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)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

2018.11.25 Christ in Majesty. Us In High Hilarity

Here we are sitting on a wall under a huge tree at a monastery. Now how romantic is that? Not very—however, we are laughing.  Other than bad jokes or good jokes or church jokes, laughing for us is a way we make love and keep love alive. It's not derisive, just boldly out of line or unexpected. 

And we both know what is funny even when others don't see it. Jesus had a knack for that, which is probably why it is nowhere written that Jesus laughed. Once when reading the gospel portion in John, when the disciple were going nuts wondering how anyone could be born again, I inserted: Jesus laughed. Then he went on to elaborate a teaching. No one in the congregation laughed. Do people listen I wonder?

This photo was taken in the autumn of 1991. We were at Holy Cross Monastery on retreat. We were invited by the monastery p.r. monk to pose for this photo which was taken by a professional photographer.  They used it on the cover of a promotional brochure. We are laughing about suddenly being catapulted into fame as cover-couple contemplatives. I wish I could enlarge this cover more, but I guess you can discern that I am clearly making some big point to Dick who clearly appreciates my every word. This only happens on silent retreats.

Happy 32nd anniversary, my beloved marriage partner. We were married in 1986 on this Sunday when Christ is praised for rising triumphant above it all—sin, death, hate, politics. Together we have risen above lots of adversity and weathered lots of scorn, including a near-crucifixion for being "church criminals." (Seriously one man called us that when we got divorces and married, but he had a diagnosis.)  

I love your laughter, our laughter, and the humor we find in the most seriously righteous befuddlement. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

2018.11.22 Thanksgiving—a Short List

Today is Thanksgiving Day. In the face of so much to decry in this world and church, I am grateful for love, prayer, beauty, and children. Such things keep me alive and well. I am also grateful for hate and ugliness, because such things keep me humble.

     For love, because it is as basic to the viability and vigor of my soul as food and water are to my body. When I am not well enough fed I cannot feed others.

     For prayer, because it is what consistently connects me to my inner self and the truth of my  own feelings, desires and needs. This is my baseline. I address my prayers to God, say AMEN, then go on with my life to the best of my ability and grit. Self-knowing and God-knowing are correlative. I don't know what God does, but prayer keeps me alive and alert to signs and wonders all around me.

     For beauty, because it is all around us if we would but expect it, then notice it, then praise it. It's in human faces, tears, laughter, frown, fret, puzzlement, terror, anger, awe, and wonder—also spoof and surprise. It's in Nature—animals and plants, in every form and shape.

     For children, because I grew up with my own four beloved children, now adults, yes, but also because all young children exhibit uncontrollable impulses toward play, toward joining, delightedly and without prejudice, with other children in the romp of play, the best play being the disorganized  spontaneous play for its own sake. They make it happen together—in conversations with stuffed playmates, at tea parties, and on play grounds with lively playmates.

"One afternoon your mother and I took you to visit a preschool. Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children, The children were running, jumping, and tumbling. You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum.      .  .  .  I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, 'We don't know these folks! Be cool!' I did not do this. I was growing, and if I could not name my anguish precisely I still knew there was nothing noble in it. But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing—that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children I m ashamed."

This passage is from a memoir, Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the form of a letter to his son. Coates has described the terror many black people feel for the precious children they love as much as white people love theirs. These parents love their children with such ferocity that they have to train them into fear rather than confidence, teach them how to protect their black bodies, to be "watchful prudent and shrewd" always, just because their skin is not white. The contrast with what white parents teach their children about how to walk in the world—confidence and boldness according to the respect they expect to get—is tragically stark. 

In this scene above, however, the high value of child's play for the spiritual well-being of a child supersedes racial profiling and all the lessons that go with it. Coates's son, he acknowledges, is naturally extroverted and uninhibited, but play is shaped by its toddler participants according to their personalities—not the color of their skins. When I read the anguish of this father who for a moment dropped his own fears to let his son play freely, my heart broke open.  I believe God's does too.

My God, my God, what have we done?  My God, my God what are we doing?

Scriptures tell us that a little child will lead us. Will we follow?


Sunday, November 18, 2018

2018.11.18 There Is a Time For Everything—Everything

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. That’s odd because it is many people’s least loved book. It’s in the Christian Old Testament and, according to apocryphal story, became the subject of great controversy and was nearly dropped from the Canon of Scripture.

