Sunday, July 5, 2020

2020.07.05 My "Racism"—A Brief Anecdotal History, Part Four. America?

We weren’t Catholic. I knew that because my mother said Catholics weren’t really American. Who was American? Was Carol Lee? Did she feel not American?  Is racism an American problem? 

July 4th was Independence Day. Americans were celebrating—with flag-waving and fireworks—our independence, our formation as a nation, a democracy.  How ironic it is for me to be writing about my own racism in 2020 when “Independence” the very definition of  our “dream” is NOT fully enjoyed by every American. I have no choice but to observe my world today and reflect on it in the light of my experience.  Am I American?

Scene X.  Phineas, Hairy Legs, and Mr. Fitz

There is probably no culture more cruel and life-threatening than that of a junior high school bus—that long orange monster that rolls around town and picks up strays who gather at a designated SCHOOL BUS STOP.

Unless you were totally normal you were a target for torturous humor. For girls, normal meant cute, perky, flirty, in a cashmere sweater with obvious upper body endowments and a waist, ripe for “slutdom”. For boys, normal meant swaggering and strutting and punching as if they had something no one else did, panting to create “sluts”.

I shifted from side to side, pulling at my skirt or trying to puff up my hair without upsetting the overweight pile of books shoulder-strapped together and poised on one hip.

Phineas failed the normalcy profile—catastrophically. He didn’t strut, he galumphed. He played the violin which he carried with him onto the bus. He wore thick glasses. He was borderline obese. Every day when Phineas thudded onto the bus the boys cooed and wooed him to the back of the bus where they’d gathered for the massacre. They forced  Phineas down onto the floor. They took his violin, removed it from its case and played it till it squeaked in protest; they called him names; they spit on him, and removed his glasses; they held him down so he could not get off at his stop. Every day he walked home. Phineas, to his eternal junior high school shame, cried.

I will never forget Phineas. I felt nauseous. I cried. I prayed. I said nothing. I was learning to be a coward. I tried recently to look him up on Google, which despite its near-divine status, failed on Phineas. Please God, let him have lost weight, ditched his Mayflower-like family name, wear contact lenses, and be a brilliant violinist in some symphony orchestra. 

There was a female version of this horror show. She was overweight like Phineas but with a “normal” name—until she earned the nickname of “Hairy Legs”.  Girls are just as mean as boys but less physical. We relentlessly teased her, because her unshaved legs were, well, totally abnormal. She said that her mother wouldn’t let her shave her legs, and back then girls did not wear pants. I cursed her mother.

She suffered for something she could do nothing about. This made me think, once again, of Carol Lee. This bullying behavior was racist BUT all these students were white. And so was I.

The school bus driver, Mr. Fitz, was the owner of the bus franchise, Fitzgeralds. He was obese, so fat that there was no space between the lower edge of the steering wheel and his paunch. I stared at him to see if I could somehow get him to stop the boys and rescue Phineas. He did nothing. In fact, once I saw him smirking. He could have at least intervened to make sure Phineas got off at his stop.

I felt tortured myself. My way of dealing with my horror was to demand that my mother drive me to school. I would never ride the bus again—never.

These people were all white just like everyone else in Darien, but I was beginning to wonder if racist behavior had broad applications. White-Against-White?  I wished I could talk with Carol Lee about all this.

Scene XI. Gunnar Myrdal

Throughout junior and senior high school there was a required course called Problems of Democracy. Some schools called it Civics. It was to help students understand how our government was structured, how it worked—or didn’t. Our teacher was Mr. Beckwith. I liked him, and I liked the course. I don’t remember what texts we read, but I do remember that Mr. Beckwith talked a lot, in just about every class, about this one book by Gunnar Myrdal. It was on racism. Why was he teaching that when we all were white, and the book was not the assigned reading for the class? Were we even a race? Of course none of us read it, but I have never forgotten that name: Gunnar Myrdal.

I looked up Gunnar Myrdal (1898-1987). He was a sociologist and economist and a Swedish Nobel laureate, a professor at Stockholm University in Sweden, and, according to record, openly anti-Nazi. Myrdal’s major work was An American Dilemma. The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published in 1944. Here is Gunnar Myrdal at about the time he published the book I never read.
Myrdal's book was a study of race relations in America. The “dilemma” was the perceived conflict between high ideals embodied in what Myrdal called the “American Creed” on the one hand and poor performance on the other. Democracy in America was unable to put its human rights ideals into practice for African Americans, one tenth of our population. Myrdal had planned a similar study on gender inequality, but he couldn’t get funding for it.

