Sunday, January 19, 2020

2020.01.19 Prayer Habits

The most important thing I offer about prayer is this: Make it a habit! Some of it will feel useless or tepid, or foolish, or too wise for your own darn good, but do it anyway. It forces you to shift the focus away from your own glorious and ever-needy ego—at least once a day. It humbles you to invest some faith in a mysterious power deeper and greater than yourself, while you are simultaneously investing in your embodied self.

Things about prayer:
    There is no wrong or right way to pray.
    Never pray for something you are not willing also to work for, however you can.
    There are public prayers we all say together when we worship, and there are personal prayers we say inside our hearts, or alone in voice or song. All are equally spiritual. There is absolutely nothing you cannot express to God in prayer.
    You do not have to believe in God to pray.  If you’re worried about that, just pretend you do, or address an image of God you can open up to. God does not care. (It’s humans who do!) Besides, God will pray with and for you—no matter what.
    Prayer may not change things outside you, but it will change you from within. You will get to know yourself better as you pray. What matters most deeply? What are your ideas about God and why? What happens when you pray to Jesus?
    It is as important to ask as it is to receive. BOTH. And for the love of God do remember to say thank you, occasionally.
    It’s important to involve your body when you pray. There are many praying postures.
    Jews daven and murmur prayers. They move their lips and their bodies bow up and down. They pace and pray the psalms when a child is being born—nervous for the labor of childbirth, therefore rote well known prayers are the menu.
    All Psalms are prayer songs to chant.  Shiru l’Adonai shir chadash (Sing to the Lord a new song.)
    Buddhists and yogis and yoginis  make prayer hands as they bow to one another and say Namaste (The divine within me salutes the divine within you.)

    Muslims kneel and bow down five times a day to recite prayers—all the way down to touch the sacred earth and pray. FIVE!
     Pray naked—very revealing. (Don't recommend trying this in church on Sunday, at least until everyone has gone home—or not.)
      Christians pray standing , kneeling, sitting, and making the sign of the cross (head, groin, right side, left side). The Eastern Orthodox cross right to left. I do both. The gesture makes the sign of the cross to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, Christians’ role model to say the very least, and to remind me—and God—to be in my mind, womb, right side, left side. [I cannot resist an old yiddish joke that explains crossing oneself to remember: spectacles, testicles, vallet and vatch.] 

Most prayers address the Divine. ALL prayer is energy that connects divine and earthly, temporal and eternal. Do animals pray? Of course. Look deeply into the eyes of a dog. Relax into the vibrations of a cat’s purr. Shiver to a lion's roar. Or go on a silent retreat and listen to your own breath.

Prayer is a spiritual practice, a habit as essential to life as cleanliness and courtesy. It keeps the soul alive. When you cannot pray, others do it for you.

I have kept a prayer journal at different times in my life. I write letters to God: Dear God, love, Lyn. P.S. Amen and I love you.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

2020.01.12 The God Between Us. A Spirituality of Relationships

I had this idea some years ago: we think that the space in between us is empty, but it is really crackling with energy. That energy pulls for connection. That energy is the one Christians call Holy Spirit. That energy is like an electric current. I call it the God Between, pulling for healing, healing with which we can cooperate should we chose to trust it. I wrote about my idea.
The God Between connects us through Word and Sacrament, through a tiny blade of green grass, through the grin of a child, over distances our bodies cannot traverse but for which our souls deeply yearn.  

When I met with couples for counseling, I invited them to focus on their relationship, the space between them, the space we called their relationship, a relationship on which each depends for spiritual nourishment  How do they take care of its life, tend it?  I’d tell them: “Your relationship is the client/patient here. We are here together to examine the relationship." They’d either flee, thinking me insane, or become creatively involved, with me and their trust in God, in examining what each one brought to the shared space between them: regular rage? icy cubes? nothing?A relationship into which each one dumps constant anger, for example, begins to look like roadkill—malnutritious, if not downright toxic to all parties.