When I was in seminary back in the 1980s, a humorous audiotape circulated among us about Ecclesiastes’s author, Qoheleth, the wise preacher. Many male voices argued vociferously, over-shouting one another, about its qualifications. Was it genuine? Was it holy enough to qualify for holiness? Did a book so cynical, even fatalistic in its approach, belong in a collection of authoritative sacred works? The din of their fervor made us all laugh, and also proved, to me at least, that this earthen wisdom was indeed sacred.

Wisdom and righteousness are elusively mysterious, yet both are essential for the embodied soul. There is a time to struggle against the way things are and a time to let go. Everything belongs. This message was so depressing that scriptural scribal editors added a very small Epilogue, almost apologizing for this nutty sage, assuring us that in the end God will make it all okay. Such dilution! Such lopsided heresy.

Here are Qoheleth’s well known biblical lines: dated between 450-350BCE—perhaps. There is no scholarly consensus about dating, possibly a sign of this book’s ultimate worth.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclus 3: 1-8)

You will also recognize Qoheleth’s ancient voice in the popular song written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s: “Turn, Turn Turn.”  Seeger wrote it as a plea for peace, adding a line at the end, “. . . a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

Members of an  an EfM seminar group recently listened to a reading from Ecclesiastes and pondered their own responses. As I listened I thought the struggle to have things be one way or the other way, in a kind of binary mentality, was very true to lived experience and a particularly tempting attitude just now. Many scary, even violent things are happening—massacres, bombs sent to political figures, abnormal weather events, and more. There is a time to hate, and a time to love; a time to fear and a time to trust. 

NOTE: Qoheleth does not say either/or; he says both/and. One woman wondered aloud: "How long does a “time” last? " Will this era pass soon?  What about the confusion of trying to land on righteousness—from whose point of view?

I don’t know.

Then I remembered one of Jesus’s parables, a favorite of mine: the parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together in a field. (Matt. 13:24-30) The slaves (slaves no less!) come nattering and nagging about how these weeds got into a pure wheat field. Should they rush in and rip out all the nasty weeds? An enemy is blamed; assumptions are made that the kingdom of heaven must be pure; and self-righteousness takes hold. Final answer to slaves?  No, let them grow together until the final harvest. A warning is issued that in pulling out weeds any human action might pull out wheat as well. Let go and let God.
There is a time for wheat and a time for weeds. Obviously, the parable tells us that we are NOT qualified to identify and separate good from evil individuals. This is not ours to do, not ours to judge, not ours to execute. This parable is only in Matthew, and Matthew has a heavy moral agenda, appropriate for his time, but perhaps not forever and ever amen.

This is a time in our nation when we are living with wheat and weeds and fighting about who is which, making assumptions about the true nature of each.

It is a time to let things grow together, because they will anyway. After all, both wheat and weed do grow and flourish in the same fertile field. God have mercy, this is hard wisdom!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

2018.11.11 Risky Grace: An Amazing Story of True-Grit Grace, Part II

The W.A.S.P. pedigree in the 1950s had served as almost a degree, or decree, of admittance into elite white Protestant society. It also became a required credential by which debutantes and their proposed escorts would be, in Scarsdale and many other cities and towns, screened for The Holly Ball for debutantes, inaugurated in 1953, the year George Kempsell was installed as rector of St. James the Less.

As I write this I remember with a shiver how my mother practically forced me to be a debutante. It was the worst kind of social snobbism imaginable. I was deeply embarrassed at eighteen and remain so. Nevertheless I was announced and escorted on my father’s arm—coming out into what? Society, but whose society? 

George Kempsell had ignited a simmering cauldron of wealth, white privilege, fear, and the age old habit of taking righteous shelter in privatism: the autonomy of a private club to make its own rules. Kempsell’s appeal to a higher authority held little sway against the  dominant social class ideology. Although some supported his position, a position about which he and the parish, ironically, received much public attention, even nationally, forces combined to create a “perfect storm” anyway: Kempsell had the power and the duty to excommunicate those who did not repent in response to his charge of bigotry, and they had the power to withdraw their money and leave the parish. The impasse was unresolvable, and the damage was done. The stigma of bigotry and prejudice associated with Scarsdale left scars, perhaps not entirely deserved, and Kempsell was forced out. The stormy scandal only stayed hot for a time, but it made its mark. Some few in the club today still harbor bitterness about the Kempsell scandal.

