Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017.11.19 The Music of Noble Grief Untold

Here's a small inside story, lean but robust. It’s about a saxophone player, the father of a little six year old girl named Ana. It’s about another father who has two daughters—and very long arms. The saxophonist is Jimmy Green. The man with long arms is President Barack Obama.

The public facts to this story most Americans know and remember with varying degrees of shiver and sorrow. On December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, twenty small children and six staff were murdered —mercilessly, without warning, and arbitrarily— mowed down by a gunman with a rifle.

When I heard about this massacre my first reaction was similar to my reaction when I first heard about the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York: “Come on!” I laughed, as if such things happened regularly—and never. I could access neither fact nor feeling—for days. After the Newtown tragedy, President Obama addressed the nation—with tears and grace— at a memorial gathering. Only then could I cry and, oddly, relax.

President Obama flew right away that same day to Newtown, to the school. This is the duty of a president, the letter of the law one could say. The spirit of that “law” revealed a man’s heart. President Obama is a man who is able to govern and to weep, to take authority and to let his heart break visibly, to wage war and to make peace. On occasion politicians can be heroes.

Joshua Dubois (b.1982) head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Executive Office of the President of the United States from 2009 to 2013, wrote about that day in “The President’s Devotional: ‘What Obama Did In Secret In Newtown.”  The staff coordinated details, but the president did the difficult pastoral work. The families gathered in classrooms. The president, briefed on names, moved unhurriedly from room to room. He gave each person a hug and asked “Tell me about your son, or daughter.” He looked at and held photos of every dead child. He listened to descriptions of favorite foods, television shows, the sound of the child’s laughter. Younger siblings were tossed in the air, laughing, and then received a box of White House M&Ms. Who knew there was such a thing?

“In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break,” Dubois wrote. Some small measure of love was given to every single bereaved family member: “The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.”  Over and over, for hours.
How can one sustain such authentic tenderness over an extended time—knowing that no amount of comfort or prayer, even from a president, even from God, could be adequate consolation?

According to Dubois, President Obama never spoke about these meetings. “He was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself—never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.”

What is not so public is that Obama went to Newtown a second time, just months after the tragedy, to visit the families in their own homes. I am privileged to know some of one of those visits: the one made to Jimmy Green the professional saxophonist and his wife. 

Think of a saxophone and its sound. Is it not the most lugubrious? Although usually associated with jazz, the saxophone can wail out the mourning night—a long sound, the sound of grieving parents, the eternal sound of God’s grief.

Jimmy Green was in Rockport, Massachusetts last summer as a visiting artist for the Rockport Music Association’s Jazz Camp, an educational jazz program for children.
                                     (Green with his saxophone.) 
A good friend of mine hosted Green and asked him, naturally, about his children. She was taken aback first  to hear that he was the father of a six year old girl named Ana who was murdered in Newtown. Ana, he said, loved music and dance, and she loved to love. Here she dances with her daddy.
About Obama, Green said,  “I knew the guy was tall, but I didn’t realize he had such long arms. He just sat with us (Green and his wife) on the couch and held us both together.”

Grief requires a long reach, a reach only heroes can summon. Heroes are people who do good anytime anyhow.  It is particularly hard for very public people—people who have to be constantly conscious of themselves…like being on camera 24/7— to be heroes of this kind. That takes courage, not just feelings, and not simply military action. Heroes touch the heart of God. Heroes keep us alive and wanting to live.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

2017.11.12 Green Eggs and Ham

Dear Doctor Seuss,

Today I craved eggs for some odd reason. There was no time to make them before breakfast or after church either, but I could eat them anywhere.

Our parish had a church harvest fair. There we sold a Cook Book, among other items. I had stolen recipes about your green eggs and ham from all over and one got into the cookbook. It's nothing compared to the marvelous recipes therein and all for the love of God—as is your prose poetry. Thanks.

I would eat this in a plane, I would eat this in the rain. I would eat this here or there, I would eat this anywhere. I do so like green eggs and ham I do so like it Sam I am!


2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 thin ham steaks, quartered
10 large eggs
3 tablespoons whole milk
1/4 cup store-bought pesto
1 cup fresh cut asparagus
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese


    1.    Set a large non-stick skillet over medium heat with 1 tablespoon butter. Once melted, add the ham pieces and cook until browned on each side, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
    2.    In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and most of the pesto (leave about 2 tablespoons out). Set aside. Wipe out the skillet and add the remaining butter. Once melted throw in the asparagus. Cook until the asparagus is soft and tender, about 4 minutes.
    3.    Add the whisked pesto eggs to the hot skillet and cook until soft scrambled. Add the cheese and cook until the eggs are somewhat firm and the cheese has melted. Serve by placing a few slices of ham on each plate and then adding a few spoonfuls of egg on top. Garnish with a bit of the reserved pesto on each. Cook 25 minutes.

If I were you here’s what I’d do. I’d sneak in green is what I’d do. I love the eggs but only green.
I add green dye behind cook’s eye. I do so like my green eggs green with ham—like Sam I am.