To my delight, my current publisher has just brought my out-of-print 2001 book, The God Between Us. A Spirituality of Relationships, back into circulation. It contains midrash stories based on biblical relationships. It is available on Amazon or from publisher, Wipf and Stock. What others said:

""This work is absolutely unique, and potentially radically transformative for any reader who takes its premise to heart. Rev. Brakeman proposes a way of listening to biblical narrative. . . that brings the contemplative reader a fresh awareness of how the divine is present to us in the 'between' of vital human relationships."" --John McDargh, PhD, Boston College, Department of Theology

""A skilled weaver of stories, Lyn Brakeman offers a creative and challenging approach to the Great Mystery of divine and human love. Her use of words is lively and disarming. . .her refreshing perspective on familiar biblical stories draws the reader into unexpected depths. There is much in this book for prayer and pondering."" —Margaret Guenther, author of The Practice of Prayer

""Lyn Brakeman is without a peer as an imaginative wordsmith in making biblical characters come alive in the fullness of their humanity while wrestling with powerful issues that are of contemporary concern. By her poetic description and beautifully crafted dialogue, she captures the loving truths of interpersonal relationships and human struggles amidst the presence of the God Between Us.”"—Merle Jordan, ThD, AAPC Diplomate, Emeritus Professor of Pastoral Psychology at Boston University School of Theology, Author of Reclaiming Your Story: Family History and Spiritual Growth. (Sadly, Professor Jordan died in 2018)

Sunday, January 5, 2020

2020.01.05 Gratitude?

Gratitude is platitude.  This phrase popped into my waning, wandering mind sometime earlier this week on a dreary, drizzly, doomsey, sunless day, the umpteenth in a row. What a horrid thing to think! I berated my ingratitude, platitudinous as it may be. I have attitude.

What am I saying when everyone reminds me in every way possible in church and secular deepest state, and deeper church, that I should be grateful —ALL the time—for my health, my security, family, friends, a beloved husband who isn’t sick and who is still mentally alert, and much fun.

But how silly all this meandering is, I tell myself.  You feel blue? So get up off your arse and DO something that makes a difference. So I do. First, I moan and whine to my beloved who listens and supplies counter attacks on my essential feelings of inadequacy. His solutions are too obvious, but they make me cry, which I need to do when I’m squeezed into a mood like this. What do the Jungians calls it? Oh yes, my shadow side, or some such hifalutin malarkey. The next thing I do is practical and useful: I clean the inside, yes, INSIDE of the washing machine.

Ok, so how about reading something uplifting that will NOT make me feel grateful. Because I’m sick of gratitude. It only makes me feel guilty and mealy-mouthed. It has no tread, no backbone.
I pick up my Berkeley Divinity School newsletter and read a brilliant letter from Dean McGowan whom I admire—for his accent and his wise mind. He reminds me that the whole church is on the fritz. I know that already. He has no ideas but says it all so brilliantly that I fall into a jealous swoon. McGowan calls for more “thought-leaders to engage both the perennial truths of the Gospel and lessons from history, ancient and modern.”

I’m a thought leader, I think. So I read further into the magazine. There I see numbers of wonderful women who have brought honor to my seminary. Women who are firsts. Women who have done amazing things. Women who get prizes named after them. Yes, I should be grateful for these wonderful leaders shining from within the pages of the Anglican branch of my seminary’s newsletter. I have done some amazing things too. I have been passionately preaching about non-binary (love that word) gender-free language for God for years. I’m an author. How great I am. How under-appreciated I feel. How needy. Oh boo hoo and bullshit.

Then suddenly I feel a swell of anger. I’ve hit bottom, and bottom is exactly where I need to be. It’s where God took me as a disgruntled child, and where God always takes me when I’m overwrought, upset, and self-critical. God listens to me get pissed off and powerful. Why?

Why in the bejesus are we STILL touting firsts and sheroes and women who are doing all the same thing men before them have done and still do? Same praise recipe, just add a gender. How can we REALLY heal the oppressively patriarchal system in which we all have been trapped for centuries? REALLY change it rather than simply touting all the top ten players. Oh yes, lots of others get named because they gave money, that list too is rank-ordered. How can we go for deep change to bring about real justice, real embodied and shared equality in this patriarchalized, topdown world without bashing traditional winners?  All we do is move the players around like pieces on the same board without changing the game. It’s not enough for abundant gratitude—the worst kind of spiritual slather-on-demand gratitude.

