Sunday, April 14, 2019

2019.04.14 Three Cheers. Three Palms. Three Words of Wisdom.

Palm Sunday involves much hullabaloo in the Christian church. I’ve always wanted to downsize the hype, introvert that I am. Do we have to re-enact the triumphal entry story of Jesus on a donkey entering Jerusalem, raising a rumpus, bringing cheering jeering crowds, and raising the hackles of the reigning authorities charged with maintaining order? I feel sorry for them. Jesus was a trouble maker—for the sake of justice we argue.

And then—post-triumph—we re-enact the rest of the story with us all playing the hostile turncoat crowd, betrayers all, shouting: Crucify him. Crucify him. I want to shout STOP don’t crucify him. Don’t crucify anyone! Thank God there’s no sermon on Palm Sunday, save this morning’s brief fervorino, aka pep talk—in this case for Jesus. No need to say more than the complicated tragic story already says.

Sometimes these reenactments feel pale, with people lined up in front reading their parts from scripture. It’s pretty stiff theater, but it is better than to abandon the biblical story completely and write our own little play version—dumbed down as if we all were in kindergarten. So I’m stuck with the Palm Sunday hoopla.

We act all this out and pretend, or pray, we too are going to reform our systems for the sake of justice and love and peace. Does this ritual work? Does it inspire, set on fire?

Well, sometimes it is effective. It helps me return to the beginning and imagine the primordial chaos into which the Creator infused life and hope. This creationing process keeps on and never stops. It gives me hope.

I bring my palms home, drape them over beautiful pictures—icons, a landscape, a cross on the wall—where they will stay until next year’s hope-packed whoopee. Some may even make it to the burning pot where they will be turned into ashes—forehead reminders that we all are dust and to dust we all shall return—for Ash Wednesday. I am happy to have had their company for a year, and to have them renewed for another year.

Ancient repetitive rituals have inner value. Below are three quotes of my own. They were lifted from my blog posts by a spiritual director who used them for her facebook group ministry. She’d started the group to promote her own practice, but it morphed into an online ministry. It was fun for me to see my name and my words, on her site—framed and decorated in colorful ways.
Heed the intimate scriptures of your own heart and intuition.

Religion without spirituality is arid and spirituality without religion is lonely. 
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?

I'm humbled and honored in the best way—though not too humble to feel surprised at my own wisdom and wonder: Is this God AND me together co-creating?

Sunday, April 7, 2019

2019.04.07 A Flat Out Failed Wrinkle

Recently we watched the movie “A Wrinkle in Time.” I was looking forward to it. I had loved Madeleine L’Engle’s book by that name and was sure the movie would live up to her vision. After all, Ty Burr, cantankerous Boston Globe movie critic, even gave it a few nods, and Oprah Winfrey was in it. How could it lose?

To say I was disappointed is to put it mildly. I was furious. The movie was flat out terrible. Even if you knew nothing about L’Engle’s book or had no expectation, the movie failed to portray in an integrated way the forces of mystery, science, religion, spirituality, and the drama of three children in search of their missing father, an astrophysicist, whom they believed was lost in space.

On their journey the children meet three guides who represent Goodness, possibly the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity, and named accordingly: Mrs Whatsit Mrs Who and Mrs Which. The actors who play these three guides in the movie are token black, token middle east, and token vaporous-mystical. Despite spotlighting big name stars and making God imagery expansive, the film’s dialogue is flat and the plot contrived. Possibly trying to be too “p.c.”, it fails to convey the spiritual depths of the classic good vs. evil drama. The film even downplayed the climactic scene in which heroine Meg Murry, token black, tries desperately to save her younger brother from the forces of evil they call IT. This rescue scene was one Madeleine L’Engle often chose to read publicly, in dialogue with her husband, a professional actor.  L'Engle (1918-2007) wise story-teller imagining tesseracts.
I admit my expectations for this film might have been too grand and complicated by my affection for L’Engle, but this interpretation missed her vision: her desire to communicate the wonders of quantum science through a dramatic quest story with obvious theological imagery.

Theology and science shaped Madeleine L’Engle’s spirituality. I first met her in 1980 when I was in seminary and fretting about having been turned down in the ordination process toward priesthood. I felt ashamed and inadequate. Madeleine, my spiritual director, did not argue with my feelings but rather told me that the institutional church was not exactly innocent in its devaluing of the ministry of women. She also persuaded me not to give up my quest and issued me a new commandment: “Now, my dear, when you get ordained, and you will, do NOT turn into a little man!” It made me laugh and gave me courage to resist being shaped by patriarchal forces—the IT in my life.