Submitted in praise of Dr. Seuss, the late Theodore Geisel (1904-1981) by Priest Associate—
irreverent Rev. Lyn who so likes green eggs and tells secrets for Seuss who pronounces it Zoice—       a remarkable voice.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

2017.11.05 Paschal Symbol

What does this magnificent and majestic tall red sculpture look like to you?

It looks like a massive candle holder without a candle. It stands well over six feet tall and is rubber—not very romantic. [Colorful polymer cast rubber molded from stacked architectural elements, balusters, finials and monumental urns.] I was mesmerized.

The Boston-based sculptor Niho Kozuru, born in 1968 in Fukuoka, Japan, calls this piece Rising Column. I first saw it and photographed it at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusett
As I contemplated this vibrant work of art near a window I saw light shining through it. I thought it was reflecting the sunlight, but read that the rubber substance is, in fact, translucent, and was chosen by the artist for that quality.  

Of course I projected Resurrection onto the rising column—the simple yet mysterious idea that God is unconditional Love that lives forever. We see resurrection when it shines through us. I don’t believe this just because I was taught to, or because it makes sense, because it doesn’t make sense.

I see resurrection when it shines through something common—nature’s bloom, new ideas, extraneous acts of kindness, children at play, transcendent music, art, and words of poetry and prose. For something to signal resurrection to me it must lift my soul in surprise recognition of Life even where it might not belong—like in death, dying, sin, suffering or evil.

On All Saint’s Day (November 1) Christians let resurrection light shine through the dead we no longer see but sense and through the embodied living we do see, touch, hear and applaud, mostly through infants whom we baptize into the life and death of Christ. Nonsensically, we do this all in one breath. On this day, other feast days, and through the fifty days of Easter we light a paschal (Easter) candle—a resurrection light.
Most paschal candles would be dwarfed by Kozuru’s Rising Column. Wouldn’t it be splendid to have a huge symbol of resurrection in our midst all the time?  We’d never forget resurrection life. We can’t afford such grandeur, of course, but we can’t afford to forget resurrection either.

It is my intuition that the Christian church has devoted some fifty years of energy making sure the Eucharist returns to the center of our Sunday liturgy. The altar and the lectern are the upfront focuses, well dressed and lit. Everyone looks to these. Less so the font. I'd like to visually beef up baptism and the font? 

Eucharist and Baptism are the two sacraments Jesus ordained when he was alive, according to New Testament  recollections. Baptism ushers one into the faith of Christ, and Eucharist provides regular nourishment and strength for being a Christian: practicing the faith OF Jesus—not at all the same as belief IN Jesus. When you practice the faith OF Jesus, light shines through you.

Wouldn’t it be fine to have a paschal candle stand more prominent—one so big and central you couldn’t miss it, lit or unlit?  So big you can’t forget you are Christian—sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever— and what a huge gift that is.

I wish many things all the time, and pray for at least half of them half the time. Some come true. 

When I saw this enormous sculpture my heart leapt and said, YES. Its towering red magnificence announced to me the presence of God. Just the sight of it knocked my socks off, jarred me into remembering my baptismal promises and how I will keep them—every day as my baptismal day. 

I need jarring. Therefore, my humble photo will now live on my home altar. It gives me hope.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

2017.10.29 Extraneously Deliberate Kindness Transforms Hearts

Who is a hero?

One hot day in the South African township of Sophiatown, a little boy about nine years old accompanied his mother, a domestic worker at an institution for blind black people, to work.
The boy played as his mother worked. He looked up as a very tall white man in a long black cassock and white clerical collar passed by. The man smiled, nodded, and tipped his hat toward the boy’s mother as he passed by. The boy never forgot this small simple gesture of  respect, courtesy—and kindness— from an important white man toward his black mother in a country ruled by a policy of apartheid. It changed him—inside and out.

His name was Desmond Tutu. Tutu grew up nurturing this memory in his heart. Today, Tutu, retired Anglican Archbishop of Capetown in South Africa, and facilitator of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with hearing the stories of victims and perpetrators of apartheid. Truth is never free unless it is accompanied by reconciliation; reconciliation is never accomplished without truth on all sides. The process took courage.
“It was really quite odd,” Tutu said in an interview, “this white man lifting his hat to my mother, a black woman domestic uneducated. There's no telling what things do for one’s self esteem, but this man’s influence on me and others was quite phenomenal.”  Later Tutu developed tuberculosis and this same man visited him in the hospital where he was for twenty months. “He visited me, a township urchin.”

Ironically I suppose, Tutu grew up to be more famous than the man who tipped his hat. Tutu was inspired to take his Christian faith into prophetic action from a position of leadership. He accomplished what the man who tipped his hat had worked hard for all his life. 

That man was Anglican Archbishop Trevor Huddleston (1913-1988). He was born in Bedford England and joined the Anglican religious order, the Community of the Resurrection in 1939, taking final vows in 1941.

Huddleston went to serve a mission station in Sophiatown, Johannesburg in 1940. He stayed for thirteen years. He was a beloved priest, lover of children, and anti-apartheid activist. The Africans nicknamed him Makhalipile which means “the dauntless one.” Huddleston preached and fought tirelessly against the enslaving policies of apartheid and became president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1981.
Tutu has said of Huddleston: “He was an enormous thorn in the side of the apartheid regime. He did more to keep apartheid on the world’s agenda than anyone.” Huddleston and Tutu rejoice, below.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) first president of the united nation of South Africa has said of Huddleston: “No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston.” Mandela and Huddleston join hands, below.
Who is a hero?  Anyone who speaks and acts with courage. Courage comes from the Latin word for heart, cor. 