Kempsell went from giving celebrity-like speeches, sent by the Episcopal Diocese, to receiving death threats, being removed from his home by the FBI, and being silenced. He bought a guard dog. He was a broken man, though not defeated. He tendered his resignation in January, 1963, the month and year my oldest daughter was born and I received a Masters degree, both of which, slaked my thirst for pursuing a church career path of my own—for now.

The Scarsdale parish raised money to facilitate the Kempsell family’s move to Dallas, Texas, to a parish that proved inhospitable to his progressive ideas for different reasons. Finally, Kempsell went to a small rural church in Arvada, Colorado, where he stayed true to his prophetic ideals, provided pastoral care, and was beloved by many. I found no repentance stats for the accused. Here is the only small photo I found of Kempsell—baptizing an infant, I think in the Scarsdale parish.

Would I have repented? Probably not. I was a grudging grouchy debutante, yes, but I was surely glad no fiery preacher had blasted my parents’ country club and held my feet to the fire.  Risky grace would require too much of me—right now.

Dick Simeone also did not think women’s ordination as priests was right. Many male Episcopal priests feared the loss of their clerical collegiality and authority, or more precisely, the sharing of such a long-held patriarchal privilege. He valued his patriarchal status, even though he felt some discomfort. Things happen when one faces formative influences that don’t sync with one’s true character.  

Dick first met me when he interviewed for the position of rector at my home parish.  I was on the parish search committee, and was also a female aspirant to the priesthood. I asked him directly about his position on the matter. He gave a long, complicated, homiletic answer, amply justifying the theological and ecclesial rationale for women priests, then grinned: “I’m in favor of women priests.”  Good thing. I, by now more ready for risky grace, would have fiercely protested his election as our rector.  

Kempsell, possibly under the influence of Ruth, his beloved wife of over thirty years, had also admitted: “I was wrong about women's ordination.” Although thin and frail, he traveled to New York and stood for his niece at her ordination.

Kempsell died on August 31, 1980, on the thirteenth birthday of my oldest son, just one year and five months after the death of my youngest sister, two and a half weeks after my own forty-second birthday, in the midst of the painful time of separation before inevitable divorce, and eight months after Dick assumed the rectorship of my home parish. I’d clung feverishly to my desire to be a priest, even after I’d been turned down twice. Would I risk it again? When Dick came he brought his powerful confidence in me with him and told me Kempsell’s story. I knew, without knowing, that I would risk trying it again. If Kempsell could risk fighting for his vision in Scarsdale, I could risk fighting for mine in Connecticut.

Kempsell’s memorial service at the Episcopal Cathedral in Denver was packed, so full that people were standing in the aisles—testimony to this small dynamic man’s courage, his insistence that everyone be treated equally, regardless of race, creed, color, or gender. 

I was ordained priest in 1988 at the parish church where Dick was rector, my husband of two years, and the preacher for the day. The small church was full and adorned with roses—scents of a woman. The ordaining bishop had a serious head cold. Both roses and sneezes were fitting tributes to lots of determination and challenge on my part and the somewhat grudging willingness of an institution to comply. I pronounced the final blessing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—imbalanced gendered language, but for that day, okay.
                                                        * * * * * *
The Kempsell story happened in the 1960s when civil rights was heating up and racial fears steaming. Lurking beneath racism in America, even then, was classism, waiting in the wings to assert its dominance. Now, over fifty years after Scarsdale and the Civil Rights movement, classism is virulent enough to make sure that the elimination of other -isms, such as racism and sexism, remains unattainable. The election and ascendancy of our current president is not the cause but rather the result of this lingering prejudice—a move away from the values of our democracy, not to mention the values of Jesus the Christ or George Kempsell.

We, in Church and State, need more George Kempsells—people with courage or grit enough to stand up to excesses of populism, aka mob power, traditionalism, another -ism grown rigid, and recalcitrant defining classism.

Kempsell stood for equality. He was fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as a second-class Christian.”  True, and thank you, George Kempsell.

(Much of the detail for this post I got from a blog post by Thomas Quirk who grew up in Scarsdale from 1953-1961 and is now a high school teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts. I am grateful for his research and his caring.)