I felt like Meg Murry. She was driven to save her brother and find her beloved father. She dared to travel through time and space in the fifth dimension because of a tesseract, a word meaning four-dimensional cube, from tessara + actis "ray", adopted by L'Engle to mean a wrinkle in time through which one could travel into outer space.  As far as I was concerned the Episcopal Church might well have been a tesseract, a realm scary and mysterious with potential to destroy all my hopes and dreams. Besides her brain, her heart, and her love for her father, Meg uses her skills in math and science, her spiritual guides, and her wisdom to outwit IT, a force that insists that everyone is exactly the same. Meg knows that alike and equal are not the same. She persists. I have no mathematical skills, but I knew that women and men were alike but not the same. and definitely not equal—yet. And I did persist, nearly succumbing to the powers of IT and pretzeling myself into shapes I thought would please, rather than being myself. To come to my true self, I sinned and prayed, probably in equal measure, and enjoyed prodigal dollops of divine grace.

L’Engle also persisted. She submitted Wrinkle for publication twenty-some times over several years until finally the first publisher she’d submitted it to accepted it for publication in 1962.
Rejection hurts but it won’t kill you. Its plangency (don’t you love that word?) might even have provided me courage enough not to become a little man, as L’Engle had commanded.

P.S. My husband with whom I saw the movie found it boring. “So you have a copy of the book?”  he asked. I did. He read it and got every wrinkle of it—small but meaningful redemption.

Monday, April 1, 2019

2019.03.31 Prodigality?

Prodigality? It’s actually a word. I looked it up. It’s the noun form of the adjective prodigal, which means spending money recklessly. OR there’s the noun which gets personal: a Prodigal is someone who is extravagant with money—lavish. So you see it is a complex word, loaded and layered. Christians use this word with prodigal abandon, attaching it, errantly and recklessly, to one son in a parable told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

American consumerism, I conclude, encourages prodigality, and simultaneously spawns lost souls, which is really what the biblical parable we prodigally call “The Prodigal Son” is about. This boy is lost. So is the sheep in the Lost Sheep parable, and so is the coin in the Lost Coin parable. The grouping of three parable about being lost and found is purposeful.

The lost son has asked, probably nagged, his father for his share in the family inheritance—more than double his allowance I wager. Worse, the father gives it to him, while also giving his older brother the other half. Mom has no voice in this story, but if I were here I’d have advised against this transaction. The younger son wastes his money on “dissolute living.” He gets demonized by interpreters for his inability to resist temptations that few young immature boys could. Who is prodigal here?

I’m tired of Christian interpretations that identify the effulgent father with the image of God—oh so generous and merciful. This parabolic father is the one who behaves prodigally, dishing out his wealth prematurely. What self-respecting father would do such a foolish thing? In so doing he creates a near-impossible family trauma. The younger son is thrilled and races off into the world to squander his wealth. He ends up in a pig sty starving. He—  cagily and wisely—remembers that Papa has money and fatted calves so he heads back home to a father who welcomes him with a prodigal banquet, thus earning the ire of the elder son who has stayed home, worked hard and invested his money in the local bank.

Okay, I know it’s only a story, but nothing is “only” a story. Every story has value and meaning, especially a parable in the Holy Bible, through which we are supposed to discern the presence of divine grace. Traditionally, this prodigal father is imagined to be God, but I think this pop needs a little deflation.

First of all, this story is in Luke’s cluster of three lost-and-found stories in which all those who have lost something search diligently and ceaselessly for the lost. These qualities—diligent caring for the lost and the least— are divine.

The father in the prodigal, however, is not identified as hiring posses et. al to search for his lost son. He makes no such efforts. Then he sets the boy up for a disaster in which the home-coming banquet is lavish and earns this father a reputation as the all-merciful Lord-lookalike. Daddy is also gracious to the elder brother as well, but it’s too late to prevent the looming sibling rivalry that surely will torture this family for some time, not to mention garnering a reputation for his firstborn as a bitter whiner with no grace in his heart. Divine grace, I conclude, isn’t foolhardy or cheap, is it?

One definition of grace is the experience of being known, exactly as you are, and loved, exactly as you are, at the same exact time. The one who sees you this way with no conditions attached is, yes, divine.