Most of us think of courage as fighting against enemies for a cause, like war heroes. We have an overblown idea of what is heroic, based on our own grandiose ego projections. We envision bloody martyrs and lots of praise, maybe a medal. Maybe, but not always. Think of Huddleston’s hat.

In addition, real war heroes who listen to their hearts, let their hearts become their “weapons." Real heroes may shoot guns like mad, pumped by fear, but the heart-heroes risk their lives not for a cause or to win, or kill, but for one friend who is wounded and needs to be dragged away to safety.

Heroes are instinctively, deliberately, courageously, even extraneously kind. “Battlefields” can be city streets, town halls, voting booths, altars, pulpits, prison cells, crucifixion crosses, church basements, hospitals, monastic cells—a single humble soul. Heroes love with heart.

Huddleston’s prayer for Africa. 
    God bless Africa.
    Guard her people.
    Guide her leaders.
    And give her peace. 

Use this prayer with heart and courage wherever it's needed, with God's help.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

2017.10.22 Battle of the Sexes

Dick and I just saw the film, “The Battle of the Sexes” about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, 29, played by Emma Stone, and Bobbie Riggs, 55, played by Steve Carell. Besides good tennis, the film captured the essence of male/female issues back then—and sadly unresolved today.  Here are Stone and Carell facing off. These actors look amazingly like King and Riggs.
We sat alone—one woman and one man in the darkened theater munching our popcorn—the only two people breathing except the onscreen actors. I was rapt, thrilled. I loved and played tennis—with enough zeal once to cheat: my racket ticked the net which was illegal, and I didn’t tell, a sin of shame worthy of much confession later, but right then, I was too exhausted not to win that match. 

Watching the film, I relived both my old tennis joy and my excitement about the 1970s feminist explosion. In 1973 I too was dreaming of changing the world, or at least the church. Priests were white, male, and in charge of altars and pulpits. Women were in charge of the kitchen and the sacristy.

When Billie Jean King was twelve she had an epiphany: everything in tennis was white—socks, clothes, balls, and players. For King this meant that if she were good enough at her sport she could help change the world, not just her sport. She did both, playing with all her strength to win against a single opponent—and against sexism, racism, ableism, and heterosexism.

Epiphanies open our eyes and hearts and catapult us beyond our narrow little worlds.

When I was twelve I too had an epiphany: my new suburban public junior high school was overrun with boys who seemed to multiply on demand—loud teasing, testing their testosterone  prowess. I’d come from an all-girls’ school and I suddenly felt pathologically shy, short, dumb, boobless, and female. School had been my “sport,” but I couldn’t get good enough at it to change the world, because school had become a boy’s kingdom. Soon I switched “sports” to play for God’s putative kingdom, the earthly version of which was also a “boy’s” kingdom. I thought, nevertheless, that I had a better chance of changing that kingdom because of its divine imprimatur, not to mention the biblical idea that God created everyone in God’s own image, not just boys. 

My grim epiphany in school and church wasn’t far from what King ran into as an adult. She excelled in her sport and tried to change the tennis world—a kingdom for men. Women played in their own tournaments, but they were not paid as much as men in money or recognition.  So King and other women started a “league of their own” lobbying for equal pay for equal work on the courts. King and her women arranged boycotts, hired a fashion designer to create their own tennis outfits, promoted their cause, and made a public scene. King lost her membership in the professional lawn tennis association, and earned the scorn not only of  her male counterparts— players, managers and commentators—but of a whole patriarchal world. She also gained the respect of many women in waiting. She modeled fierce determination.
The publicity awakened the ego of tennis champion Bobbie Riggs, retired from tennis but not from his ego needs or his gambling addiction. Riggs, filled with delusional grandiosity, taunted King and challenged her to a three set match with outrageously high stakes.
Philip Morris paid big bucks to sponsor a tour for the non-smoking women and their cause—a touch of risky irony.

The emotional drama this film portrays is what happened inside these two flawed and gifted individuals, battered by unjust American societal expectations imposed from without on both sexes—both.

The grace of this movie is that it has the courage to portray the truth in good taste. Both players were transformed—not by winning or losing one match—but by inner courage for King and inner humility for Riggs.
Today, King, now in her early 70s, in an interview in the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine, 9/17/17, said that she believes that a lot of advances have been made in social acceptance of the GLBT community. “We still have a long way to go, and I think we’re starting to go backward a bit, especially with the ban on trans people in the armed forces. We have to keep pushing. We have to have equality in every way. Everyone deserves to belong.”

That is what she did for tennis, for me, and I’d say for the earthly kingdom of God as well—maybe even the heavenly one too.  She still wears her signature glasses. She is a champion of justice for all of us in bright red, pink, or blue glasses.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

2017.10.15 Generational Threats and Immanent Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

2017.10.08 Clarity of Voice and Action

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

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

What response is called for at this time?

