Sunday, June 23, 2019

2019.06.23 Teachers—And Then Some

One of the most treasured and, yes, loving, professions is that of being a teacher. Teachers are all over the place, but I’m thinking of classroom teachers. I remember the ones who shaped my life by knowing the shape of my life before I knew it.

How, for example, could my high school English teacher have known when he assigned year-end senior projects that the best assignment for me would be Charles Dickens? He knew before I did that I leaned toward compassion and justice for underdogs. He knew that I swooned over big spiritual Scrooge-like transformations. And he knew I had a penchant for good words, preferably big unmanageable ones, and a longing to be found, or at least noticed.

My favorite Dickens novel was Bleak House. Honestly, I don’t remember much of it except that it was about a young girl who wrote letters to an older man who took great care responding to the girl’s missives. Thus she grew to love herself. The relationship wasn’t lascivious but avuncular. I remember it felt holy to me. Here’s a quote: “There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.” 

No, I did not remember those exact words. I looked them up. They felt just like something that would have stuck with me, made me laugh, and justify some of my own supercilious attitudes towards my elders. One of those elders must have gotten my drift, or been prodded by my mother, because, yearly for years, she gave me a bound-in-leather, gold-leaf, edition of a Dickens novel until I had the whole set. I hope my son Rob still has them—not for the money’s worth but for the soul’s worth.

A grandson, fourteen, recently responded to my typically-adult-inanity: What’s your favorite subject? He said something like: “Last year it was History but this year it’s English.” Why? Because last year’s English teacher was “no good.” The teacher makes the subject matter live. It’s an art.

My youngest son John is a teacher. He chose his profession, inspired by a teacher who wasn’t even his teacher but a special presenter in one of his college classes. The topic was educational advising, or how to teach teachers.  John thought: “I’d like to do that.” After the presentation he went to talk to the presenter, who was in a hurry and brushed off  John’s enthusiasm—a cardinal sin, I’d say. Nevertheless, even a sin can plant a seed. John pursued education instead of following his brother and dad into a business career. He taught in a racially segregated elementary public school in Florida. Anti-segregation laws soon passed, so his school had to integrate—admit more white children. The experience was formative for John, professionally and spiritually. Perhaps it was “Dickensian.”

I think this is how the Spirit works—not telling us what precisely to do but setting a small fire under our own desires.  I pursued, not Dickens, but writing with a religious, if sometimes sarcastic, bent. John returned to Connecticut, taught fifth grade, got his master's degree, and now heads up the library in an elementary school, where, you could say, he teaches teachers or at least ignites their impulses—known and unknown.  

Just a few days ago John was in an ice cream shop. The teenager behind the counter looked familiar. The boy smiled. John said: “I think I know you.” The boy said: “Mr. Brakeman?” John remembered instantly this young fifth grader, Timmy, I’ll call him. He had been a history buff with a special interest in American history. John had encouraged his interest and found books to fan the embers. Timmy told John he was going to college next year and planned to major in history. “Thanks for the education, Mr. Brakeman. The ice cream’s on me.” What better praise can there be?

It excites me when all that praise and glory we blast off on regularly in church escapes into the world we foolishly call secular, as if there were really a difference. If only we would notice. Pay attention to the small stuff that’s not supposed to happen but does.

Poet Brian Doyle wrote about another fifth-grader. May this poem serve to bless all teachers everywhere who teach knowledge—and knowing.

A Poem for Literature Teacher Beth
Morgan of Lassiter High in Georgia

Maybe you will think this is a tiny thing
But I do not think it’s a little thing when
A student asks me if I could possibly jot
A poem for his absolute favorite teacher
Because he wants to give her an odd gift
Of a poem by a writer she enjoys and he,
The student, says he knows this is crazy,
But he really admires this teacher, so he,
The writer, touched by the student’s guts
And how fine the teacher must be to jazz
 A student like that, says sure, and he sits
Down one morning to scribble the poem,
And here it is, but this poem, you notice,
Is a poem about the student being moved
By a teacher, and the teacher being zesty
And honest and real and so passionate as
To stories that he, the student, will never
Forget the teacher. That is the best poem.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

2019.06.16 Knocking Off THE Father and Loving the Daddy

Happy Father’s Day. Happy Trinity Sunday.