My anger lets me rise up, focus, and by God I do feel better! Better enough to go out into the dark, because I want to get to CVS before the day is out and redeem my feeble little $10 off for the $40 I will have to spend just to redeem one godforsaken coupon. I buy a HUGE  jar of soothing Cetaphil for my aging skin, and then something sensible like Mucinex-D for my cough, plus a bag of M&Ms. I have to buy these in order to get enough on my tab to validate my coupon. The young man behind the counter checks me out and with me goes a paper strip—more coupons. It runs from my chin to my ankle (literally)—a large dose of corporate coupon hospitality. By now I’m laughing out loud. I bust open the M&Ms and throw a handful into my mouth. God, I’m grateful for the sweet wee treats.

Laughter is very close to anger focused and released. Much more healing than gooey gratitude.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2020.01.01 New New New

We have 7 flesh and blood children. We have 12 flesh and blood grandchildren. We have 28 stuffed children, too. Here are some of them to say Happy New Year to you all. See them grin and wave.

They are l.tor r.—Walter, our pescatarian, Leo, our zodiak sign, Ganley #1, wee hedgehog atop Leo, Ganley #2 another wee hedgehog a she-hedgehog, Miss Wise, my totem, standing as a watch-owl over the whole group, and lastly but not leastly, Izzy, the Ladybug.  

You see what can happen when you don't have your own children together? Well, you infuse your stuffies with mystical meaning and love. These 6 sleep between us every night and travel with us, only when they're very good.

When we told a good friend about "The Babies," she commented with a grin: "You two fascinate me." 

Anyway, have hope and grin and grist in 2020.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019.12.29 Christmastide and the Politics Set In

The day after Christ-Mass, December 26, is the day we remember St. Stephen, the first deacon and martyr, stoned to death for his faith in the foolishness of such a faith built on vulnerable Love not Power.

Then on December 27, we remember St John the Evangelist who dared to proclaim the gospel of The Word Made Flesh, the great miracle of the Incarnation. No one could believe that God “Almighty” would be such a fool as to take on human flesh, joining humanity and divinity together forever. God, help us to honor the divine spirit in our own flesh.

On December 28, we remember more martyrs of the flesh, Holy Innocents, young children slaughtered by order of a terrified “caesar” who feared the spread of Christianity, and with it the loss of his own kingly power to another one called Jesus the Christ, Lord of all, ruling with Love not Power.

Today, December 29, the first Sunday after Christmas we anticipate the story of the Magi, Eastern sages/astrologers who, instructed by the frightened rival-king, Herod the Great, traveled to Bethlehem in search of a star that would guide them to the birth of this rumored new Messiah. Herod, puffed up with his kingly power, sent for the Magi to find this rival, so he too could bow in worship.  Herod lied. 

The Magi, canny and wise, were not easily fooled. They left their precious gifts at the manger scene and split. Why? They weren’t about to risk being whistle blowers, yet they knew they had seen a more authentic “king” than Herod. Their wisdom was confirmed by the Voice of God, a character in biblical story, warning them that the Herodian establishment  was a threat the land and to their own lives. The godly solution was simple: Don’t tell; Keep Herod in the dark; Don’t buy into his deal; Listen to my voice.

The Voice of God is a prominent character in all biblical story. Do you hear it sometimes too?

Here is a poem written by a Welsh poet and teacher, a man whose life was passionately dedicated to justice in spite of painful personal losses and an early death after a stroke at the age of 67. The young children Williams taught were mesmerized by his charism and riveted by his poetry.  Williams, like the Magi, discerned the voice of God in the mystery of a simple story.  A wise man himself.

In the Days of Caesar, by Waldo Williams (translated from Welsh by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury)

In the days of Caesar, when his subjects went to be reckoned,
there was a poem made, too dark for him (naive with power) to read.
It was a bunch of shepherds who discovered
in Bethlehem of Judah, the great music beyond reason and reckoning:
shepherds, the sort of folk who leave the ninety-nine behind
so as to bring the stray back home, they heard it clear,
the subtle assonances of the day, dawning toward cock-crow,
the birthday of the Lamb of God, shepherd of mortals.
Well, little people, and my little nation, can you see
the secret buried in you, that no Caesar, ever captures in his lists?
Will not the shepherd come to fetch us in our desert,
gathering us in to give us birth again, weaving us into one
in a song heard in the sky over Bethlehem?
He seeks us out as a word-hoard for his workmanship, the laureate of heaven.