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

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

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

Are we called to correct this imbalance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

2017.10.01 A Turnaround—A "Baby" Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith happens in the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017.09.24 I'M THE FAVORITE!

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

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

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

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

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

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

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

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

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

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

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

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

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

                                 WE ALL ARE GOD’S FAVORITES!!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

2017.09.17 Holy Cross Monastery Retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

2017.09.10 On Change—A Wee Parable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Psalm 23, Beloved Prayer Song Re-potentiated

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

        Emily Dickinson, 1924

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

Psalm 23 translation, Pamela Greenberg The Complete Psalms

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

You guide me toward tranquil waters,
reviving my soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2017.07.27 At Play With God

When I am on vacation on this island called Nantucket, I swear my mind goes fallow, or at least I feel plowed and unsown waiting to be seeded as I sit on the beach and stare blankly into the vastness of god-ness spread out before me with no end: the sea, the sky, the stretch of beach and sparkling white sand—even the tang of salt on my sun-dried legs. When I was young I swam in the ocean. Now I wade in it.

I listen to the sounds of silence punctuated by the surf’s splash and the occasional shouts of delight from children who dash toward the breaking waves and, suddenly frightened, race back—over and over and over. This is how I behave sometimes with God—boldly approaching with my words, my prayers, my theological assertions, and then, with no warning, I feel too big and too small at once, and retreat. I feel playful. Such a Mystery where mess and blessing collide.

I’m just back home in the city and still hearing, smelling, and feeling the island landscape and its lazy mood. I would not want to live there all the time—too isolated. Even an introvert like me could get claustrophobic here in winter, though I’m not sure about that. Nantucket is 30 miles out from mainland Cape Cod, a small scoop of land in the Atlantic Ocean. Every year the beaches recede almost imperceptibly. Climate change fears jump into my mind and jump out again—fast.  Not today. Today, I give my imagination full play.

I would be sad if we couldn’t return summer after summer for our two weeks in our small cottage at the west end of the island. It is quiet there. There's little ground light, so we sit outside and look up and see what looks like every single star in the cosmos and the milky way—better than any movie or television show we could watch. We actually ate by candlelight a couple of evenings, talked, and even cried a little—not sad just, dare I say, age appropriately age- aware, stoked by the power of 40 years of memories. These surge in and out of our minds and our conversation like the waves, bearing echoes of our children’s and grandchildren’s voices. And we said I love you more that we usually do. This is as close as we get to romantic. Godde, how strikingly irresponsible. Playing.

An island, such as Nantucket, is limited space thriving within limitless sky, sand, water, and air—a very playful image of God, I’d say.

Oh yes, I know there’s plenty of garish affluence among the stereotypical  “beautiful island people” who wander from store to store in Nantucket town and never stop spending. I do that, too sometimes, and this year nearly spent $200 (Ok reduced to $189.99) on a pair of fashion jeans that actually fit my skinny legs—nearly. I’m too old, not wise just old. And too, there’s plenty of loud partying among the young. I used to do that too. They are having fun, playing. 

How little we play in this present worried culture and gravely serious church. How little we let ourselves go and revel in godness wherever we sense it—be it idyllic natural scapes or on the sooty curbs of city streets where beggars gather to chat, compare the day’s wage, tell jokes. I’ve seen them play and seem them quarrel. But seriously, beggars in Boston smile, laugh, and say God bless you more than any other passerby caught in the rush.

In all this I imagine the face of a Creator-God exploding with delight watching Creation unfold, day by day, like a child inventing a new game. In Proverbs, Wisdom is portrayed as being God’s playmate:  “ . .  . beside God like a little child, I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Proverbs 9)

God at play, playing like children play, and adults play when they are free enough, exploding with delight at almost anything that bounces onto the cosmic scene. It is this image I seek, it is this image I play with—not to ignore sorrow or suffering or evil or decay, but to recognize and acknowledge what deeply matters, what gives the world and its creatures energy abundant.

Well of course! It would take unimaginable—beyond nucleic— energy to pull off a Big Bang.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

2017.08.20 You Won’t like It Here—But You Will Love This Book and This Boy

Why would a book review bear a title that directly contradicts the book’s own title: You’ll Like It Here?

Because when six-year-old Donald Vitkus, an abandoned orphan and rejected foster child, arrived at Belchertown State School, in 1949 he was told a lie: “You’ll like it here.”

Young Donald recognized this deceit because of the rough way he was treated, his desire to “puke”, and because this putative school had bars at the windows and padlocked doors. “School” was a misnomer for Belchertown.

You’ll Like It Here. The Story of Donald Vitkus Belchertown Patient #3394 is Vitkus's biography, written by Ed Orzechowski, a writer and retired high school English teacher in Northampton, Massachusetts. The memoir exposes the painful irony of its title by telling the whole truth: a story of tragedy and triumph.

The tragedy is that Belchertown existed for containment only—not care, not education. It stayed in business under state auspices for seventy years (1922-1992)—even after a 1973 Federal class action lawsuit against the institution’s leadership for cruelty and dehumanization. Children and adults, commonly diagnosed as “idiots”, “imbeciles” or “morons”, lived under inhumane, unstintingly cruel conditions.