Do you think that is what the father in this story provided to his sons? He knew them both and gave them each equal portions of his money, whether they deserved it or not. He also knew, I suspect, their weakness and vulnerabilities. But he gave extravagantly anyway, and—foolish old coot. Dumb enough to be divine I’d say—and prodigally so.

Monday, March 25, 2019

2019.03.24 Why Church?

In Lent we’re invited to reflect on things that matter, not on every little sin we keep on committing and committing—and once again commit. I define sin simply as whatever separates you from the goodness of God —in God, in yourself and in your neighbor. One of my sins is to be too pushy about my considered opinions, most all of which I adore and consider indispensable

This morning I told my beloved spouse that, although I’d exercised my senior exemption from fasting, I decided to fast from being ornery and bossy toward him. He said: “Don’t do that. I won’t know you’re here.” We laughed.

When one of us gets too high-falutin, the other fights back defensively, and BOOM, we’re disconnected. Then we confess and laugh and kiss, and BOOM, we’re reconnected—over and over. 

One of the things we tussle about is the Church. We have both been professional “churchies” for years. The Church seems, in many places right now, to be failing, or are we failing it? We do not settle our questions of course, but we go to Church regardless. Why? What IS the Church? What is it for? What is its unique raison d’etre? How is it different from so many things that call for our attention, some of which we’d rather be doing?

I’d like to say the Church exists to offer forgiveness for the repetition compulsion called sin. But every family knows and often exercises that function well enough. Why Church?

Is the Church about social justice?—all the rave just now. Well, in part, but not really. Anyone who is civic-minded and inclines toward activism for good causes does social justice. It’s central to the current penchant for humanism—the new true religion. Why Church?

Is the Church a building—preferably on Main Street front and center? Partly, yes. It is easy to get attached to a lovely setting, one in which you have felt safe, have experienced the love and grace of God, not to mention the pastoral care of a priest, many prayers, and those colors sparkling in the sun through stained glass. But God is not a building, though God may be felt in a building. On a religious retreat years ago, I sat enjoying a good meal. Suddenly I looked at my watch and realized I wanted to get to the chapel before dark for my meditative prayer time. I thought “I’m late for church.” Immediately, I laughed at myself, realizing: I AM in Church. And the Church is in me.

Is the Church for community?  Well, yes, but not really. We can find community in many ways, and people do because it’s naturally human to make and gather a community of concern and a team to pursue mutual interests and activities—to belong. Twelve-step recovery communities are an excellent example of intentional communities of support for wellness.

Why Church? 

My answer is that the Church is unique because the Church worships: shows reverence and adoration for a deity, a power both beyond and within ourselves, either individually or collectively. The Church is the BOOM. It offers structured liturgies, rites, rituals practices that re-enact the basic passages of human life—connected in God. I speak of the Christian Church but I know all religions offer similar rites, rituals, sacraments across a lifetime.

In Church you ae lifed—birthed in a font-womb, baptized into God with Christ.

In Church you are fed, brought to a long dining table-altar with the rest of your family. You may be an infant who doesn't take solid food so the priest blesses you; sometimes a tiney fingertip of wine is placed into your mouth. You sleep like a baby—well fed.

In Church you hear lots of music—lullabies cradle you and zestful praise awakens you. You learn some songs yourself in a choir.

In Church you absorb the divine into your flesh—over and over again.

In Church you get to pray, silently or aloud, feeling your sins and sorrows—getting forgiven over and over. You get to say I am sorry and I love you to God and to other worshipers, silently or aloud. Sometimes you get a hug.

In Church you are remembered after you die with prayers, hymns, and sweet words that soak your soul in the security of eternality.  No one forgets you. Neither does God.

In Church you re nurtured from birth to death in wonder, love and praise—over and over.

That’s why Church. Worship is as important as other things you do to take care of yourself. All living things in Nature worship without much help—naturally. We humans? We’re more needy and complicated—mysteries on our own. BOOM, we need Church. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

2019.03.17 Mixed Mood Management?

To balance a mixed mood is arduous, precarious—and yet.

I should be writing about St. Patrick, noted for pubs and miracles and shamrocks, but I’m not in the mood. Oh, I have nothing against this British-born patron saint of Ireland or green clovers, nor his day filled with parades, green cupcakes, and whiskey-induced joy. What does irk me is the one-sidedness of the way some of us Christians, or Americans, or Bostonians overplay the upside at the cost of ignoring the downside. Call it cheating the wholeness of the Holy.

I get it. Joy is more fun than pain. Still: both are real and both are godly and both belong together.

