Sunday, January 13, 2019

2019.01.13 Birthday Baptismal Day

Today is my oldest daughter’s birthday. She is fifty-six years young, looks beautiful as always, and is filled with vigor and passion for justice for all people.

Today is also the day the Christian church remembers the Baptism of Jesus at the hand of his cousin John the Baptizer. Baptism is the day one becomes a Christian—nothing to do with denomination or any particular community. Baptism is belonging to Christ, becoming an initiated followers of Jesus the Christ. When anyone is baptized they are welcomed into a community of faith with powerful promises, some water, the Holy Spirit and a passionate sentence of chrismation, anointing the forehead with oil, saying their name and “. . . you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  This sacramental ritual carries the weight of thousands of years of tradition, the biblical mandate, a whole community of prayer and support, and just plain sacred beauty. When you are baptized you work for Jesus Christ in whatever you do.

The baptismal job is no cushy or high-paying job. It’s lifelong, serious, risky and grace-filled.    In addition, who wouldn’t want to work for a boss who had a great sense of humor, cried real tears, never gave up on the vision, knew he could not do this alone, and looked roughly like this?
Baptized when she was about five months old, Bev wore a long white, sweeping, dress—elegant. Her small head, covered with heaps of very dark hair, stood out amidst billows of white lace. There is a photo of her in that baptismal dress, somewhere in the annals of years of scrapbooks. I wish I could share it, because it is etched in the eye of my heart.

Bev is fulfilling her baptismal vows. She might laugh at this, since she does not attend church; nor, is she at all certain about God or Christianity. She has, however, always followed the ways of Jesus. She is kind and compassionate and a devoted mother of two daughters. She has navigated painful ups and down in her life with dignity. She works, in every job she has ever had, for justice for all people, gender equality, the rights of the poor, and the working classes.

In my lingo, Bev is most baptismal in her involvement with politics, making sure that the values of the “kingdom” Christ proclaimed are secured on earth as they are in heaven. Why would Jesus speak so strongly and consistently about working to bring about the kingdom of God, if he were not a politician?  “Kingdom” is a political term, lest we forget. The spirit of this kingdom is not constrained by partisan politics, binary absolutes, sexual identity, wealth, religious affiliations, or territorial boundaries. This kingdom calls for us to drop our precious identity labels and work together for the good of the whole. That is good politics. That is also good religion.

I got a clue to Bev’s direction in life from baseball. She wasn’t particularly interested in baseball, but she was interested in being the first girl admitted to play on a local Little League team. She made the team. I went to the games. Bev’s batting skills were sporadic. She struck out, or lucked out with a bad pitcher and walked. But she could run like crazy. Sitting with other gabbing parents, paying attention only when their kids were up, I was startled one evening by the sound of a loud CRACK. It was Bev’s bat. She hit a home run—out of the ball park, as they say. She was so stunned she forgot to run until the coach yelled: RUN!!  There was much applause, cheering, and kudos. I can’t remember if her team won, but that day she won. I cried. I thought then that she’d hit a home run for women’s equality and inclusion. I also learned that she approached life with a combination of curiosity, desire, and caution in about equal proportion—always summoning courage to try new things and keep on swinging. Baseball is a team sport. So is Jesus-work.

Bev’s personality exhibited both toughness and softness—tough on herself and soft on others. Her intelligence and passion for good causes even at a young age remains contagious, likewise her robust sense of humor and agility. Swimming became her sport of choice. Not only is she an excellent swimmer, but swimming has spiritual consolations—trusting the water’s buoyancy to hold you up, and letting it support you.
Bev might say I am imposing my perspective onto her life, and perhaps I am. It would be nice if she joined a Christian church community, I suppose. Nevertheless, I see the fruits of baptismal spirituality in her, and I dare say that one does not have to be Christian to be a christ. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

2019.01.06 Oh, My God. Epiphany LIghts.

The church begins the season of Epiphany today. It’s the season of light, of manifestations of Christ in our lives, of new beginnings. Epiphany light makes what was hidden come to light, often startlingly. We ask: What is this? Is this God?  Our biblical ancestors asked this about Jesus: Is this God? It took them a long time to see, and longer to say: yes, we see God here. It took more time to realize that after Jesus died, they still saw and felt Jesus’s presence. They called this the Light of Christ, and said again: yes, this is God.

Epiphany invites us still to see that light, and still to say: yes, this is God. And yes, God in Christ illuminates, and yes,  it's not always easy and sweet.
                                         OH, MY GOD.

Seriously, I have a black tee-shirt from the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City with Oh, my God., in white calligraphy on it. Note the emphatic period not an overenthusiastic !.