Many Christians claim to understand the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, yet no one does. How can the one God be partitioned—thrice holy? In church we pray to OUR FATHER. We bless and anoint in the name of THE FATHER. Adding HIS only son and a holy spirit, we lustily sing Holy, Holy, Holy. We proclaim, praise, and triple-bind ourselves into this girdle of holiness and name it One God. Now who really does not secretly know that the real head of this sweet holy trio is THE FATHER? 

I’m a woman, also a mother. My preferred pronouns are she, her, hers. I’m not named as one of these major God parts. I’m not bitter, because my spiritual experience tells me I’m holy, and that the Trinity really means that the One Father God’s holiness is innumerable—not three or even three zillion. God has no preferred pronouns. God is not my father. 

Most days I adored my father. I used to think he was like God and imagined him in grandiose ways. One day though I did discover that he really was the bravest man in the universe.

Daddy was a city man—reserved, handsome, advertising executive. As a child I longed to capture his attention. My strategies, chiefly cuteness, incessant questions, and begging for one more book, bore little fruit—except in the summer when left the city and spent time on a farm up-state. Daddy commuted but took lots of vacation time. We got to explore the near-sacred mysteries of life on a farm.

We’d read picture books about farm animals, so we’d practiced neighs, brays, moos, cackles, and oinks. On the farm our book-animals leapt alive. We bonded over barnyard sights, sounds, and smells, especially freshly mown hay, pigs wallowing in mud, and cows. I was scared but Daddy was brave. Watching a cow give birth terrified me. The mother cow struggled and bellowed. Daddy told me to wait, luckily refraining from a lesson in sex education. I held my hands over my eyes, but peeked. When the calf finally emerged my heart jumped. How had it fit inside? This led us to the bull—a daddy to avoid, Daddy said.

The bull had his own stall. We peeked in. The bull snorted and had sharp piercing eyes—angry. One day the farmer asked Daddy to help get the bull up a ramp and onto the trailer for transport. The bull was secured by ropes tied to a halter. I watched, shivering with fear. Some men tugged the lead on the halter and pulled. Others poked with pitchforks from the rear. The raging bull jerked his head and took a quick turn toward Daddy. The farmer yelled: “Jump aside quick!” I held my breath till the bull galloped up the ramp onto the truck. Daddy was saved.

Driving home, I asked softly: “Daddy, were you scared?”

“You bet I was Lynnie,” he said.  

At that moment I knew my father really was the bravest man in the universe.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy—God also of course and in case.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

2019.06.09 Who Is a Mystic?

Most people would say “Not me!”

Pentecost is the wildest, freest, most voluminous occasion and season of all seasons spiritual. It marks the biblical story of Creation’s awareness of the presence of a Holy Spirit that powers, let’s say, divine activism. GO! She travels far and wide, probing the depths and sowing seeds of hope, healing, and divine Goodness and Love. She/He is gender-free and bright green, passionate red, eye-popping gold and blue-all-over—a genuine Mystic, wisely irrational. 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes about the Kabbalah Jewish mystical tradition:  “I think what our generation seems to be living through is the realization that rationalism is only part of the answer. I think, I’m not the first one to notice this, that Auschwitz and Hiroshima were perfectly rational decisions. So there’s this sense that religion has to be more than rationalism. Any mysticism offers—it says, sort of like in the corner, ‘Psst, hey kid how would you like a direct experience of the divine? Would that help your religious life?’ A lot of people discover that they’re mystics after all when they’re given that offer.” 

Rabbi Kushner’s definition of a mystic: “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradiction, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” 

I like that definition better than the one that insists on a direct experience of the divine—not because it is more rational, far from it, but because it makes room for the immanence of the transcendent—the divine within us, encouraging and empowering us to trust that hidden unity.

Kushner is a long time student of the Kabbalah. He was influenced by a Jewish historical figure named Gershom Scholem (1918-1982). Gershom rescued this tradition from obscurity.  The spirit of Kabbalah wraps teachings in teachings, wisdom in wisdom, life within life—analogically, like a Torah scroll wraps round itself. Kushner is the Emanu-El scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and the author of many books.
As a young child I experienced an invisible, inaudible, listening Presence I called God. I chattered. God listened. I learned that I mattered. You could say my words wrapped within The Word. I erred and strayed, but I never forgot the mark that experience left on me. It left me with that “gnawing suspicion” Kushner described: Good lies concealed in any chaos.