The triumph is that some of Belchertown’s designated “retards” proved smart enough to make friends, humor, pranks, and plots. They knew damn well what was happening to them and what terrorism felt like. Vitkus was one such kid. He felt increasingly sure he was not a moron and secretly determined that one day he would prove it. His inner determination eventually taught him the right balance between risk-taking and compliance so that in time he was free from institutional control—
but not before some runaway attempts.

Belchertown took regular photos of all the patients and distributed them to the local police so runaways would always be apprehended and returned. Vitkus’s first runaway attempt happened on August 7, 1953, when he was ten. He had no place to go and no family in sight. Written recurrently on every entry of Vitkus’s case files was this painful sentence:“Does not receive mail or visitors and does not go on vacation.”

One could call runaway behavior desperate, foolhardy or just plain natural chutzpah. Vitkus always was caught of course, yet he never gave up. Once a compassionate policeman took this child for ice cream before he returned him to Belchertown. One ice cream is heaven when you’re in hell.

Life after Belchertown, though less breathtaking, had rough patches but just as many graces for Vitkus, not the least of which was his meeting Ed Orzechowski in 2005 at an event to publicize a book called Crimes Against Humanity and asking Orzechowski if he would be interested in writing his story. Orzechowski agreed to a  conversation. That conversation would turn into eight years and some forty hours of taped interviews, not to mention patience, courage and yes, affection. The men collected official records and documents to prove their book was not a work of fiction. This book is uniquely the product of a relationship of trust between author and subject, a relationship that gives this book its integrity and intimate worth.

Orzechowski listened very closely in order to write the story in Vitkus’s voice. At times he felt as if he were “channeling” Donald. The process wasn’t easy, Orzechowski told me when I contacted him. “I first had to learn to write a book,” he said. “But Donald pushed ahead, because he never wanted ‘to go back to those days.’”  It’s not easy to write someone else’s memoir and make it vibrate with a voice not your own. Orzechowski writes with exceptional craft, skill, and clear-heartedness.
Sometimes a memoir helps a person, not to forget or resolve every painful memory, but to give a lived experience shape, form, and right words outside one’s own mind—contained, shelved and ready for others to read and find empathy and hope. A memoir can be a kind of miracle this way. Vitkus had first to entrust his whole story to a stranger. He wanted others not to feel alone in their truth, and most of all, he wanted to prove he was no moron. Donald Vitkus as an adult in his late sixties is pictured here.

Vitkus lurched clumsily toward happiness as he grew in body, mind, and spirit in spite of having grown up deprived of affection, adequate health care, and most all of life’s most urgent basic lessons from table manners, to language, to pubescent impulses, to the meaning of love—save the inner longing that signals love’s absence. We are not left with the impression that Donald is free of all his scars. He still has a strong aversion to authority. In his efforts to manage life outside he flounders. And he still sleeps with the covers over his head.

What saves this book from being mere reportage of atrocities for the sake of news:   
    -tight structure including compelling chapter titles, often quotes from Donald or his case records;
    -the redemptive quality of the biography-as-memoir genre itself— characters, dialogue, plot—supported by documented facts and photos;
    - a protagonist with exceptional chutzpah who also managed a gentle, respectful touch when he stripped and washed the younger boys for their weekly shower night;
    -a simple pencil posing as a godsend—just one pencil given to each first grade student. Donald had never experienced the thrill of ownership: “mine.” He took excellent care of his pencil;
     -some kind teachers who cared about patients as much as Vitkus did about his very own pencil;
    -transformation of a life nearly sunk by trauma;
    -a writer who never allowed his own emotions, which would have to have been painful, overwhelm the plot or the truth of his subject.

Orzechowski may just have discovered his retirement vocation. He is beginning interviews with another former Belchertown patient who sought him out. Hopefully, some women will come forward as well.  Orzechowski told me: “Since I know the ropes much better now, I expect the process to be considerably shorter this time.”

Today, as Ed Orzechowski promotes his book in readings and presentations, Donald Vitkus attends every single reading. Vitkus, for his part, travels and speaks publicly about his experience. He is Vice-President of Advocacy Network which evolved from Friends of Belchertown.  When he  introduces himself he begins his talks this way: “I’m a human services worker, and a Vietnam vet who can’t own a gun. I am an ex-husband, a husband, father, and grandfather. And a former moron of Belchertown State School.”

Here is Donald Vitkus with his present wife Pat at his graduation from Holyoke Community College in 2005.

Readers of this book will find faith, hope, love, and grace. Darkness and light co-exist, neither overwhelming the other. You’ll Like It Here is ministry—restoring dignity to the innocent and exposing larger social justice issues with universal implications.

Ed Orzechowski, by the way, has also proved he does know how to write a book.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

2017.08.13 Sincerely, the Sky

 Sincerely, the Sky

Yes, I see you down there

looking up into my vastness.

What are you hoping

to find on my vacant face,

there within the margins

of telephone wires?

You should know I am only

bright blue now because of physics:

molecules break and scatter

my light from the sun

more than any other color.

You know my variations—

azure at noon, navy by midnight.

How often I find you

then on your patio, pajamaed

and distressed, head thrown

back so your eyes can pick apart

not the darker version of myself

but the carousel of stars.