Do you have epiphanies that feel spiritual? Spirituality is a matter of training your heart and your eye to see beyond or inside a simple ordinary scenario and marvel at its sudden inexplicable grandeur. Do you ask: Is this God? Listen to how often you, or people around you, say or text: OMG! OMG!
                                            *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Across the street from us there’s a creche—not unusual at Christmastide, but this one is a standout, not for its artistic beauty or creativity but for its inner glory. The creche scene is squeezed into the small fenced-in strip of concrete alongside the front of the house.The traditional manger figures are all present, including a camel tied to a fence post so it won’t blow away. The figures are life-sized, colored pink and blue and yellow, save for the camel and Joseph who get to be browny/goldish. Each figure is illumined. It is honestly a most gawdy scene, yet every year out it comes—set up faithfully, tenderly by its owners. This year all the lightbulbs, save for Joseph and an angel, were out. The creche stood darkened. I thought maybe the owners had lost their enthusiasm. But, Oh, my God!  on Christmas eve new lights bulbs suddenly flickered on for Mary, Jesus, Magi, shepherd, sheep, and the other darkened wise men. Some work went into that illumination, some money and effort, some God.
                                         OH, MY GOD.

A young man rode by on his bike with his small son in a seat on the back of the bike. He was going fast, possibly in a hurry to get home before pitch dark. I watched and saw the little boy gesticulate with his arms, and also no doubt shouting. The dad screeched the brakes on and executed a swift, not without risk, u-turn. Why? Oh yes, the siren call of the train whistle, the clang clang of the crossing gates coming down, and the train’s light approaching. The child simply had to see this, so dad whipped around so the child could wave vigorously to the train from his little seat.
                                         OH, MY GOD.

A very self-important man holding the highest office in our land had a conversation with a seven-year-old child. He asked the child whether he believed in Santa Claus. “Oh yes” said the boy. “Isn’t that a bit marginal for a seven year old?” said the man. Undaunted, the child nodded, saluted the man and stuck to his answer. One can only hope the child did not know the meaning of “marginal”—or better yet, rejected it.  

When I was seven, a friend in school told me in no uncertain terms that there was no Santa Claus. She had a very good reason for her surety: Santa certainly couldn't afford all those presents. I went home and told my parents: “You won’t believe the stupidest thing Nancy told me in school.” I scoffed. I continued to believe in Santa Claus. I still do, marginal that I am. This might explain the fact that no one has ever dissuaded me from my own devotion to God and all things religious.
                                        OH, MY GOD.

Daniel Jackson, author of "Portraits of Resilience", a book that brings light to people’s stories of depression in order to reduce the stigma of shame that surrounds mental illness, keeps a blog called “Resilience Postcard.”  Recently he posted this idea: Civility = Optimism

“You can’t solve a problem with the very means that created it in the first place. Radicalism and incivility got us where we are now; only thoughtful compromise and relentless civility will bring us back.  . . .  Civility is essential in our personal lives too. It’s not just that being civil to each other makes our interactions more pleasant. Or that behaving in a civil way, and restraining our anger, is curiously empowering.

"More than anything, I believe, it’s that civility is a form of optimism, because it draws us back from the precipice. Civility tells us that our society is not yet in such dire straits that we must take up arms against each other. That people are fundamentally good, and that rational and sympathetic discourse can change minds. That each human being deserves as much respect as any other; and that many small actions can bring about big changes.”
                                      OH, MY GOD.
Sometimes what is unspoken carries more power than what is spoken. Some inner explosions represent truth, even when civility keeps us from speaking them aloud. Well-meaning religious idiots often say in the face of a sudden trauma of unimaginable death: “God never gives us more than we can handle.”  Here are Elaine Pagels’s inner reactions from her memoir, Why Religion?, after her young son and her husband died a year apart:“How dare you speak of this as a gift from God? What do you know of what I can—or cannot—handle?” Never stifle the soul-truth of a profound spiritual outcry with religious platitudes. Never, never do it. Never. If God is God, God cries out. Christians ought to know this. Let’s not give God a bad name or demolish divine Love.
                                   OH, MY GOD—NO.

On a sweet note, here is a photo of a tree ornament my son John created, with help I'm sure, when he was in nursery school in 1973. On the back are his initials and date:  JTB, 1973. His nursery school teacher saved some of these ornaments and hangs them on her Christmas tree. She is nearing ninety, and John is nearing fifty. Memories, like Love, never die.
                                   OH, MY GOD—YES. 

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018.12.30 Jesus Christ The Apple Tree?