Every morning about 4 a.m., the birds begin their day-song before day breaks. They are natural anticipatory mystics, sensing, trusting, and proclaiming the light before it comes. Seeds planted in fertile soil do the same. Tree roots are the same: they hide under layers of concrete sidewalk, yet they push through and grow! GO. So also for tiny seeds of kindness planted in trusting desperate souls. Lions know when to leap and monkeys when to race up trees. GO! Jesus knew when to shut up and when to GO!

In the Old Testament, God spoke directly to prophets who conveyed divine messages—mostly about ways people can help God by listening and looking, especially in the darkest corners of misery to see where God needed help to create life anew. Imitate God, they said. Imitate Jesus the Christ, Christians say. Imitate Holy Spirit! GO!

When the prophetic tradition died out, people feared there would be no more direct Voice of God. Would God be silent? No. God continued to communicate in a new way called the bath qol.  It means “the daughter of a voice”—not inferior to what prophets experienced but more inward/subjective, far-reaching. For Christians, this voice is carried by the Holy Spirit. It is what Jesus heard within himself at his baptism: You are my son, the beloved. GO!

I have heard this bath qol seven times in my life, mostly posing challenging questions, such as what in the world are you thinking of here? These queries were personal wakeup calls for subjective clarity. 

BUT twice, God’s bath qol was more direct.
    -I was in deep distress after being turned down in the ordination process. I had run out of words completely, maybe like Jonah sitting dejectedly under the sheltering plant God provided and Jonah failed to appreciate. Or Elijah sitting outside his cave in misery. Both discerned the bath qol telling them: GO! This is the same voice Mary Magdalene felt within her vision at the empty tomb of grief. GO! To me God said: “No one can take this away from you, Lyn.” This stark truth was confrontive not comforting.  I heard: GO! 
    -And once again when I was fretting about ordination, Godde’s bath qol said:“Lyn I don’t care if you’re ordained.” How rude. I got it. GO! I kept going, unresolved.

Do such experiences make me a mystic?  I don’t know. But I can tell you that I do have the annoying tendency Kushner identified as mystical: "the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradiction, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” 

I say “annoying” in part because this tendency annoys my empirical beloved husband who accuses me of missing the obvious ingredients that make things look impossible. I do miss them, but that’s often because I trust there’s something unitive, transformative, gloriously hidden, and emergent—if I can only trust the long slow work of God and my own grit to GO— no matter what.

In sum, I bet there are more mystics in this world than not—a few are clothed in human flesh.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

2019.06.02 Ask and You Will Receive

Furious Prayer for the Church I Love and Have Always Loved but Which Drives Me Insane with its Fussy Fidgety Prim Tin-eared Thirst for Control and Rules and Power and Money Rather Than the One Simple Thing the Founder Insisted On.

Granted, it’s a tough assignment, the original assignment I get that. Love—Lord help us, could we not have been assigned something easier, like astrophysics or quantum mechanics. But no—love those you cannot love. Love those who are poor and broken and fouled and dirty and sick with sores. Love those who wish to strike you on both cheeks. Love the blowhard, the pompous ass, the arrogant liar. Find the Christ in each heart, even those. Preach the Gospel and only if necessary talk about it. Be the Word. It is easy to advise and pronounce and suggest and lecture; it is not so easy to do what must be done without sometimes shrieking. Bring love like a bright weapon against the dark. The Rabbi did not say build churches, or retreat houses, or secure a fleet of cars for general use, or convene conferences, or issue position papers. He was pretty blunt about the hungry and the naked and the sick. He was not reasonable; we forget this. The Church is not a reasonable idea. The Church should be a verb. When it is only a noun it is not what the Founder asked of us. Let us pray that we are ever after dissolving the formal officious arrogant thing that wants to rise, and ever fomenting the contradictory revolutionary countercultural thing that could change life on this planet. It could, you know. Let’s try again today. And so:amen.

by Brian Doyle, A Book of Uncommon Prayer. 100 Celebrations of the Miracle and Muddle of the Ordinary, 2014