To you I am merely background.

You barely hear my voice.

 Remember I am most vibrant

when air breaks my light.

Do something with your brokenness.

“Sincerely, the Sky” from Dear Sincerely by David Hernandez, © 2016. Aired by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.
Dear Sky,

Thanks so much for your wisdom and for being blue—or not. When I was a kid I thought the sea was blue like you, too. I know you’re just sun-mottled molecules, or my tendency to project all my dearest dreams onto every scape, but to me you’re the glory of God—divine true-blueness. 

I’m on an island now, surrounded by you and sea and sand. When I’m here I forget all about the many careful distinctions people attempt to draw between science and religion. They just don’t matter when you’re bright blue, the sea is deep blue-green, and the silky white sand sticks like glitter to my salted nakedness. 

I’m in one piece when I’m here. So is the cosmos.

Thank you, Sky.
              Sincerely, a Fan.

David Hernandez, born in Burbank California in 1971, is a prize-winning poet who teaches creative writing at California State University-Long Beach.

David is a year younger than my youngest son, which makes me feel old, but not old-mother old. David is four years younger than my other son who aspires to be a poet himself—which he already is. I know because poetry is soul-deep and sky-high.

Thank you, David Hernandez

Sunday, August 6, 2017

2017.08.16 I Love You

Early on, I noticed that you always say it
to each of your children
as you are getting off the phone with them
just as you never fail to say it
to me whenever we arrive at the end of a call.

It's all new to this only child.
I never heard my parents say it,
at least not on such a regular basis,
nor did it ever occur to me to miss it.
To say I love you pretty much every day

would have seemed strangely obvious,
like saying I'm looking at you
when you are standing there looking at someone.
If my parents had started saying it
a lot, I would have started to worry about them.

Of course, I always like hearing it from you.
That is never a cause for concern.
The problem is I now find myself saying it back
if only because just saying good-bye
then hanging up would make me seem discourteous.

But like Bartleby, I would prefer not to
say it so often, would prefer instead to save it
for special occasions, like shouting it out as I leaped
into the red mouth of a volcano
with you standing helplessly on the smoking rim,

or while we are desperately clasping hands
before our plane plunges into the Gulf of Mexico,
which are only two of the examples I had in mind,
but enough, as it turns out, to make me
want to say it to you right now,

and what better place than in the final couplet
of a poem where, as every student knows, it really counts.

"I Love You" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Writer’s Almanac, 3/3/17.

August 7th is my 79th birthday and my husband’s 76th birthday.  “How wonderful and insane,” a friend commented.  It’s mostly wonderful and occasionally insane to be a first child and an only child, both under the roaring sign of Leo, living in the same house—married no less. We don’t say I love you a lot. Love comes in small ways, such as a little phrase we exchange as we hit our pillows to sleep each night: “Okay, g’night.” Even if one of us is half asleep he/she responds: “Okay, g’night.”  

What are your verbal “I love you” habits?  In our house growing up I don’t think we said it all that much. We had the kiss-Daddy-good-night ritual and maybe the love finale just before bed, but it wasn’t a standout phrase. It was not a habit, like goodbye. 

When I had children it got more use. My first husband and the father of our children said it a lot, and I believe it was more or less a requirement for him that we answer in kind. I always wondered about that. He, I thought, was more in love with his booze and his job than his family, yet I knew he wanted to share his heart. I’m not quite sure how or when the love seeped out of our marriage unnoticed, or at least unspoken.

Now with grandchildren it’s a definite expectation or closure for us all, as in “Love you” on texts and phone calls. Some are more excessive with love emojis than others, but that's only because they have excessive in their genes.

My oldest granddaughter, just 21, said it to the loan officer at her bank. “Bye. Love you.” She was horrified when she realized what she had said to a complete stranger who had yet to approve the extension of her loan.

To say “Love you” doesn’t have as much gravitas as “I love you.”  My husband and I say it occasionally. He says it,  it seems, more than I do. Probably he needs to in order to get over his irritation at my quirks. For me it usually rises up when I feel a sudden surge of deep affection for this man I’ve been married to for over 30 years. We’ve grown into each other’s souls like puzzle pieces that are misshapen but somehow fit together like no other two pieces.

Old married love, like traditional practices of language, is like a comforter. It’s full of profound devotion mixed with profound annoyance at small differences we never seem to understand and that never change. Habits of communication and ways of managing time—silly things of little moment. We don’t argue over many big things at all. Well, occasionally over a theological nuance, but mostly we agree. 

I suppose I love you has as many meanings as there are people and circumstances. Still, I love that it can be used more routinely with family, because they all deserve it, you know—no matter what.

No wonder Christians believe God  is unconditional love…..because no human person is capable of unconditional love. Well, maybe a dear pet is. The one who can’t help all her or his instinctual ways but whose ways become tolerable because of the steadfast love, presence and companionship given without reserve. 

To say I love you, and mean it deeply, must include I know you. They go together.

The granddaughter who threw off a quick “Love you” to the loan officer at the bank felt mortified.  But I bet the guy experienced a chuckle and a wee resurrection. And who knows, it might have inspired him to extend her loan—which he did.