As to St. Patrick, it helps me to remember his beginnings as a lad of sixteen, captured by Irish pirates and taken into slavery to care for animals. That’s enough to know in order to balance things out, stabilize the mood swing option, and acknowledge that sainthood can arise within post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

Much of the time we worship in communities in which the mood is mixed, not unipolar. This is why we have carefully detailed liturgical seasons to observe—different colors, prayers, and moods—to make sure we honor all the vicissitudes of human life. Call it the wholeness of the Holy.

In my parish of the moment we are in mixed-mood mode. The rector of nearly ten years is leaving within two weeks. We feel naturally sad. On the other hand, we feel naturally joyous because he is leaving for celebratory reasons: his spouse has been elected to be bishop in another diocese. We want to rejoice, and we want to make room for sorrow too. We are in mixed mood.

The poor rector himself has been making strenuous efforts to pump the community full of trust, faith, hope, and love.—parting gifts. He is not dishonest in doing this, and the mood is mostly up. Nor is it wrong or even phony to keep the mood bolstered. How hard it is to have somber feelings and be upbeat at once. I was administering the sacrament of healing prayers today. At least twice the number of people came to request healing prayers. They focused on personal needs of course, all true and sincere, yet I wondered if the small numeric surge had to do as much with the underside of the general mood-mix as it did with their particulars. I don’t know. I only know that I felt spiritually enlarged, suddenly grateful, for this space to let down.

I was equally grateful for today’s anthem, for the beautiful poetry of John Donne (1873-1631), English poet and cleric.
-and for the authentic way the small choir sang it. It leavened the mood with wisdom.


Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

2019.03.10 Getting "Woke"

Today is Gillian Brakeman Colbath’s  23rd birthday. I remember how miraculous it felt to be present the day my oldest daughter brought forth her oldest daughter. Potentiation. Creation. Woke!

Dear Gillian, I remember when you were 7 you sang a solo on stage all alone—a song learned at camp: “Down by the River to Pray.” I remember you taking the lead in the play “Annie Junior”—little orphan Annie singing “Maybe” in your brand new red dress with the white sash as she dreamed. And hearing your mature adult voice sing as you played your guitar to the Joplin song: “Me and Bobby McGee.” I got “woke”. Most beautiful precious Gillian, I know one day you will sing your own perfect love song to yourself.  You are beloved. I love you. Grammy. (Photo of Gillian, Grammy and Auntie Jill, also with a wondrous singing voice)
According to biblical story, Jesus and his disciples got “woke” on the Transfiguration Mount; the brightest big-bangiest light they’d ever seen shone on them, and Jesus lit up like a firecracker. Have you ever seen someone light up with insight, song, love, whatever? It’s biblical, honestly. 

My “woke” story isn’t as grandly biblical. I was forty, feeling like a mid-life “first-grader” in my first course: The Scriptures of the Old Testament ,at Yale Divinity School in 1978. I didn’t know much about the OT, because, until the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, readings from the OT happened only at daily Morning and Evening prayer, not at the Sunday Eucharist.

The Old Testament! My adolescent impressions, formed from reading the whole bible in seventh grade (when else?), were that the OT was hot and sexy and murderous. Hence, I could hardly wait to find out more. In seminary it was required, and soon we’d be hearing it every Sunday in church, along with a reading from one of the many epistles, most of them Paul’s, and a gospel reading from the New Testament’s big 4: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—specialists in the life of Jesus the Christ.

I sat on the edge of my chair, in a huge lecture hall, my notebook opened out on the pull-up desk, and my pen poised to write down every word I heard. I never wanted to be any place as much as I wanted to be here right now, ready to study God in OT.

The professor entered and mounted the podium. The room hushed.

“In the beginning, God potentiated . . . “ he began in sonorous tones. 

I wrote that down. I knew this once-upon-a-time story: God creating to the point of divine ecstasy, every living thing—even mosquitoes.

For big required courses like this one there were weekly lectures and also smaller classes called sections for which we wrote papers, and where we got to ask our questions and discuss. The sections were led by teaching assistants (TAs), usually graduate students earning their keep. That’s when I met Jim Echols. I bet he was younger than me. He was tall and lean with an afro so significant it looked as if it could topple his head. We could call him Jim. I loved his sense of humor, his mild, slightly amused manner, and his willingness to entertain any and all argument, chief among them biblical inerrancy, which most of us, including me, had confused with biblical literalism. I still wonder.