The Muddle
A man named James who sits in his wheelchair in Harvard Square. I pass him every time I walk from the subway to where I get my hair cut. I only see him once a month, but I look forward to it. James is a lovely man with multiple handicaps, a gentle soul, and a smile from heaven. You could say James is homeless, disabled, an amputee, a street person, a beggar just looking for the next drink. You could discount him, as some do when they bustle by. I know he lives someplace where he is taken care of, and that someone brings him daily to his spot. He’s not an aggressive man, and he doesn’t call out or rattle a cup of coins for attention. But boy, when James smiles you know the world is his proverbial oyster—and you are the only one who matters at this moment. And James knows how to ask for what he needs. This is the part of the biblical wisdom we do not easily engage: asking and receiving are related, part of a whole. Once James asked me to marry him, and once he stammered, “ I love you” and motioned to me to lean towards him for a kiss. He is a person who matters, and I am not the only one who notices James.

The Miracle
Google-godde came to the rescue. James made it online. A Harvard senior, George David Torres, befriended him. James told Torres that he needed a new wheelchair. He asked. In the midst of Torres’s final exams he took the time and the heart to start a gofundme page to raise money for a new wheelchair for James. People were generous and Torres worked with The Boston Orthopedic and Respiratory. James received his new chair plus the bonus of a new cup in which to store his earnings.  Here he is with his new chair and cup—and his thank you note in process.

So much for envious projections of snootiness onto Harvard students. Call it Harvardism.

So much for assumptions about the general goodness and generosity of the public. Most people are kind.

So much for judging street beggary and putting everyone into the same nasty box called lazy, irresponsible, poor, or drunks.

So much for the idea that it is mostly religious or churched or Christian people who do their spiritual homework and follow Jesus’s only one commandment: Love. And doesn't love require paying attention and listening, both asking and receiving?

From what I have read about street people they appreciate money, but more importantly, they appreciate being noticed. I am not the only one who notices James. All this took place at the end of last summer. This summer so far I have missed James and pray with him. Please do the same if you will. Prayer is not a haughty holier-than-thou practice, nor is it magic or useless. It evokes hope in absence. It invokes God. Anyone can pray, and there probably is no one who has never prayed.

May Brian Doyle have the last word: 
Let us pray that we are ever after dissolving the formal officious arrogant thing that wants to rise, and ever fomenting the contradictory revolutionary countercultural thing that could change life on this planet. It could, you know. Let’s try again today. And so:amen.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

2019.05.26 Rogations

The tender seed finds the stirring of life deep within itself - and what is deepest in the seed reaches out to what is deepest in life . . . "
~ Howard Thurman, from Meditations of the Heart

Many of us are used to thinking of God as up there, then coming down to be in and with us before leaving again. It feels, metaphorically, as if divinity hits a home run, then dashes in to touch home base —for a brief moment only— before disappearing into clouds of fame and glory. This spatial metaphor fits with our penchant for divine transcendence, but it’s not very grounded and it creates an image of divinity that borders on condescension. No wonder so many of us don’t feel at home with God.

Jesus spoke frequently about seeds and planting seeds, waiting for seeds to grow, and sowing seeds along paths. He would sometimes bend down and scoop up soil or seeds, and he frequently bent to listen to the words of children. He was fully earthed, even earthy I suspect.

On Rogation days we let God come down to earth. Rogation comes from the Latin root rogare, meaning simply to ask. On Rogation days, Christians ask the soil to nurture seeds we plant, that they may bear fruit and feed us. We also ask that God nurture spiritual seeds implanted in our flesh, that we will grow strong and faithful and plant ourselves solidly on earth to practice the way of love just as Jesus the seed-planter did.

Some of the most delightful seeds I know come from the mouths of young children. If you listen for seeds of wisdom you’ll find them in the mouths of young children.

Here’s a story about Jack. Jack is six. He is a child who asks multitudes of questions about everything that pops into his mind. Jack asks about God. His curious mind is open and fresh. What is God?

Enter Grandma. She reads Jack a book called What Is God? by Etan Boritzer.
The book is brilliantly illustrated. It explores every aspect of Jack’s question, a question people the world over ask and wonder about all the time. There are no answers, but Jack is not alone in his wondering.

Jack’s Grandpa tells Jack about a book he wrote about Tim. Who is Tim? Tim is a large pink stuffed chimpanzee that belonged to Jack’s Daddy, Michael. Jack is all ears. Tim went everywhere with Michael, but when Michael slept Tim had wild, scary adventures. Grandpa shows Jack a book he wrote about Tim’s escapades.