Most Christians are familiar with the Garden of Eden myth in the Bible. Likewise, most Christians cast aspersions on the snake, or Eve, or the fatal forbidden apple itself. You’d think Eve was Snow White plucking and eating a fatal apple out of which popped the head of an asp. 
Incidentally, the Bible calls the fruit of the tree a “fruit” not an apple. Still, the apple won the day as the fruit of choice for delight and trouble, and snakes still scare the bejeezus out of many women. Ah the stereotypes we create!

Christians simply do not associate the apple with Jesus Christ    .   .  .  or do we?
This apple core stands today outside the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem. I loved posing with it.

Dick and I listen to the Festival of Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve morning. It’s broadcast live on radio from Cambridge England. This year was its 100th anniversary. It is, oh, so traditional, and oh, so beautiful. This year for the first time I noticed something amazing about that old apple. One of the 15th century carols sings of Adam “ybounden”—tied in knots you might say, and all for the sake of an apple he took. The carol goes on to say, however, that had the apple not been taken, our lady would never have been a heavenly queen. And so we sing:

Blessed be the time
that apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen  (may sing)
Deo Gratias

Interpretations abound of course, but this medieval one caught me up as I realized how valuable the old apple turned out to be for Christians. I now see the supposed curse of Eden in a new light, call it Eve and Adam claiming their place in the salvation scheme, taking the first bite into the Incarnation, that spiritual action by which things divine are joined with things human—and all thanks to an “apple” from the Christ-tree.

There’s even a medieval English carol singing praises to both apple and tree.

Jesus Christ The Apple Tree
  tune by Elizabeth Poston

1. The tree of life my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit and always green:

The trees of nature fruitless be

 Compared with Christ the apple tree.

2. His beauty doth all things excel:

By faith I know, but ne'er can tell

The glory which I now can see

In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

3. For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:

I missed of all; but now I see

'Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

4. I'm weary with my former toil,

Here I will sit and rest awhile:

Under the shadow I will be,

Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

5. This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,

It keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be

With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

                                                                     Deo Gratias.  


The apple ne'er does fall far from the tree. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Advent IV—Wonder, Wonder, Wonder: How Can This Be?

Advent is the season of anticipatory joy, the season of wonder.  Children are good at wondering.

Advent is nearly over and I am late with this post. Still: I want to remember with you Mary’s first response, the one for which she is less famous. When the angelic vision informed her that she would become pregnant, though a virgin, and bear a son who would be, in today’s lingo a spiritual rockstar, she  said: How can this be? 

Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth, through angelic vision to her priest husband Zechariah, found herself suddenly pregnant in her old age.  Both asked the same thing, and variations thereof, that Mary asked: How can this be? This was her first wonderment.

How can this be? is a wondering question. It is an Advent question and a daily question— both in those days and in these days.

How do we find enough stamina and  courage to carry on when unexpected, startling, confusing and challenging things happen, whether good or not good, tragic or miraculous? We are rendered powerless, and we wonder: How can this be? Where is God? How will I cope? 

One brilliant way we cope is simply to tell a heroic story, personal or communal. Most such stories tell of a God of spectacular reversals. Such stories are remembered and told over and over and they keep us in hope. Everyone has a heroic story. The Bible is full of such stories. We wonder and still say together: How can this be?

Luke's gospel tells the whole story of the birth of Jesus Christ and its prequel. Here’s what Mary did after accepting the inevitable facts of her condition and before marriage or birth: she set out, presumably alone, or at least no escort is reported, to cross the barren hills to visit her cousin Elizabeth. How can this be? Both women believed God was involved somehow, and both were scared in their vulnerable circumstances. The biblical story is called The Visitation. Here is The Visitation icon written by Benedictine nun Sister Marie-Paul. She was born in Egypt of Palestinian origin and Italian descent. She now  lives in a small community of French-speaking sisters near the summit of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Mary and Elizabeth embraced and talked to each other. They shared all their thoughts and feelings, all of them. This is a common practice women have, often before acting. They get together and talk about the best and the worst. I call my women friends right away when I'm befuddledWhether we agree or not, we listen to each other, and more often than not derive no secure answers, except through the connections we make and the stories we tell, there comes necessary strength to carry on. How can this be? I have no idea.  I wonder.