Just last week I read in the Christian Century Magazine that Jim had died at age 67 of complications after a fall at home. You don’t get a big obit in this magazine unless you have some religious clout. I felt sad. Jim Echols helped me get “woke.” I remember him well.
According to his obituary, Jim did accomplish big stuff. He was an ordained Lutheran pastor, a Rev. Dr. no less, and the first African American scholar to serve as the Dean and President of  an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) seminary in Philadelphia, and a retired ELCA pastor, having served many parishes along the way of his career in theological education. Jim grew up in Philadelphia. At Yale he was studying psychology, religion, theology, and the church and culture, earning his PhD among a string of other degrees. 

Formation seemed to have been a passion for Jim. He did much work to support and promote high-quality continuing theological education. He would have been a fan of the Education for Ministry (EfM) program in which I have been involved at many levels for 35 years. Another connection I discovered was that Jim, like me, encouraged interfaith relations, helping to create a Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at the Lutheran seminary.

So my fondly-remembered TA in OT was a rock star. A professor emeritus of church and society and urban ministry at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago where Jim was president from 1997-2011, called him “a giant in the world of theological education . . .who stirred many people of African descent to aspire to be faithful in their service in the church and the world.” I bet I intuited that way back when I was a green seminarian falling in love with OT and getting “woke.” 

Dear Jim, I am so proud to have known you for such a short time at the beginning of my own theological education. You helped me love the OT and find the grace of God in the oddest of places. I remember when I wrote my final exam for the OT course, I got carried away and wrote in my little blue exam book:  OT LIVES!!  You added a big red exclamation point right next to mine. Thank you. You helped potentiate me. Call it “woke.”

Sunday, March 3, 2019

2019.03.03 Annual, Annual, Annual—Perennial

The annual meeting of an Episcopal parish church can be an occasion for groaning and dread among parish leaders. Our own parish annual meeting this year was quite different from the usual saved-up and savored gripe session.

First, it happened later than usual, because of the rector’s three-month absence as he healed from an accident, followed  immediately by the election as bishop of his spouse—an obvious move out of the diocese for the bishop-elect and our rector. The result of all this was that the annual meeting, frankly, left little room for more than business (confirm a budget and elect officers), kudos and appreciations, and a few well-bestowed gifts.

The normal tenor of many a parish annual meeting, and I’ve seen my share, wasn’t present. I’ve learned to expect:
    -long-held complaints, aired annually for their own sake
    -the annual question from the annual questioner who protests the parish’s annual assessment for diocesan ministries, read, poor-little-us, followed by the same explanation—it’s your taxes, get a grip!
    -what’s a bishop really worth—we only see her or him annually at best, and even then, we have to put on the dog with a super duper coffee hour
    - contesting a slate of officers with the secret wish that you yourself would be nominated by acclaim
    -self-nominations from the floor, which instigates a challenge, requiring a lengthy debate
    -endless budgetary petty picking like why do we spend so much on envelopes? 

All too often the loudest annual-only complainers are those who rarely attend on Sundays, seldom help with parish fund raisers or attend other annuals, like the fair, the rummage sale, Easter. I exaggerate for humor’s sake of course—but not too much.

Honestly, I was grateful that there was no petty tedium this year. Perhaps that’s because we have extremely capable and efficient parish officers and a treasurer who knows how to “treasure” money properly. Perhaps it’s because people were caught up in their own anger and uncertainty, reversal of expectations, fear about the future, pain at the thought of more change, trying to feel joy for the bishop-elect—and yes, plain old abandonment. I don’t know. I do know that I felt more sure than ever I have that this small community will thrive, financially and spiritually and that it will not be by some grace-in-the-sky miracle, but because of the Spirit’s lithe and effective use of our own focused efforts and gifts and prayers.

Lent and buried Alleluiahs aside, we are in Easter now. NOW.   

Henceforth therefore, I will think of Annual Meetings as perennials—Lilies or my favorite black-eyed Susans.

Perennials are enduring, recurring, and apparently infinite. Perennials symbolize hope. They are faithful. They show up. They are like us. Like the Church that goes up and down and dies, not quite, and returns again ready to bloom. Why? Because we keep on planting—day by day and year by year. We sing perennial hymns. We pray perennial prayers and variations thereof, generation to generation. We keep on doing what our founder insisted on—over and over and over—because we are perennials of hope, no matter what.

P.S. I cannot help but add this stunning metaphor the Warden used to describe the parish church. He said "We are getting this stagecoach moving on time and up to speed." Stagecoach? Yippee Kayay!😂😃