Sunday, December 8, 2019

2019.12.08 You Do Not Have To Believe In God To Pray, Do You?

The Advent season is paradoxical. It’s full of darkness and ominous warnings about endings—of the world, of human lives, of our whole planet in peril. Simultaneously, Advent also offers stunningly compelling images of light—the light of a single matchstick struck to brighten a small space, the light of a single candle passed around to light other candles, the pierce of a single note or voice, calling now and over time for people to look and see and expect.

Such Advent chiaroscuro is just enough to hold a community at worship, or at war, in thrilled suspension for mere seconds. That’s when you hold your breath and breathe. That’s when you murmur, Oh my God, and you don’t know why, but you think it might be prayer.

Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy's brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as "Young Rabbit," or even "Rabbit"; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn't know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit's safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.

So begins the article “Can You Say  . . . Hero?” by Tom Junod, originally published in the November, 1998 issue of Esquire Magazine.  The current popular movie, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” is the story of Mr. Rogers and Tom Junod and Old Rabbit—and a lot more. Junod is a writer who was assigned to interview Fred Rogers, hero of children’s television and originator of the show for young children: “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.”

The most wonderful thing about the late Fred Rogers and his show was not its popularity, but the fact that so far no one—no one—has been able to prove that Mr. Rogers was not really, in true life that is, as nice as the person he created for his show, a person who welcomed everyone equally with a smile into his make-believe neighborhood, who spent time listening to each child no matter how off schedule the filming of his show got, and who consistently embodied his message: “I like you just the way you are.”  Oh my God

It was all an act of course, wasn’t it?

Tom Junod was grumpy about being assigned the task of interviewing Mr. Rogers for a series on heroes. Junod was cynical, skeptical, and irritated. He wanted some “hot shot hero” to interview, someone who was a REAL hero, not a schmaltzy kiddie show host. And on top of all that the editor of Esquire only gave him 400 words. Reluctantly, Junod did his job. He hung out at the edges of the make-believe neighborhood to meet this make-believe man, this silly non-hero. He hovered in the darkened gloom of the studio and watched, scribbling notes on and off. He intended to create something passably publishable and do it with haste. Gradually, Junod edged from the darkness into the light of Rogers’s soft voice and the paradoxical truth of actually being liked just as he was—mile-high shoulder chip and all.

No, he did not learn to pray, although that was something Mr. Rogers did regularly, and in one scene Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, called the entire theater audience into a silence—just a short moment. We all became a prayer—all at once one, not a sound. No, he did not have a religious conversion or suddenly proclaim the glory of God.  No, he did not say Oh my God out loud. And no, he did not write a paean to a lost beloved rabbit—not really.

Such a mixed-up experience is a bit like Advent. We move slowly and uncertainly to let in a little bit of light and hope at a time, just inches at a time. We do not magically transform our darkness of mood or circumstance into light. Nor do we change our personality any more than Junod did, but we do begin to live allowing light and dark to meet each other, to co-exist, neither one compromising the other.

You could say this is what being really nice and really real is all about. Oh my God.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

2019.12.02 At the Turn of the Year

It is not the calendar year that turns in the bleak mid-winter. It’s the Church year. And the Season’s year. Looking outside at 4 p.m. to see the darkness begin to descend, reminds me that the day is turning itself downwards like the knob on the stove makes the bright fire of the burner’s flame slowly lower and lower and lower.

I understand why people become depressed in this season. I understand why people hasten to put up Christmas lights—prematurely. I understand why we rush to the stores to shop for glitter and glamor. I also understand why the Christian church calls for a slow-down, not a speed-up, a space where candlelight suffices. I understand why my heart thrills at the first silence of the first snowfall, a cold wet blanket of hush that says: Nurture the darkness. Let it wrap your soul in hope. Don’t rush. Wait. Listen. Every single snowflake has it own unique shape and its own silence. So, beloved, do you.

Poets and mystics in all spiritual traditions discover the full presence of the Divine in the stillness. Eastern traditions have lead the way. No wonder the Church sings the hymn, “People Look East” in this season. The East is where the sun rises.

One of the Islamic world’s greatest poets, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), was a Sufi mystic, a lover of philosophy and of humanity. His followers began a school of mysticism for people to encounter the divine presence without mediation. The Sufi religious order was a mendicant order, so not noted for extravagance or shopping sprees. But they were noted for wild ecstatic rituals in which they danced and whirled and often howled. It is known to Westerners as “Whirling Dervishes.”


Notice these dervishes are all men. I find that exciting. Whirling wildly is a form of really letting go without getting drunk or high to do it. Women, then and maybe now, do dance wildly but not often in public, which could be dangerous—an invitation to sexual advances or rape.

Here is the poet Rumi to say it best.

Forget your life.
Say God is Great. Get up.
You think you know what time it is.
It’s time to pray.

You’ve carved so many little figurines, too
many.
Don’t knock on any random door like a
beggar.

Reach your long hands out to another door,
beyond where you go on the street, the street
where everyone says, “How are you?” and no
one says, “How aren’t you?”