If Mr. Beckwith was so hot for this book why wasn’t it on the curriculum? 

I was learning about censorship in school curricula. People behind closed doors decided what texts students could read, and believe me the lily white town where I lived would not want to stir up trouble. Taxes fund public education. White people pay high taxes. Money controls learning, controls what is taught and how. I learn best when I’m stirred up. I felt sorry for Mr. Beckwith.

I learned something, a take-away they now call it, from Myrdal’s thesis: when I don’t perform well it’s usually because I don’t like what I’m doing. I’m not invested in the endeavor. America wasn’t invested in its own “dream.”  Was I?  Was I American?  Am I?  Was the Bible?

I don’t know. I didn’t know then either.  First I’d get a boyfriend, handsome if possible.

To be continued.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

2020.06.28 My "Racism"—A Brief Anecdotal History, Part Three. Almighty Insanity

I learned from God as a young child how not to be racist or exclusionary, how to listen to every voice, to love every body. As a teen, I learned about God's own impossibly partial impartiality.

Q  So what would a young teenage girl do when she felt out of place and desperate to fit in?
A  Nothing, because her mother would do something first—in the name of love well meant. 

Scene VII. Dr. McGregor

My mother never could just let me be the introvert to her extrovert. I should never have complained to her about booblessness, let alone the absence of what I was sure would make me normal and get me a boyfriend—monthly blood. Of course this blood could also make me fertile, not a concept I internalized, although I’d heard: “For God’s sake, don’t get pregnant like slutty girls.”  A “slutty girl” was a girl who, for no reason and without explanation, would suddenly disappear from school for a long time.

My mother, ironically, fretted about my gynecological immaturity. She hauled me off to a new doctor for a consult. Before I knew enough to protest, the kindly old doctor, coaxed me, with saccharine affect, onto an examination table, spread my legs and lifted my feet into stirrups—not like the stirrups on a saddle, but I was in for a ride. 

“Let’s just take a little peek, shall we?” the doctor said. Who was we?  A peek at what? I quickly realized that he was not going to check my chest for emergent boobs, and that I couldn’t possibly “take a peek” at anything from this position. I froze.

When had I been in this deep freeze before? There wasn’t time to ponder, because the old doc was speaking, not to me but to my mother. “She may have difficulty conceiving a child. Small cervix. . .”   I cannot possibly describe the cement mixer of emotions that churned within me at that moment, so I won’t.

We drove home—me silent and my mother chattering on about how relieved she was to know there was nothing really wrong with me. I could now safely explore a career in slutdom—a way to fit in or to be fit into. Did slutty types get to go to beach clubs? Even I didn’t know what a cauldron of contempt I was developing—for myself, for the predatory old doctor whom I called Dr. McAsshole, and for my mother who knew no better. 

For God’s sake I shouldn’t be a slut? For God’s sake I shouldn’t get pregnant?

Scene VIII. The Bible

What did God have to do with all this? I’d met God when I was only three under a table where I'd fled to escape the omnipotent Cocktail Hour. My mother told me I was a gift from God. I wanted to meet God. Under the table I chattered vigorously to God about all manner of things, but mostly about parental neglect. It was a glorious feeling—to be utterly accepted.

I never forgot what happened under that table. God, silent and invisible, simply listened—did not tell me what to do, or what not to do. In the course of our non-conversation, I munched on Ritz crackers but left one on the table’s cross beam for God when I left for bedtime. God listened and I knew that I mattered. I was learning about prayer, its futility and its wonders.

At fourteen, however, I needed God to talk. I loved school and books. God’s book was The Holy Bible. In church they’d even called this the Word of God. What could be better? I compulsively read the whole huge book, skipping most of Leviticus. What I learned was not exactly what I sought. I learned that in God’s world everyone fit in, everyone and everything belonged. Seriously, it was astounding.

Again and again, God’s people messed up in big ways. They broke their own rules and God’s too. People were much worse than slutty. They were making God crazy with rage. They begged, wept, cajoled, also lied. Sometimes God reached out with longing. This God was seriously the dumbest parent I’d ever heard of. Every single time God and the people broke up they got back together—every single time. Thrilling.