So Happy Birthday, Dick, I love you truly, madly, deeply—husband, best friend, lover, and companion in mischief and grace.
Okay, g’night.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

2017.07.30 Book Review Heaven: God Is Not a Boy's Name...

Jesus’s parables tell us that the reign of heaven on earth is like a pinch of leaven, a tiny mustard seed, a pearl lost in a great field. They challenge us to be pearl, seed, leaven—remembering that our presence, no matter how small, can enhance the reign of divine Love.

As any writer knows, waiting around like some kind of salivating lap dog for someone to feed your hungry soul with a review of your book, can be torturous.

Book reviews are what you want—and don’t. I hope my writings are like the parabolic pearl or leaven or seed. Humble and grateful, the few reviews I’ve received are positive. Here are snippets.
Karen Erlichman, DMin, LCSW, a faculty mentor in a Jewish spiritual direction training program, wrote a review, published in the September, 2017, issue of Presence, International Journal of Spiritual Direction. I love that she refers to other faith traditions.

“As a spiritual director I am a curator of personal stories. Memoir is a unique genre that requires a skillful writer to create a personal story that is compelling, but not too dramatic, touching without being cloying, and historically relevant but not overly academic. These nuanced writing skills are particularly important for a spiritual memoir. Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and pastoral counselor Lyn Brakeman has written a stunningly poetic, hilarious, unapologetically feminist, heart-opening memoir that hits the mark beautifully on all of the above facets. God Is Not a Boy’s Name: Becoming Woman, Becoming Priest is a compelling, juicy, passionate, and gracefully narrated account of Brakeman’s life as a child of god, servant of God, and lover of God. She invites us to walk with her  . . .”  

The review goes on to elaborate structure and some details, concluding with the acknowledgment that my memoir will “touch the heart and minds of readers in many faith traditions.” That to me is the highest compliment, because I think such connections can mend a broken world.

Dr. Allan G. Hunter, professor of literature at Curry College, one of my writing teachers and a published author himself wrote on FaceBook. Praise from a teacher is the best.

“I loved every bit of your memoir, Lyn. What a great read, and what important points, social and doctrinal, you make. I found myself writing extensive notes about the ways patriarchy had squeezed the real energy out of so much religion, and in the process killed so much of the humanity in it. Impressive work, dear soul!” 

Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann, spiritual director, poetry editor for Presence and author of "It’s All God Anyway. Poetry for the Everyday."  Jinks gets the patriarchal language issue!

Lyn Brakeman's memoir, God is not a Boy's Name, is simply fabulous! Read it, if you want to laugh and cry, and mostly cheer, for this inspiring, wild, gutsy, and determined woman who decides to become an Episcopalian priest. She will not take no for several answers, and spends 14 years persuading the powers that be to ordain her.

Lyn is blindingly honest, so you will learn a great deal about her childhood, her family of origin and her nuclear family, about addiction, adultery, life and death. . . . and her passion for a religion that is free of male pronouns and bias against women. But mostly you will meet God. If you join her on her journey, the odds are 2 to 1 that your God will show up more in your own life." 

Susan Oleksiw, author of mystery novels and a skilled writer herself. It means a lot that my book passes muster with a “secular” who is sick of spiritual pablum and acknowledges my understanding of rejecting bishops.

“I rarely read books about spiritual awakenings or anything else about one person’s religious life, but the author of this memoir is a friend and I was curious about how she handled topics that could easily ring false. I needn’t have worried. The author’s voice is authentic on every page—funny, wry, self-deprecating, revealing, light-hearted, determined, frustrated, irked, and all the rest that makes us human. This is an honest story of one woman’s struggle to become an episcopal priest, made less than easy by a resistant hierarchy, a deteriorating marriage, and a fear of alcoholism. And the path to priesthood begins and ends, apparently, with Ritz crackers.

One of the more rewarding aspects of this memoir is the deepening understanding of the bishops who rejected her.

This is a delightful, well paced story of one woman’s life that is lived on the path to priesthood.”

The Rt. Rev. Audrey Scanlan, bishop of Central Pennsylvania and former Christian formation director at Trinity Church in Collinsville, Connecticut, my sponsoring parish for ordination, and the parish where my second husband was rector and Audrey’s supervisor and “boss.” Love that she read it in one sitting.

“I spent last night’s insomnia reading God is Not a Boy’s Name. Got through it in one sitting. Me and my Kindle in the dark of the night. It was a wonderfully affirming feminist viewpoint on the Church that we love; it was a stark reminder of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.  I also loved the real analysis and coming to terms with the complexities of your relationship with your mom. Your relationship with your dad seemed pretty clear, all along, but it was wonderful to see the depth of discovery of your relationship with your mother. So- thanks.”

Thomas Tufts, mentor for the Education for Ministry (EfM) program of  Christian formation. Tom writes from his perspective as a mentor in a program in which the process of Theological Reflection (TR) on lived experience is as central to one’s self-awareness as a minister as is any academic knowledge of the religious tradition.Theological reflection is so integrated into my life I didn’t see it in my memoir! Great advertisement for the formation value of EfM.

“I’ve known Lyn as EfM Co-coordinator for the Diocese of Massachusetts for six years and recently read her book God is Not a Boy’s Name.

