Lying is not. Neither, for that matter, is hate speech.

Lipstadt is aware throughout of her intense desire to have a voice, to exercise her conscience. It is all she has besides her own scholarly research. She is an historian, a Jew, and a woman in pursuit of justice. She wants the voice of suffering to be heard. She wants this hearing desperately, desperately, but not enough to go insane. She keeps her stability in part by running. She runs a regular route through the city, stopping before a large statue of Boadicea—both to lament and to thank. Boadicea was a woman who led a Celtic tribal uprising against Roman occupation in the middle of the first century in the British isles.  Lipstadt could be a modern Boodicea—well, an American one. 
It was painful for me, as a woman with a Jewish grandfather, to watch Lipstadt’s silencing. It made me cry, as well, to see the tender sensitivity with which the older barrister persuaded  her that silence was the best strategy: “Stay seated. Button your lips. Win by an act of self-denial. What feels good is not always what works best,” he tells her.

And then he persuades her that Irving would relentlessly mock the testimony of survivors and outdo the intelligence of jurors unschooled in their history. This case will be decided by a single judge, another piece of a brilliant strategy.  Lipstadt’s superior intelligence kicks in and she knows her lawyer is right. It helps that he is also kind and humble, because one needs these qualities to cement relational trust and hold it secure. 

There is no gore or grim torturous scenario with screams in this movie. It is silent horror. The view of miles and miles, or so it looked, of millions of shoes gathered and left in caged enclosures at Auschwitz, was witness enough. A necessary visit to Auschwitz was part of the barrister's investigation. He had never been there. He carefully walks the bounds and stands to stare at the empty chambers. “This is what I do,” he says. “It’s forensics. How could Auschwitz be just another brief.”
Small details, which are many and carefully orchestrated, make this case. It is often said that the devil is in the details. I think it is more often that God is in the details. “We will box him in with the truth.”

Dick and I were very silent watching this film—twice. Gratefully so in fact. No one got up to get more cookies. We were stunned into awe—not a bad thing at all. It’s not as if we needed the outcome which was obvious really. But we needed the process, the process of viewing history on display and watching its integrity speak for itself by the skill and passion and yes, appetite for good, that motivated the principals.

Oh, did I not relive the trial of Jesus as it is told in the New Testament gospels? I know it by heart and I do not know it at all. The elements were all there in this trial: loud and quickly changing crowds, glacial deliberations, clever questioning, prayers, terror, a clear portrayal of injustice, and then the pungent question right in the middle of it all posed by Pilate to Jesus: What is truth? 

I think I have always wondered about Jesus’s silence, saying I understood it, refusing to accept any stupid ideas that God planned it this way, but really not fully understanding it at all. Seeing such a precarious legal strategy, which could as easily have failed as succeeded,  in which a people’s integrity was at stake, was daunting. Would the discipline of history done honestly prevail? 











Sunday, February 12, 2017

2017.02.12 A Different Kind of Valentine Out of Left Field From the Right Brain

We have been engaged is a difficult task on this gloomy dark day. We are trying to plan something that isn’t really plannable: death. What do we want? What do we not want? Who will serve as health care agents when we are unable to make decisions for each other or ourselves? What kind of burial? 

We are using a document called The Five Wishes. It is a legal document intent on assisting people to die with dignity by allowing them to have some control over end-of-life care choices. It’s thorough and specific, including spiritual needs, even hymns for a funeral.

We have been postponing this for all kinds of nonsensical reasons, all of them labelled denial or fear. We started out in a mood of “let’s get serious” and ended up laughing our heads off. I mean, how many appendices can one add to such an already thorough and elaborated document with plenty of room to add personal notes to clarify?  Can we really control how we are remembered? Is it possible to specify that no burial liturgy have any atonement theology in it at all? You see when you have an opportunity to control a few small things, you suddenly want to be running the universe. We made a few clear decisions then dumped the project for today—choosing life, as the biblical book advises.

This kind of planning is halting and predictably vulnerable to total emotional regression and hilarity, or fits of sorrow. It’s altogether schmutzy. To expect smooth and rational end-of-days planning when there’s no urgency, except that it’s sensible so to do, is like putting a tutu on a hippo and expecting Swan Lake.

We love life too darn much to imagine not being in it anymore. But then on the Writer’s Almanac arrived this valentine kiss to life-in-death by Emily Dickinson.

Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord,
Then, I am ready to go!
Just a look at the Horses —
Rapid! That will do!
Put me in on the firmest side —
So I shall never fall —
For we must ride to the Judgment —
And it’s partly, down Hill —
But never I mind the steepest —
And never I mind the Sea —
Held fast in Everlasting Race —
By my own Choice, and Thee —
Goodbye to the Life I used to live —
And the World I used to know —
And kiss the Hills, for me, just once —
Then — I am ready to go!   


NOTE: the use of the title Lord to refer to God, or Christ, was first used in the first century by early Christians who discerned the work of God in Jesus and used a mantra to invoke the divine presence they saw in Christ: Maranatha, which means Come Lord or Our Lord come was the cry of the early church. The word is actually two words in Arabic: maran atha. It does not mean overlord or ruler, but rather protector. Paul used the expression in I Corinthians 16:22 as a prayer for the early return of Christ to confront deniers. In the Book of Revelations 22:20 it is translated: Come, Lord Jesus.

To call on Christ the Lord to escort her at the time of death, the poet anticipates a swift rough ride with a strong escort as she goes, assured that her Lord will kiss the hills for her, “just once.”

This poem is a prayer, a wish, a hope, a metaphor of the spiritual imagination. It soars above duty and fear, leaving behind any left brain temptations to theorize or make it reasonable.