Jesus, star of the New Testament, who everyone thought was God but I doubted it, was as furious with such mess ups as God was. He taught right behavior, even did demos. Still, he didn’t force it, but simply invited—over and over and over, like God. Nevertheless, his “Let’s go to Jerusalem” plan was so dumb I cringed.

I didn’t understand this book much, except the stories. They were recognizable. Women like Mary Magdalene, possibly a slutty type, was Jesus’s best friend. Old Sarah laughed at God’s assurance she’d get pregnant. How profoundly, divinely anti-biological. I’d have laughed too. And young Mary, a virgin like me, got pregnant with God, not without her consent. God even gave her a rationale: this angel did it. That must be why they could still call her Virgin. What a deal!

This Bible was crazy, yet hopeful to me. This adoringly partial God was so impartial that everyone fit in. I  didn't name it this way back then, but my experience was letting me know how not to be racist, how to love and listen equally. 

I was learning about Love—for God’s sake.

Scene IX.  Betty Singer

Betty Singer had this voice, unlike any I’d ever heard— high and angelic. Some of us junior high school girls would circle around Betty at recess and beg her—beg her—to sing her song, Ave Maria. We swooned. I didn’t understand a word. It was in Latin, but it sure wasn’t on Miss Povey the Latin teacher’s reading list. Betty told us this song was Catholic. It was in the Bible, she thought. I’d missed it if it was. Still, this Mary song had something to do with the God I knew under the table, because when Betty sang my mind stopped all its worrying. I listened.
The seeds were planted for my later investigatory explorations of those Catholics, but for now I had to get on with my own biology—and make sure God didn’t get me pregnant.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

2020.06.21 My "Racism"—A Brief Anecdotal History, Part Two. Falling Apart.

Slowly, yet deliberately,
I touch the painful place.
I don’t know why;
I just need to.

Is there a strange kind of comfort in acknowledging the
The wound?

Strangely, the rollercoaster slows.
I hear the words,
“Pay attention. This is your life. This is Sacred.”

Mary Ann Bigelow, Spiritual Director, first published in Presence International Journal for Spiritual Direction

When I was twelve I perched on the lip edge of hormonal torrents, geographic moves, the feeling memory of a childhood wound, and the intense awareness of cruelty to others who are in some way different and tormented for it, and by it. I opened my whole self wide to the wound of whiteness, femaleness, and shame. I call this cascade my “racism” wound. I call this holy.

Scene V. Carol Lee

Carol Lee was my best friend in Westhampton, L.I. where, before the Connecticut move, we summered to get away from big-city heat. We had been spending summers at a farm in upstate New York, where I had my own pony, but my parents, I’m assuming, were climbing, so we switched to THE  Hamptons—another move for which I would hate them. I was afraid more than anything of being a snob. I’d heard my mother and her women friends talk with disdain about “snobs”on Park Avenue. Thank God we lived on Lexington Avenue and were not therefore snobs. I happily claimed that we were not snobs, because we were in WESThampton not EASThampton.  A similar claim would make us not elitist and therefore not snobs.

But of course I didn’t figure all this out when I was twelve. I just overheard stuff and picked up the nuances of class. I wanted to be Carol Lee’s best friend as much as she wanted it. We became fast friends, and friends make everything better.  So do bikes.

I didn’t think of my parents as rich, mostly because my father always, always worried about money. He worked in advertising on Madison Avenue, yes. He advertised soup while my mother advertised me and bought me clothes galore. Sometimes I overheard their arguments about my mother’s extravagance and felt guilty about my clothes—but not guilty enough to dissuade my mother. Still, I figured my parents must have been pretty rich, because in Westhampton they joined a private beach club. I fell in love with the ocean and its waves. I  could swim all the way out to the floating raft which had a diving board. Once I drifted out too far and had to be rescued. I did not think I had to be rescued but the lifeguard did. It was uber-embarrassing to be rescued, yet it was a small “whew” too.

I have an August birthday. My parents were going to give me a party. Did I want it at the beach club or at home?  I chose the beach club, and excitedly told Carol Lee all about it.

Life turned cruel.