Children are expert wonderers. Here is a recent and true story of one such child. I dedicate this true little story to a dear friend, a woman whom I have named the stealth evangelist. She is in California now visiting her son and daughter-in-law and their two sons. The oldest is a boy named Jack. He is just six and he loves it when his Grandma reads him stories, mostly because Grandma has  time to reflect with Jack, to have a conversation about the story they read. Many times Grandma has read  Jack a book by Eton Boritzer called What Is God?  The book illustrates in words and drawings the basics of many world religions. All of them have a special prophet/leader/founder. All religions conclude that God is Love. The Christian prophet/founder is Jesus Christ. Jack knows that he is a Christian, but has not been to church much. He wonders—a lot—about this Jesus.

This Christmas Grandma decided to tell Jack that Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Jesus was born at Christmas.  Jack’s eyes flew open. He looked at Grandma with an expression of wonder and incredulity and said: No!  (Jack’s version of how can this be?)

Jack is on wonder overload now, and Grandma is empowered. They are now reading the biblical story in Luke 2.  Jack wonders about everything, chiefly mangers and angels, and he says: “Read it again, Grandma. Read it again.”


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent III—What Then Should We do?

Biblical characters are frequently demanding and commanding in the name of God, even to the point of name-calling, like John the Baptist’s indictment of the crowds seeking baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Trees that do not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire and burned up. This is harsh. John the Baptist would never win any popularity contests. And yet he sheds glaring, revelatory light on human behavior. What you do matters to you, to your neighbors, and to God.

Does God judge? Yes. Does God condemn forever? No. Does God call for repentance and change? Yes. Does God love with zeal equal to the zeal with which God judges? Yes.

“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John. They, like us, wonder about this kind of God, and feel threatened, a little scared.  

The Baptist’s answers are inconvenient but quite clear: give away one of your several coats; do not extort money falsely; no usury or threats of violence; be content with your own wages. Someone more powerful than I am is coming.

Ah, good: our Jesus Christ is coming with the Holy Spirit in tow. Good news! Whew!

Not so fast. This Christ, whom we think is our Christmassy Jesus, has a winnowing fork and bears exactly the same message as the Baptist delivered. The harsh light of judgment exposes us all, inside and out. It hurts. Certainly no one would dare be silly and sentimental about the power of this Word, this Christ, this God who calls for right behavior.

What then should we do?

The first thing to do is to scrutinize your own greedy habits. The second thing to do is to realize you can’t blame the OLD testament for this one. It is in our NEW testament. Then resist the temptation to blame, even yourself. Historically and today, one of the first reactions when we feel afraid, challenged, insecure, and powerless is to defend self by blaming others, rather than taking into account our own behavior.

Just like the crowd the Baptist warned, we are in disarray, not centered, unclear about what to do, how to behave. Our values are askew, so we blame: Republicans, Democrats, climate-deniers, the media, the atheists, the theists, God godself, science, the White House, the northeast, the southwest, the midwest, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, the law, religion, the Bible, the police, car salesmen, LGBTQI  people, THE Institution—on and on. Add your favorite blamee—even shaming yourself neurotically counts. All of this gets us off the hook. Face it: we might just be a brood of vipers who need to get honest.

Throughout history, the preferred blamee has always been the Jews. NOTE: John the Baptist, Jesus, Mary, Paul, the gospel writers, all of our beloved biblical forebears, were Jews.

I worry about this die-hard and deadly habit of blaming the Jews. All -isms are on the rise in our confused world, and anti-semitism is too. It’s always the Jews, or the OT, which is to say the same thing in disguise. Why is that? Cynthia Ozick proffers an answer in her essay “Hep! Hep! Hep!”, published in A Sense of Wonder (2016).

H.E.P. was the call of the Christian Crusades in 1099. It stood for Hierosolyma est perdita (Jerusalem is destroyed.) Hep! Hep! Hep!—a raging marching song, a Christian cry, a Nazi cry, an anti-Zionist cry. It’s the cry of blamers and haters anywhere. If you listen carefully to your deep inner self you might hear the impulse to cry Hep! when you feel frustrated, angry, wanting to vilify another and declare yourself absolutely right. Toddlers do this well.

Such impasses happen everywhere and any time to any society and people, so why do Jews bear more of the brunt than other groups? Ozick suggests it has much to do with: “. . . the forceful powerful resistance to what Jewish civilization represents—the standard of ethical monotheism and its demands on personal and social conscience.”

We’re right back to the Baptist’s cry, to Jesus’s winnowing fork—calling us to high standards of morality. We plain don’t like it. Think Ten Commandments—foundational divine expectations, the manifesto of the Jews.

I think the worldwide symptom of this resistance is that we are stuck in fight mode—spewing toxic, hostile energy, and humor that falls short of being prophetic, into the midst, rather than enough respectful intelligence to open up relationships with and any and all putative blamees.
                                                     *  *  *  *

Still: are we less divided than we think we are, or than we are told we are? As long as we think we have to fight we will have to blame. The space between us will remain contaminated, and that space is where commonly held values live—gasping for air.