It’s my Sixth Wish: Tie the Strings to my Life, my God!!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

2017.02.05 What About The Children?

“And WHO will take care of the children?” The very tall bishop towered over me, looking down at me— and on me. His query was not curious, but aggressive. I cringed. The national church had just voted (1976) that women could be ordained priests. I wanted to be a priest in the Episcopal Church and this bishop put me in my “rightful” place: mother at home with kids. (I promise I did not fuzzy-up the photo.)
The Rt. Rev. Warren J. Hutchens, Connecticut
His question would prove my undoing. It would prove as well to be the Church’s rationale of choice for turning women, especially mothers, down as they tried to enter the ordination track.

This question is not unusual, or new, or over and done with. It’s loaded with patriarchal assumptions about the fixity of gender roles, many of which were not justified, not to mention sexist. Yet this question is alive and exclusively addressed to women, please note.

It’s now some forty years since that question froze me in my tracks. I pursued my vocational calling and have been an Episcopal priest since 1988. Besides being a priest, I am a mother, a counselor and spiritual director, a marriage partner, and yes, a writer—delighted to have read in Poets and Writers Magazine (March/April, 2016) an article “A Residency of Her Own” by Melissa Scholes Young. She ran into the same question I’d encountered in the church, but in a secular context. (To be honest, I think the categories “sacred” and “secular” are far less oppositional than people assume.) She was planning a month away from her family to get some time to write. Writing is her job, her income, and, yes, her soul-quenching passion.

What about the kids? Here is Melissa’s take:

“The problem with the question ‘What about the kids?’ is that it assumes the only way to care for my children is to be home, awaiting their needs. It also insinuates that, as a woman, child care falls solely on my shoulders—that my partner, perhaps because of his gender, isn’t as capable. The question also suggests that my children aren’t self-sufficient enough, physically or emotionally, to survive a month without me. I’m happy to say they are both. At eight and thirteen my daughters are becoming young women of their own, navigating choice, trying on ways of being, walking to friends’ houses and doing their own laundry.

What would Virginia (Woolf) say to the “what about the kids" question? She’d say it was my choice to become a mother, And she’d be right. She’d say it’s also an authentic choice not to, and she’d be right again, She’d pat my kids’ dear heads, high-five me for my success, and leave my girls outside my residency room’s door. Choosing to be a mother doesn’t mean I have to choose not to be a writer. It just means this complicated path is my own.    . . .

I didn’t stop being a writer when I gave birth; I won’t stop being a mother during my retreat.”



Now I can think of a million arguments against this action, as well as much praise for it. Choice is choice and it has consequences no matter how right or wrong it may seem to oneself or to others. It’s not so simple. It’s also rarely either/or.

No one asked Virginia Woolf this question when she sat alone in her study composing A Room Of One’s Own—not to mention the fact that Virginia Woolf had no children  and took her own life.

What about the kids?  (Here are children when I began my midlife breakout:)

The question haunted me all through the ordination process. To be a mother and a priest was not doable—a “dual vocation” the church committees and bishop called it. Nothing about fathers and not to mention the sexual orientation of some of the male interrogators who made these judgments.

I admit that when I made my choices my soul suffered much shame. I broke the sacred cultural rule about childcare and the centrality of mothering. It was Betty Friedan’s fault, and secondarily Godde’s, I told myself. But it was my choice. I handled it clumsily—with help from my then husband who fled the scene in his own way. I broke all the rules my mother ever taught me. Sins beginning in “a” were my favorites: adultery, alcohol, and abandonment. I hurt myself and those I loved most: my four children. I’m neurotic, so it took years to heal my shame. It was apparently less of a problem for Godde who supported and strengthened me all the way. Self-forgiveness, however, is easier to preach than to inwardly digest.

What about the mother? Few people ask about the well being of the mother, even today as abortion debates rage on. The choices are still framed as either/or although they are a complex blend of messiness one navigates with as much prayer, compassion and good council as possible. I did not choose against the children. I did chose the well being of the mother, and tried to balance things as best I could.

Change that matters, and, I dare say, such change is divine, always hurts. It hurts more for mothers and women because of cultural expectations and, yes, a womb. I broke away from the shell of my role as wife and mother—shattered my own comfort and my children’s. Humpty Dumpty affair.

“What about the kids?” lingered in my flesh for years.  (Here I am ordained priest by ten years:)


It took a very long time for me to stop apologizing. One of my daughters got fed up one day and said: “Mom, stop apologizing!” This same daughter later said, amidst tears: “Mom, religion took you away from us.” The other daughter called me a wimp, and we used up a whole box of Kleenex together in a therapist’s office. My sons were easier, don’t know why. Maybe because at the time of my breaking- out they were microscopically intent on managing their own social standing.

The only people qualified to answer the question: “What about the children?” are the children. Mine answered it with their own resilient lives, by hanging in with each other and with both parents, by establishing satisfying work lives, by tolerating all my apologies, by therapy and recovery meetings, and by making their own series of not-so-great choices and keeping on. None of us ever stopped loving each other. I never stopped being their mother. There is no way I can thank my children enough. 

I have answered this question by not asking it any more, and by living my own life and thriving in it.

 P.S. Just as I was composing this post I read an article in the Boston Globe (February 4, 2017) about self-care outranking childcare. Genevieve Shaw Brown, editor and reporter with ABC News, recently authored The Happiest Mommy You Know: Why Putting Your Kids First Is the Last Thing You Do.

Well now that is too either/or. Still, there’s a reason why airlines instruct people traveling with young children to put on their oxygen masks before helping the kids put theirs on.