Where is Tim now?  Grandma and Grandpa explain to Jack that when they come to California to visit Jack they leave Tim back east. Jack bursts into tears.  “How could you leave Tim all alone?"

A discussion ensues about what is real and what is make-believe. Tim is not real. Tim is just a toy.  Jack listens to all the explaining, then firmly asserts: “The tooth fairy is real.” Grandma and Grandpa nod. Jack had that week lost his first tooth. He knows the tooth fairy is real. Jack is ready to go to bed now—almost. “Wait, let’s read What Is God? It’s a beautiful book,” Jack says. And so they do.

Like Jack, we all go through awakenings many times over. How many comings-of-age are there?  How many home-bases do we seek and touch? How many wondering questions are too many? There’s nothing silly or childish about such questions. They pop up, especially when someone dies, or is missing, like Tim. Where is he? Will we see him again? Is there a heaven? What is God?  Such questions have no answers and we shouldn’t try to answer them.

Just let the imaginary bump into the real. Let them co-exist, complement one another. We need cold hard facts and the creative imagination of unknowing. In the same way we need the God hidden intimately in seeds and the God bursting with glory rising.

Tim is alive. So is God.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

2019.05.19 Invigoration

Last week I had two invigorating experiences—speaking experiences that sparked my soul and brought light to my eyes, and fire to my heart. I was tired when I went in all prepared and—my armor—but when I came out I was alive, awake, fired up not burned out. I was the principle speaker. But I was the speaker in words only.  My listeners supplied the heft, the spiritual energy, and the authentic Word. (I capitalize that to mean that I think God/Spirit was present in the connection—not the whole cause of it, but the true essence.)

Part I  The Young

On Tuesday I visited a college class,The Psychology of Spirituality, at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. My oldest Granddaughter, Gillian Colbath, a SCSU graduate, had loved this class. The professor, Dr. Jessica Suckle-Nelson, aka Dr. S., had told me the class loved my talk last year, so I invited myself back. The seventeen twenty-something students wandered and straddled and finally assembled. They all sat along the edges or in the back of the classroom at lab table desks. I began: “This looks like church. Everyone sits way in the back or lines up along the side—as if you couldn’t be seen.” Everyone laughed. At ease.

Introductions with name, place, and serial number are always dry and boringly necessary. I invited each one to say something interesting about him or herself and simultaneously guaranteed that I wouldn’t remember any of their names. We laughed. Interesting things included being born with no pinkie knuckles, living in Greece for a year, playing three musical instruments well, feeling lost from a connection with religion or God, being agnostic but curious, and more. My own thing was: I am a wannabe Catholic, one-time Presbyterian, turned Episcopal priest—happily ever after, so far. I watched each face light up as each shared a mere snippet of what made them—them. No one balked. Analogically, I felt as if we all were baptized together in the gentle waters of the divine womb—all born together not of years, but by Soul.

I then invited them to go deep with apologias, not as an apology or regret, but as a way to say more about what mattered to them. Blank faces looked as if I were crazy. I even told them I had read the famous tract Apologia Pro Vita Sua written in 1864 by John Henry Cardinal Newman who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Handsome sage, no?
Newman's work was like a spiritual memoir in defense of his controversial choice. His contemporaries freaked out, as people do when you push an already tight envelop wide enough to split its seams. I told the students I struggled through Newman’s famous work and didn’t understand a word. I did, however, get the idea that it was good to know what I was doing and why. And hey, Newman’s tract raised such a fuss it became a best-seller, is still in print, and  in time qualified him for sainthood. Don’t be afraid of yourself and the depth dimension of life, I suggested. There’s wisdom to be found. Newman's lasting goodies include:
    To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often
    Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a                 beginning.
    Growth is the only evidence of life.

I felt invigorated by the openness and curiosity of these young people, even though I did most of the talking and had to be reminded that I’d just gone over the magic hour of class dismissal. Graciously, they applauded and left. I hope the time was as nourishing for them as it was for me. Perhaps the greatest joy of the day was getting hugs and grins from Gillian, a beloved first granddaughter with the loveliest smile and personality I think I have ever seen.