Oh God, such poetic politics does give me hope and a swoon.

We cannot, any more than our ancient forebears could, live without the Voice of God, however and wherever, we hear it—very often in some kind of unbelievable story, even your own. Listen for this voice, heed “subtle assonances” beyond reason or politics as usual. Don’t buy into lies or listen to contemporary Caesars, “naive with power.” 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

2019.12.25 Listen Well

Occasionally, a homiletic reflection is offered that is hard as stone and true as the natal cry of Life. Below is one offered by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts. I’m grateful!

And every stone shall cry.  And every stone shall cry, in praises of the Child by whose descent among us the worlds are reconciled.”  [Richard Wilbur, Hymn 104, The Hymnal 1982]

A manger hard as stone.  The poor little family arrived weary from the long journey.  A child was born.  Born in a stable, laid in a manger, so we say.  But in that time and place animals were sheltered not in a stable, really.  It was a cave, hollowed out of the rocky hillsides upon which villages were nestled.  For 20 centuries our human imagination has carried this story.  We place it in settings familiar to us.  Of course we do, because the story belongs to us.  So the holy family is imagined in a barn, and the child is laid in a wooden feeding box.  And that is right, for Christ surely is born into every land and time and culture.  But in ancient Bethlehem that night, that little homeless family was in a rocky place. The manger was hard as stone.

Walls hard as stone.  Twenty-first-century Bethlehem is criss-crossed with walls.  Concrete walls up to 25 feet high divide neighborhood from neighborhood, family from family.  Observation towers appear where the barrier turns a corner. Graffiti on the wall says, “Welcome to Santa’s Ghetto,” and “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Pope Francis, on his visit to Bethlehem, made an unscheduled stop.  He walked to the wall, bowed his head in silent prayer, laid his palm against the cement and touched his forehead to its coldness.  In Bethlehem today the thousands of pilgrims that for centuries flocked to the place of Jesus’ birth at Christmas have dwindled to a trickle.  Too divided.  Too dangerous.  Too broken.  The walls in Bethlehem are hard as stone.

A heart of stone.  The Hebrew prophets knew the stony human heart.  They saw wanton cruelty and needless starvation; sacking and looting; the destruction of God’s temple; plunder and fire and blood and death.  Such hardness of heart has endured in the ensuing millennia.  Crusades and inquisitions; genocides and holocaust; bombs taking planes out of the sky; chemical and biological warfare; murderous attacks in schools, clinics, houses of worship; immigrant children held in cages.  In the face of humanity’s murderous ways, came Ezekiel’s clarion prophecy:  "Thus says the Lord God: … I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” [Ezekiel 36:22,26]  The human heart can be hard as stone.

A heart of flesh.  At Christmas we greet the very heart of God made flesh.  Born 2,000 years ago.  Born again every time the vulnerability of human love fills the rocky trough of human cruelty.  It is in the very nature of love to be vulnerable. Precisely because God loves us was Jesus born, vulnerable to the needs of every helpless infant.  He grew, dependent upon the care of loving parents.  He preached and taught, vulnerable to the resentment of the religious establishment.  And he died, vulnerable to the cruelty of the Roman occupation.  He died every bit as vulnerable as the victims of warfare in Syria and Yemen; as vulnerable as the victims of terror in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, of massacres in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Jersey City.  He died as vulnerable as me and you.

But listen well:  In that infant birth–and in the life, death and resurrection that followed–God in Jesus proclaims that the joy and peace of the incarnation will not surrender to the terror of Herod’s day, nor ours; that vulnerable love is stronger than hateful death; that trust is stronger than suspicion; that faith is stronger than fear; that innocence is stronger than cynicism; that life and love are God’s will for us, and are our ultimate destiny.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  [John 1:1,4-5]  This is the message of Christmas.  Not the stony human heart, but the compassionate and imperishable heart of flesh is what we proclaim, 2,000 years ago, and emphatically now.