My first reaction was that I wished I had read this book six years ago when I was starting EfM and learning what Theological Reflection was from teaching about the 4-step, 4-source model. For me it  is a perfect example of several themes of EfM: wrestling with our faith, deepening our relationship with God, and opening our hearts and minds to others.  I plan to offer it optionally as suggested reading to the members our group, #6069,  in August as an experiment to see if it helps people in September as we practice listening, spiritual autobiography, and theological reflection.  I felt that it took my appreciation of theological reflection to a whole new level in terms of the challenges, rethinking , coherence and integrity these practices can bring to my life not just once, but progressively and repeatedly as I constantly perceive and confront what is new and different in my life.”

All I need is a few more non-Amazon reviews from a Christian or two, maybe an Episcopalian?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

2017.07.23 The Best Thing Ever

The Best Thing Ever

It’s your first bike
with training wheels
—a trike—
near divine
You are assured
—and reassured—

You can’t tip over.

You pedal slowly
one foot at a time
up and down, then
and up again
fast, faster…….

You don’t tip over

Pretty soon
your legs move so fast
they spin
with the wheels
the spokes and you

You won’t tip over.

No one can even see that
there are wheels there
—five altogether—
You are flying

You’ll never tip over.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

2017.07.16 Be a Seed Already!

The parable Jesus told about the sower who went out to sow seeds is a very familiar story and many people love it. Why? Because the sower is supposed to represent God, or Christ for Christians, this sower keeps on sowing seeds and more seeds and all different seeds— no matter what.
Jesus seizes all the authority and mastery he can summon, saying LISTEN! A sower went out to sow.  The farmers must have felt excited. Expectant. What would Jesus say? They knew that land was life. Maybe they’d get some hot agricultural tips.  I bet too they might have felt some anxiety, because this was Jesus and he had a habit of challenging them in odd ways.

LISTEN! he said, and listen they did, perhaps too hard, too eagerly, too selfishly.  

What happened to them, happens to us also. Because Jesus elaborated all the different kinds of soil—hard and dry, rocky, choking, no nutrients—and some good soil, they began to focus on the soil. No, obsess. What kind of soil are we, or literally if you were a farmer, do we have?  They, like we, quickly forgot about the faithful sower and the seeds. I’d bet that most interpretations of this parable focus on the soil alone. Is my soil, my church’s soil, good enough to receive, nourish and sprout more God’s seeds?

Let it go—for Christ’s sake.

Most of us develop such a toxic case of soil-angst that we forget about the seed with all its potential.

Still, being a seed isn’t easy. Seeds are tiny. They have no will of their own. They are scattered to and fro, and they don’t know what kind of soil they’ll hit. The destiny of a seed is vulnerable indeed. Yet, seeds have enormous potential—enormous potency. Seeds sprout. It is through seeds that Christ potentiates Life, if not Love.

Living in the city I am continuously amazed at how the tiniest of flowers and grass blades pop up between bricks and concrete stones. What resilience and strength these little seeds have to keep on growing toward light and air through thick concrete. They always sprout—no matter how much concrete we trowel on. Seeds are unstoppable. Just a few days ago, I saw three men on their hands and knees laboriously picking small green tufts of growth and tiny wild flowers out from between the concrete stones on a front sidewalk. They worked for a stone cutting outfit and had been hired to repave the area in front of the garage. But first…..they had to get rid of all the sprouted seeds. I laughed out loud. So you think those little seeds will never return to sprout, do you?

Contrary to all logic, tiny useless seeds sprout amidst concrete—real concrete as well as the concrete that forms around our hearts, the concrete that causes us to have rigid set attitudes and assumptions. God’s seeds always sprout.

When I feel sure that something is right, makes sense, or even is the way of God, I have to FORCE, yes, force, myself to stop and rethink things—not till after I’ve argued my case of course. I could be wrong, or the tradition, or my culture, or everything I learned in school, or what my parents taught me, or my church believed could be wrong. Or it all might need tilling or some more seeds. God the sower doesn’t cultivate wheat fields. God cultivates souls. God willingly and willfully without force, sows seeds and seeds and more seeds—many varieties of seeds over and over and over.
Years ago in Connecticut I worked as a chaplain in an alcohol/drug rehabilitation center. Many patients saw themselves  as “bad seeds” They were ashamed of themselves for their disease, and their relapses, their painful, painful addictive patterns. Oh, they readily condemned themselves—bad seed, bad soil, bad God, bad religion, bad chaplain—everything. They did this all of course with raucous laughter and good humor, which I saw as a sign that they were God’s seeds and didn’t know it.

Violating the separation of church and state, I used biblical stories a lot to help them see that God wasn’t the vengeful judge they thought God was, and that they weren’t bad seeds. The sower story was very popular, second only to the prodigal son. The stories were seeds to re-potentiated them, give them hope.

I would say something like: Listen! You’re a seed and if you hit a rough patch God/Higher Power will sow you again, and again.” There was a hush. In that hush I would quietly add: “with your help.”

And so it is for us: God never stops sowing you, never stops potentiating you. No matter how much concrete has been slathered on your soul, you are a seed to be sown by God-in-Christ. So listen! Hey!………

Be a seed already.