There was a hitch. The beach club was only for white people. Carol Lee was black. I did not understand. The ocean didn’t care. I told my parents they should ask for an exception. They didn’t. Nor did they tell me what to do. I was just so furious. I had to choose between Carol Lee and the damn beach club. For the first time, or the most conscious time, my life choices became my fault and my responsibility. That’s the moment I became a deal-maker: I chose the beach club and demanded another party for me and Carol Lee. I got my two parties—one more populated than the other, and my best friend was hurt. So was I. We stayed friends, but it was never the same. I don’t remember how I told her. I do remember that I did not tell her about the beach club’s rules.

I was swathed in smoldering inner pain I did not understand.  Carol Lee wasn’t a “servant”  Nor could I blame Russia as I had with Olga or the NYC Puerto Rican influx. This was me. This was my conscience. I was learning morality—and diluting it with compromise.

There had to be a better way to do things I loved and have the friends I wanted. 

Scene VI.  Snowy White Land—Colorlessness

They say white is not a color or is a non-color. That makes me feel colorless, bland, like white rice—little taste or substance. I always ordered brown rice in a restaurant, but that was mostly to be different from my too-adoring mother who favored Minute Rice—all white.

My parents joined what would come to be called “white flight”—white people moving out of the city to the suburbs, Darien, Connecticut to be exact. Darien must have had the same rules as the beach club. There weren’t many colored girls in my New York private school. Of course not. It cost money. I knew that, because my father tried and failed to persuade my mother to send me and my younger sister to a public school. That suggestion, apparently, was horrifyingly “black” and not for us. The public school in Darien wasn’t very colored at all, so I puzzled about color lines as I grieved.

I grieved the city —its colorfulness. I didn’t know the word “diversity” then, but I knew I felt the absence of color. 

I blended into this white-on-white culture. I guessed that whiteness alone was supposed to make me feel safe and secure. It didn’t. What did make me feel safe was finding a best friend whose skin was whiter than mine, and who had white blonde hair to match. Most importantly, she actually understood the “facts of life.” We bonded immediately. 

Academics also helped, because I was smart. Meritocracy was the way of it then. Who could imagine life without grades?  I loved A’s. They were my way to self-esteem. I was learning to run things with my mind—majoring in thinking. As to emotions, they were hidden but painful because now I did not fit in physically. I needed boobs, maybe a waistline—a little stature. I needed to menstruate—right away if possible.

What is the most rational thing that a young girl of thirteen—failed immigrant to suburbia, entering junior high school, lost in a sea of boys and boobs—could do?   (Luckily, I have no photos of myself at this time.)

To be continued.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

2020.06.14 My "Racism"—A Brief Anecdotal History, Part One. Hard Learnings.

I do not feel qualified to write about racism as an abstract idea outside of my own experience. So I write about racism—mine. My initial thoughts in triplicate:
    I’m not racist.
    I don’t think I’m racist.
    Maybe I’m racist.

I have put quotes around “racism” in my title, because it took more than race to shape my “racism.”

From the dictionary first: "Although ideas of race are centuries old, it was not until the 19th century that attempts to systematize racial divisions were made. Ideas of supposed racial superiority and social Darwinism reached their culmination in Nazi ideology of the 1930s and gave pseudoscientific justification to policies and attitudes of discrimination, exploitation, slavery, and extermination. Theories of race asserting a link between racial type and intelligence are now discredited. Scientifically it is accepted as obvious that there are subdivisions of the human species, but it is also clear that genetic variation between individuals of the same race can be as great as that between members of different races." -OED

It is always easier to be reflexive, to hop onto the latest popular bandwagon of moral awareness.  It is much harder to be reflective, to integrate positive and negative experience into a whole system of thoughts and feelings. I call the reflective way, spiritual intelligence—or wisdom. It always starts with experience. My reflections are still very much alive emotionally.

Scene I. Dinah and Lou    

Growing up in the 1940s, I lived in a New York City apartment on the upper east side where Dinah was our laundress, and her teenage daughter Lou babysat for me. I spent time with Dinah in the basement where the laundry was. Lou and I raced around playing hide and seek while Dinah scrubbed the clothes and ironed them all—our clothes not hers. I loved Dinah and Lou and assumed easily that they were family. I worried that they lived in the basement, which was concrete and ugly. I was reassured that they had their own home on 125th Street—31 whole blocks away. When Lou babysat she took the subway home. Once my mother gave her fare. I never asked about nor noticed the color of Dinah’s and Lou’s skin. However, I never understood why I couldn’t go play at their house. I was learning to be white—sort of.