Part II The Older

On Thursday I spoke to a group of about twenty older women on the topic: “Am I My Sister’s Keeper?". They are part of Women Explore, a group that has been meeting since 1953 to hear speakers and each other on the sacred dimensions of a woman’s life. Men were admitted so I brought my faithful beloved chauffeur/husband. He is my personal GPS without whom, well, I get lost.

With this group I had as much fun. They were all white proper Bostonians mostly from Cambridge, so I began with my own apologia: I am white, elite, went to elite schools, privileged, and cis-gendered. I’m also religious—not a very politically correct marker these days. I am also sick of being labeled and typed. I’m not consistently aware of my privileges, but I try, and trying is divine. I use my privileges for those closest to me in love, and I use them for larger causes like social justice. But I’m sick of being stereotyped for my labels. So add that I’m a woman impatiently aging and pissed. I swear this country would elect a newt or a dishrag before it would elect a woman as our president!  

Again, humor eased us all into a loaded topic. 

A focus speaker talked about her personal experience with the topic. She said she devoted herself to caring for others and posed questions about how much "is too much." She was trying to figure out the difficult answers on her own, a strategy that rarely works. She apparently had left herself off the list of those who also need her caring compassion.

I advocated for collective spiritual keepership and focused directly on the biblical story about two brothers, Cain and Abel, and the poignant extremes of sibling rivalry leading to the first murder + cover-up in the Bible. What we notice—when we wake up—is that God knows what Cain has done, is not pleased, exiles Cain, and then gives him a “mark” assuring him of God’s presence and his survival. Look always for the last word! Simply so.

The Bible remains, mysteriously, a best seller, because there is every human problem imaginable in it. Believe me: your own story is in there. The wonder of it is that there is a consistent relationship pattern of connection/disconnection/reconnection. Astonishingly, the people and God reconnect even after the worst possible messes. Often God initiates the reconnection, though sometimes we do in our prayers and with the graces of forgiveness, advocated by all spiritual gurus. 

Collective spiritual keepership means that we all are keepers of one another. Benefits include: non-partisan politics, fuel for our prayers, healing collective shame, efficient action, awareness enough to build mutual relationships, commitment to organizing for the common good, justice, equity, truth-telling, peace, energy enough to save our drowning planet, Mother Earth.

We live in a tragic time of renewed holocaust mentality: burnt offerings—guns burn, fires burn religious structures, kids in schools burn, tiny children burn with loss and terror. With the resurgence of white supremacy comes the supremacy of terrorism and holocaust as strategies of choice.

The women asked many questions. They burned with the fuel of longing for change, and for a new way of being people together. The young burned with the same energy. Such inner burning is not holocaustal. It is the fire of spirituality, burning within us. It is strong. It is alive. It is available. It is what connected the nuns and the “nones”, both fueled by the same activist energy, now working together for change. It is what fires up all religions. It’s what inspires Goodness, what Creator God started in the beginning. In today’s gospel Jesus re-reminds us to Love each other. Yes, and while you’re at it love yourself.

You may not believe in God, yet you can believe in the fire within you, and you can act with Love as its fuel. Love is the only fire vigorous and hot enough to burn out destruction by holocaust fires. Love will save us and our drowning planet. And, for Christians, it is the ONLY mission Jesus fired up.

And so may we try. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

2019.05.12 Mothers' Day

It’s Mother’s Day, and so it is!! Reposition the apostrophe and it is Mothers' Day. When mothering types act together, take note and watch out.

Motherhood is a funny thing really. It’s a loaded topic. Many people write about it, critique it, identify changing stereotypes, decide just how it should be enfleshed—womb or no womb—even in men. Most families, created by love or sacrament or law, have a mothering type in them.

At our recent diocesan clergy conference we heard amazing presentations by the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Canon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral. Her topic was “Beyond White Supremacy: Being Church in a Changing America” Douglas is a black woman, a scholar, a powerhouse presence, and a mother. There is much to relate about her presentations. Today I honor her mothering spirituality and priestly vocation of word and sacrament.


