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.