Christmas blessings to you!

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
December 16, 2019

Sunday, December 22, 2019

2019.12.22 Tidbits of Holy Wow

People throughout history have always asked big fat unmanageable questions like: Is there God? How did we get here? What is the meaning of life? Who IS holy? No one has good or manageable answers that satisfy all human hungers for the Holy. Holy is not about being good. It’s about being whole-hearted, letting your soul choose life.

I sometime fret about church attendance. Occasionally, I nudge my children to “go to church.” I’m gentle but I know it’s a little nag. Yet, do I really care? I have to say, not so much. Then I worry that I have detached with denial and not with love from the Holy.

 The Holy is everywhere. All you need is to Wonder and go WOW!

Suffering from impeachment fatigue, sick of life-according-to-Twitter and the temptation to stop caring, I watch for signs that help me to care anyway, to wonder and laugh. Some of what inspires Wonder in me is quirky. In the absence of any objectivity in American politics, I stop trying to find out THE truth. Instead, I find things that make me laugh and feel the uplift of joy—not happiness as if everything is suddenly perfect, but joy—a kind of heart-leaping energy that reminds me I am as alive as when I was born.

The brilliance of the Holy comes to me from inside my religious traditions as well as from outside them. It comes from inside my own mental meanderings as well as from the view outside my window, which today included two men at work on a construction site next door. They were bundled against the cold, likely freezing as they hammered and banged away at the slow-to-rise foundation of a duplex. Suddenly, they started to play—slip-sliding down the snowy slope as if sledding on boots, laughing, throwing snowballs. Childish? You bet. Holy? You bet.

Then I received an image from a friend who has collected Santas for 20 years. Everywhere she goes she finds images of Christmas in the many artistic and cultural variations of Santa Claus, giver of good gifts. She now has a mantel that will hold all her Santas. Room at the “inn” for all.

We have been watching some British television. Its wry humor feels just right. We’ve watched “Fleabag.” It’s a family sitcom, totally unorthodox and outrageous, just what we love, maybe need. At the heart of the drama is a young woman in search of a young man to do “it” with. She becomes smitten with a Roman Catholic priest. Their flirtatious interplay is mutual. In one scene she declares that she does not want to be Catholic, not that he has asked. He quickly, and with total sincerity, replies: “Oh good, I’m so happy that you have such faith in a totally meaningless universe.” This is just before she moves intrepidly into the topic of celibacy.

Just this week I noticed on my home altar a stink bug that had crawled up onto a small cross to die there. The cross is a small replica of the Cross of Nails, originally designed from the burnt nails left after the Coventry Cathedral in England was destroyed by fire. Stink bugs, by the way, are agricultural pests, but they won’t hurt you unless they’re assaulted, and, in defense, emit a hideous stink!  Astounded, I touched the insect to check for life. It was quite dead and quite securely anchored. I laughed. Every critter has soul, is Holy. Of course I projected all kinds of Jesus-y thoughts, settling on: “Into your hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” All Creation is Holy and all returns to its Creator. Here’s my stink bug corpus.
Then in my chiropractor's office I noticed a new addition to the decor. Sitting comfortably in a chair next to the waiting room was a human skeleton, all 270 bones accounted for. The pelvic area looked ample so I thought this skeleton was female. I laughed out loud. What a perfect ad for chiropractic medicine. It keeps your bones in alignment. It feels good to be all lined up inside and out. Thinking with my spiritual imagination, I thought of the word righteousness. In the Bible righteous is a very good way to be. It means being in right relationship with God, yourself and your neighbor—all lined up. The Hebrew word is tsaddiq. When the chiropractor adjusts your bones, you are aligned, righteous, each bone in line to work with the others for a whole body. Here’s my righteous bone-girl.

All these odd tidbits of Holy are not my way of being sarcastic, making fun, or being sacrilegious. They are ways to see beneath the surface of things, and most especially, ways that "life" me and make me laugh with joy—that heart-leaping energy that reminds me I am as alive as when I was born.