Think tug of war. If each of only two teams dropped the rope and abandoned the fighting spirit, the passion to win and to be right, the dust would settle. Could we then see clearly and hear each other clearly? Is this the baptism of the Holy Spirit and cleansing water? 

Is this then what we should do?

Sunday, December 9, 2018

2018.12.09 Advent II—Lions of God

In Advent we hear a cry of warning from the wilderness, the city, within our own souls. It's a call to change, to return to the ways of God, to seek goodness in God, self, and neighbor—ALL.

I initially wondered what a female version or image of John the Baptist would be?  All I envisioned was some variation of the cartoon cave-woman, Wilma Flintstone, going from cave to cave with the latest news and a baked goodie of some kind. I used to love the cartoon characters, the Flintstones, as did my children: Fred and Wilma Flintstone with Barney and Betty, their BFFs.  Here they are, Wilma at left.

But let’s be serious. John the Baptist is a biblical character, not a cartoon, and a key figure in the New Testament stories of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a fierce and deeply honest biblical prophet, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John was mostly associated with dire news: Change before it’s too late, you brood of vipers! Also, a bad wardrobe: clothing made of camel’s hair; and a lean and strange diet: locust and wild honey. His job description was stark: baptizer of frightened hordes in the Jordan River and preacher of a new reign. And his death, like Jesus’s, was brutal and violent—imprisoned for treason by Herod Antipas, ruler of Palestine (4 BCE-39CE) and beheaded at the whim of Salome, a young girl who danced for the king at a banquet and requested the head of John the Baptist in payment for entertaining the drunken Herod and his court.  (See Midrash , "The Vow" by Lyn G. Brakeman in her book The God Between Us: A Spirituality of Relationships).

Jesus’s day, like our own, was beset by unrest, fear, distrust, and persecution of anyone who resisted the tyrannical ways of oppressive authority. Classism was then, as it is today, a most terrifying sociocultural plague. John the Baptist and Jesus preached God’s reign of justice, peace and hope for the poor and oppressed. If ever there was a time to heed the Baptist’s cry of CHANGE! it is now. This eccentric figure frightens us with his warning to be alert in bad times while choosing the path of Good. His clarion call for repentance, although terrifying, also brings hope against hope.

All the images of John the Baptist I found were either too stylized/religious, or too bloody, or for sale only. I wanted an image that was fierce and noble, one that bespoke a story of terrorism and greatness all at once, good news and bad in one. Then I ran across C-Boy.
C-Boy was an African lion who lived a longer than average life (14 years) for an African lion.  According to “Elegy for a Lion”  in National Geographic Magazine, December, 2018, this lion was admired for his “tenacity and fierce spirit.” He would be my John the Baptist image. “He was everything an African lion should be: resourceful, cantankerous, patient, proud but pragmatic, seemingly indestructible, continually imperiled, and gorgeous to behold.”

No one knows how C-boy managed to survive in the wild and live as long as he did, breaking the mortality record. We do not know why he got a second chance at life after a battle with killer lions. The number one cause of death for lions in an undisturbed environment like the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, is other lions. Like John the Baptist, C-Boy gives us a story of mystery and hope that lives on. No one knows how John the Baptizer survived the wilderness and managed to risk provoking hostile authorities for as long as he did—long enough that Jesus sought him out, followed his teaching, and continued what John started. John and his follower, Jesus, live on in the memories and memoirs of the Biblical New Testament.

There are books, films, and animated versions of great Lions of God—Christ, Paul the apostle, and Judah of Israel. Now I have added John the Baptist to this regal leonine array. The Holy One is so vast as to require multiple images. Look in your mirror.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

2018.12.02 Advent I: Grief Almighty

Advent is a cry,
   a screeching O in the wilderness of time.

Advent is howling, hollering,
   hollowing, hallowing.

Advent is a baby in a womb,
    a woman at a tomb—suspended, unknowing, 


Advent is darkness unhinged,
    a fireless hearth.

Advent is the breath-sucking vacuum
    of divine longing:
“Come back to me with all your heart.
Don’t let fear keep us apart.
Long have I waited for your coming
Back to me and living
    deeply our new life.” *

Make no mistake, world.
 Your hype and cheer and glitter—all
    is the weather of idols.
The real climate surges untamed
    beneath—wailing, melting, shivering, begging:

O Come
    O Come ON!

*Gregory Norbert, OSB, “Come Back To Me” (Hosea 14:1)