Scene II. Olga

Olga, the new student in my private girls school in New York City, was Russian. There was something a little “wrong” about being Russian, and Olga’s accent. These identifiers made her prey. Some of us fourth grade girls used to chase her down a few city blocks and and taunt her. She was a fast runner. I was a bully. I was leaning about shame and shaming.

Scene III. Fred

My dad, the fourth of six children, grew up in Morristown N.J., an affluent suburb or Manhattan.   He and one older brother were the only two who moved “away from home”—all the way into the big city. I didn’t know the word heresy yet, but this was family heresy. Every Sunday there was, what I’d soon learn to call a command performance—attending THE family Sunday dinner. We gathered around the big table. After “dinner” Ma, a would-be opera singer and the matriarch, would gather “her boys” round the piano for singing. That’s when I got bored and snuck into the kitchen to talk with Fred. Fred was a funny, wonderful, and handsome black man who, when Ma stomped her foot onto a hidden button under the table, would appear like magic. “More potatoes, Fred,” she’d say, and Fred returned to the kitchen and brought forth potatoes. Fred was like a waiter in a restaurant—a live-in waiter. He lived in “the servant quarters” somewhere in the large house. I wanted to visit Fred, but the “servant quarters” were off limits. Again, I did not understand why I couldn't pop in on Fred, but I was getting the idea that Fred, like Dinah and Lou, was somehow separate. I didn’t associate that with skin color, probably because the other “servant”, Nettie, was white. I was learning about class.

Scene IV.  Puerto Rican Girls

At eleven, I was old enough to walk with a friend to the RKO movie theater at 86th Street on Lexington Avenue just eight blocks from where I lived. One afternoon my friend and I were walking home from the movies and were accosted by a group of Puerto Rican girls. They yelled, screamed, grabbed our scarves, and pulled our hair. I was terrified. We broke free. I ran faster than I thought I could. My parents feared Puerto Ricans’ taking over our neighborhood. I feared them too. Soon we would move to Connecticut. I used to think that if I hadn’t told we might have stayed in the city I so loved. I was learning about ethnicity.

I never forgot that mighty and grand theater and how mighty and grand I felt being on my own.

All these learnings were rules, unspoken yet obvious to everyone—except me, a budding non-conformist. It wasn’t long before I would be deeply stung—unexpectedly thrown off kilter when at twelve I faced a draconian choice I was too young to manage. To be continued next week.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

2020.06.07 Trinity Sunday

Today, for Christians, is Trinity Sunday. To keep it simple, Trinity means Diversity within Unity, neither compromising the other— all of it divine.

The Trinity is a vision to emulate, especially at this time in the United States of America—a time when we are struggling to be united and free of our original and ongoing sin of rank-ordering our common humanity according to skin color, sexuality, social class, ability, political leanings, mental health, or religious preferences. We are murdering each other, thanks to this sin-sick practice.

I do not need to rehearse the events in history or just last week; nor do I need once again to remind us all about the purposeful misinterpretation of the Creator’s charge to humanity to care for all creation. Dominion does not mean domination, unless rank-ordering is the ethic, a practice that destroys Oneness, Diversity and Goodness.

As a therapist and spiritual director and priest I know that deep wounds interrupt the flow of Life itself. There are many ideas out there about what America’s wounds are. Racial injustice tops the list right now. I agree, yet I think the deeper wound is that we Americans are afraid.
    -afraid of ourselves
    -afraid of each other
    -afraid not to be great
    -afraid to be great
    -afraid to weep rather than shout,
    -afraid even to touch our wound.

Slowly, yet deliberately,
I touch the painful place.
I don’t know why;
I just need to.

Is there a strange kind of comfort in acknowledging the
The wound?

Strangely, the rollercoaster slows.
I hear the words,
“Pay attention. This is your life. This is Sacred.”

Mary Ann Bigelow, Spiritual Director, above words first published in 
Presence, International Journal of Spiritual Direction, March, 2020

To heal our wound we—together— must touch it, hallow it, give it belonging, a voice, bless it, talk about it in conversation, pray it, make it holy.  This is spiritual intelligence. This is Trinity.