Dr. Douglas’s talks were not simply about racism but focused directly on black bodies and the American culture of anti-blackness and white superiority, implanted from the beginning within the founding narrative of Anglo-Saxon  exceptionalism. It’s in our national genes, transmitted from generation to generation to blacks and whites, fostering mutual suspicion, fear and aggression within a structured power imbalance system tipped against blackness. This condition has also invaded our interpretations of Holy Scriptures and our capacity to discern the work of the God’s expansive creativity without racial assumptions and biases. You’d think Jesus was white!  Douglas had to reassure us a few times that she in fact is still a Christian. I wondered why. But I believed her.

Douglas is also the mother of a son. She mentioned him on and off throughout her passionate discourse. She is a mother daily afraid for her son in this country. She has deliberated sending send him to Africa. She, like all black mothers, daily drilled into her son the basic rules for survival in a world ruled by white authority, privilege, and law. Black mothers drill these rules into their sons—over and over. This is how you will get home safely, son. These Mothers’ Rules are strategies for safety. They focus on street behavior and go far beyond what a white mom might suggest for pubic decorum to her sons—in urgency and impact.  Yes, be careful and don’t be fresh or mug or steal or lie, etc., I, a white mother, would throw off by word and example. Still, a privilege I realized I have had as a white mother is that there’s not the underlying daily terror of being targeted for violence-unto-death FOR NO REASON.  Douglas has spent most of her life trying to figure out why black-skinned people were targeted. The only rational answer is: NOTHING.  The rules must be obeyed anyway.

10 Rules of Survival if Stopped by the Police

1. Be polite and respectful when stopped by the police. Keep your mouth closed.
2. Remember that your goal is to get home safely. If you feel that your rights have been violated, you and your parents have the right to file a formal complaint with your local police jurisdiction.
3. Don’t, under any circumstance, get into an argument with the police.
4. Always remember that anything you say or do can be used against you in court.
5. Keep your hands in plain sight and make sure the police can see your hands at all times.
6. Avoid physical contact with the police. No sudden movements, and keep hands out of your pockets.
7. Do not run, even if you are afraid of the police.
8. Even if you believe that you are innocent, do not resist arrest.
9. Don’t make any statements about the incident until you are able to meet with a lawyer or public defender.
10. Stay calm and remain in control. Watch your words, body language and emotions.

The only rule I might add is don’t wear a hoodie!  Or maybe, DO wear one and hide your hands because they too are black. Maybe wear long pants in all seasons. It gets absurd, but then the situation is ab-surdus—coming from deafness, totally out of tune. American anti-blackness is just that. Tragically, however, these rules are not wildly illogical at all.

I know this seems depressing for Mother’s Day, but it is Mothersday. I have never thought about this day as racial. My love and caring for all my children and grandchildren, biological and acquired by love, is intense, and my protective instincts, to the point of defensiveness, are equally great. I confess I worry more about my daughters in this patriarchally-charged American society, but I have never worried about my sons or daughters, because they are white-skinned. Every time a black boy is shot on the streets I know that a mother’s heart is broken. (Also a father’s heart.) I  know as well that some white woman’s heart gets broken too, because her son has been arrested as a perpetrator of racial violence or has been shot himself as a bystander in a melée. 

Why are so many Christians silent? Why is this subject not preached more in white churches? Is it in black churches? Statistically, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the week. Churches are segregated not by policy, but by racial choice. White people are no more welcome in black churches than blacks are in white churches. A black Episcopal priest and a friend said he felt at a loss about how to communicate all this to his black congregation. He said a white man came to church not long ago and wanted to join the parish. “My people were suspicious. Why is that man here? Who is he?” It felt invasive and so it was. Should it be?

How did we get there and how can we get out?  American statesman, orator, abolitionist leader, and escaped slave, Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845: “Between this land and the Christianity of Christ I recognize the widest of possible difference.” I bet Frederick Douglass still prays from his grave.

We hear preaching against violence in general, but not so much against white supremacy in our religion, which is, we proclaim, the Way of Love, divine and human, without exception or condition.  Is there something askew in our religion? Has the Biblical witness been used to reinforce the Anglo-Saxon narrative of whiteness as divine? Indeed so. 

Both Douglas and Douglass challenge us all to interrogate our history and our dominant narrative. Will we be a country and a church of white exceptionalism or a country and church of liberty and justice and compassionate love for all—in FACT?

Will we be the beloved community envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. the vision for which he died? Will we be the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ envisioned and died for? Faith is always dangerous and risky. So is life. 

What about Mothers Against White Supremacy?