P.S. Happy 86th Wedding Anniversary, Mom and Dad. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

2020.05.31 Pentecost. Whose Birthday Is It?

Pentecost is NOT the birthday of the Christian Church as many have been taught. Pentecost is a much bigger, grander, and far-reaching bomb of a holy day.

Think Mystic Flame, Mystic Wind, Cloven Tongues. Think crowds in the hundreds, Jews gathered to celebrate the 50th day after Passover Shavuoth—liberation and plenitude. Think crowds of thousands— Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Pamphylia, Phrygia, Cappadocia, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, Gentiles and Jews alike—all assembled, eager to experience Divinity. The huge guest list itself is the meaning of Pentecost in Acts—all drawn to the hearth of God's heart.

We dare not downsize this Spirit, nor confine it to certain sacraments administered by “fatherly hands.” Nor can it be claimed by any one religion or national group. It is the Spirit of deepest contact with the Divine, believers and non-believers. Pentecost is the birth of Internationalism—the spirituality of Democracy.

In 1918, theologian, Vida D. Scudder, said that Peter’s first sermon, carried a democratic message: “To you is the promise and to your children and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord God shall call . . .”   The struggle between nationalists and an international ideal was very much part of the story of the early church. How big will we be? How far is our reach? Who is part of this institution and who is not?

Peter, a nationalist, was overcome by the Spirit, which gave him breadth of vision. Nevertheless, he went right on opposing Paul and insisted on circumcision as a condition until the Spirit re-programmed his institutional tapes and shook his soul alive. That’s the goal of Pentecost. Even proper Anglicans get permission to shed decorum and explode with exuberance. 

Flowing from this Pentecostal Spirit are gifts. The first is Tongues. I once heard a woman speak in tongues in a parish church. To my shame, I silently condemned her as mentally ill, simply because I, sane and sensible, could not understand her language.

I was abashed to read Scudder’s interpretation of The Gift of Tongues as the Gift of Sympathy. Sympathy? Yes, feeling for the feelings of another. Tongues means to understand without language. It is the gift of knowing-by-soul, not by words. Habitually, we translate everything into our own language to validate it. I remember my thrill when I first read something in Spanish without translating it into English as I read. Tongues signifies that every stranger and alien, through the pentecostal Spirit, understood God’s revelation in their own language without translation.

When I went to Spain to live with a family, people talked so fast I couldn’t understand a word they said, in spite of my big fat college degrees! I felt scared and left out—alone. Too embarrassed to ask them to slow down, I just listened and watched until I caught the energy, the animation. I felt the people before I comprehended all their words. When I came home my mother asked me what the people were like, and I said: “People are people, the same everywhere.”

Habitually, I break things down, analyze meanings, develop my own arguments and opinions. That’s fine, but there is also a wordless language. Ask any baby. They all speak in tongues. And we listen, babble back, caught up in a transcendent moment of nonsensical connection.

To transcend one’s body is orgasmic. It’s not a sustainable state. For a moment you are both inside and outside yourself, experiencing a mystic self-transcendence, speechlessly beyond the comfort of intellect. Some of us cry out—O God—in such moments. 

When I went to a bullfight in Spain, I felt this transcendence. The howling crowd swayed side to side, following the energy of both toro and torero. To parse it was impossible. To make it mentally accessible impossible. So I lost my mind. I swayed with the rhythmic pulse of Olé. I had no objectivity, so I simply got lost in pentecostal exuberance. My olés were for the bull, but it didn’t matter. The crowd rose and fell in one piece—as one, just as Jesus advocated.

Try not to be offended that I put Jesus, and sex, and and the cruelty of bullfights together. All analogies fall short of Pentecostal immensity. Beyond the birthday of one religion, Pentecost summons us to recognize and realize the intimate transcendent oneness of all living things.

In church Christians gather to receive humble wafers and hear: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” possibly with the addition, "may it keep you in everlasting life” These words are not death sentences; they  do not mean we have to die or fly off to heaven to be with Christ. They mean that right now we are embraced by Infinity—IN God.

Pentecost, the Holy Spirit Presence, I believe, is always, always these things:
    -unitive not divisive
    -expansive not contractive
    -connective not disruptive
    -inclusive not exclusive
    -impartial not partisan
    -potent not passive
    -creative not destructive   
    -international not national
    -interdependent not autonomous

Pentecost is not the Birthday of Christianity. 
It is the Birthday of Creation.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

2020.05.24 Ascend?

I heard a sermon once, delivered boisterously from a skyscraper pulpit by a preacher of great surety and voice who announced to the congregation of neck-craning hopefuls below: Christ is the one God and all our prayers go through Him—and Him alone.

And there you have it, I thought.

This was an Ascension Day Eucharist at an Episcopal parish. There was time after the service for comments or questions. I had a sinking feeling. This preacher was not the type to be questioned. Still, one timid soul (not me) asked: “Well, must Christians always pray through Christ?”

The answer came quickly back: “Well, you could try to access God in other ways, of course, but your prayers won’t be valid.”


Besides thinking the guy was an arrogant Christian jerk and a spiritual egomaniac, I gnashed my teeth. I wanted to rip this preacher’s face off, or at least have a snatch at his clerical stole. Who was he to set limits on God?  I thought to argue with him or send him a curt note about his pastoral bullying, not to mention his bad theology. Instead, I stuffed my face at the spread of sweets—and more sweets—offered for guests in the parish house, and later let fly at my priest-spouse who responded (expletives deleted) and cracked the old Ascension joke about Jesus still in orbit in outer space. 

But I wasn’t satisfied. I prayed, wondered, and re-read the Ascension story in Acts. I knew it wasn’t factual, yet, once I quieted my snarky dismissal of Christian excess, I found the visual image compelling—Jesus’s last recorded act, a full-bodied rising, his feet hidden in clouds and his arms extended in blessing, or farewell.
The image pursued me, dragged me into a Pauline net of awakening—unforgettable blow to the soul, which is the point. Would I be, or am I, one of the goggle-eyed hopefuls gathered here below gawking at the disappearing savior? Historically, perhaps, but now? I’m not a clinger. Or am I?—secretly of course. I could never pray to such a Christ image, I thought. And then tears filled my eyes, followed by these words: Don’t leave me.

I’ll spare you a boring rehearsal of my abandonment issues, and all the reasons why I trained to be a bereavement counselor. If I were one of those people who were alive when Jesus was I would have holed up in terror and confusion in the little room to which his followers fled in Jerusalem. What now? I have often invited retreatants to sit quietly together and envision themselves in that upper room. What would they feel or think or say?  A few quickly spoke of the Resurrection—too quickly. One once said, “Holy shit!. Most stayed silent, and some cried their way through a halting conversation.

The writer and pastor, Frederick Buechner  came to mind. His wisdom was always to follow your tears, for you never know where they will lead. In his book, Listen to Your Life, he wrote: “See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

I’d always thought: If only I could just swallow my distaste for the ecstatic grandeur and glory imagery for Christ, I’d be closer to God-in-Christ. I’d accept the almighty, king, judge, son nomenclature. But the words get in the way. I can't see through them. So I follow my tears, knowing they are for the historical Jesus who would agree and who often shunned glorification. But he is gone—risen and ascended.

I pray: Jesus, I know you’re risen and it’s all good. I know you’re here spiritually, but I need you in the flesh NOW. To hell with all the Christology. I need you to descend again, to shed your transcendent almighty masculinity—here and now.  If there is a Second Coming, I need it NOW.  Amen.

This is probably one of the dumbest prayers I’ve ever uttered. I know better. But so what? I laughed, which broke through my doldrums.

I thought back to the offensive preacher and decided he would invalidate all my prayers, not to mention my tears. I knew he would think of himself in the ascending posture—above-it-all, knowing it all, just like all that imagery. I could not follow him.

I stared at the the Ascension image until it got blurry and I saw through it. I had to stare at a Crucifix a long time to see through it to resurrection. Oh, I can easily do it with my mind, but my heart only sees cruel injustice and  sorrow—even on the empty cross, which only dodges the horror of crucifixion—unless you see through it. Looking at is not the same as seeing through.

So it is with the Ascension image. My mind sees all the obvious Glory of magnificent divine overcoming, but when I stare deeply my heart sees through the glory to the pain of soul-binding loss—an image of soaring joy and plunging sorrow. 

Can I love both and find in both my life, my own full and fragile life?  I will try.