Tomorrow you’ll see what you’ve broken and
torn tonight, thrashing in the dark.

Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know
about. He’s not interested in how things look
different in moonlight.

If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you’re causing terrible damage.

If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
you’re helping people you don’t know and
have never seen.

Is what I say true? Say yes quickly, if you
know, if you’ve known it from before the
beginning of the universe.



(NO, I don’t understand it either. So I just swallow it whole and say yes quickly—into the darkness, into the love, into myself, into God.)



Saturday, November 23, 2019

2019.11.24 No Matter What, Love!


 Modern Declaration
    by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never
    having wavered
In these affection; never through shyness in the houses of
the
    rich or in the presence of clergymen having denied these
loves;
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having
    grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these
loves;
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by
    a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers
    of their alert enemies; declare

That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied
    interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.  



I might have meant this declaration of love to address God whose presence I met as a young child and trust every day—okay with some dips and pauses.

But today I mean this poem for my beloved spouse of 33 years. We were married within the context of the parish Sunday morning Eucharist on Christ the King Sunday, November 23, 1986 with the proviso that we NOT sing the traditionally-themed hymn, “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” There were, and are, enough “hims” taking over everything everywhere that one more hymn to him was just too much, I ruled. And not on the day of my second marriage. 

This day honors a God who brings life out of death. For us, that “death” was the end of our first marriages. I felt joy, fear, grief, gratitude, and love all at once. My pile of feelings brought a few tears during the vows. I will never forget the look on my dearly beloved’s face. The memory makes us laugh. I felt the need and trust of God’s presence intensely, and I was marrying a man who shared that faith. We still do and we call Christ the King Christ in Majesty—a tad less gendered, though I prefer Christ the Kin (one of the Germanic origins of the word King). Yes!

So we married each other on this special Sunday, which in 1986 was November 23. I have never regretted a single moment of our 33 years of loving and sparring and loving and weeping and loving again and again. So, dearly beloved, I say, with the poet (never say poetESS):

That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied
    interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.  






Sunday, November 17, 2019

2019.11.17 Transforming God

The age of anxiety is upon us—globally.

What DO we teach and tell our children? They are not immune to the talk and the worry in the air, on the air, all over the internet, in the corridors of locked-up-for-security schools. Civics courses teach the history and structure of government. They and are good and returning to classrooms, but what are we doing in religious settings? What are we hearing from pulpits? I hear good hope and Advent spirituality of light. Still we are in darkness nationally and internationally. I say and think to myself, “Fear not.”  Then I hear myself say, “Too late!” Then I laugh. It helps.

According to Mary Hunt, co-director of WATER (Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual): "Finally, since so many roots in injustice can be traced to a judging God, a Ruler King, lordship and dominance, we encourage a wholesale overhaul of religious images and symbols. Resistance to that work is the measure of its necessity. Imagine if common language about the divine were gender inclusive, better, not anthropomorphic at all. Consider what a creation story that puts plants and animals on the same plane as people would do for ecology. Think about ways to teach children that diversity and difference, not sameness and dominance are to be celebrated.” 

YES!

For my part, I write and nag and preach when I can about the God I have known and remember always, not just in church. Many people say they do not believe in God anymore. I ask them to tell me about the God they do not believe in. Answers vary, but mostly they use language like Mary Hunt has described above: THE ONE Almighty, King, Ruler, Judge, Sky-King, Super-Man, Lord-of-Lords, and the like. I do not think of chipmunks with such images. Nor do I think of the God I know, present in small wonders, silly memories, and laughter.

I go upstairs to give my beloved a quick hug. He has baked chocolate chip cookies. They are cooling on the countertop and smell deliciously delectably deliriously holy. Why holy? I remember that the voice of God sprouted within me while I was baking chocolate chip cookies for my children back in the 1970s and feeling Stepford-dead. God-in-me asked: “Why are you doing this?" I didn’t know. I laughed. I still don’t know. I remember. It helps.

My husband the chef points to a reunion notice from my college and says: “Hey, it’s your 70th reunion in 2020!” He’s excited. “Look, Lyn, look.”  I look and see that it says the 70th reunion for the Class of 1950 is 2020. I graduated in 1960. “How old do you think I am?”  We laugh. It helps.

Opening the mail to throw out most of it, I spot just one envelope addressed to me. Envelopes marked first class are rare. It’s an invitation with a festive wreath on it. It’s pretty. It’s a YDS (Yale Divinity School) Christmas party, December 6th. That would be my late maternal grandmother’s 147th birthday. I remember. It helps. The invitation has promise. I show it to my husband who says: “Why don’t they have it up here where you live? We could go.” We laugh. It helps. I snitch a cookie, and only then notice that the bottom side is black. I laugh. It’s good anyway.

Today a small grandchild, five, exuberantly tells me two things on the phone, immediately after saying "Hi": 1) “I WILL be stronger than Phoebe (his older sister). Yup, I will.”  2) “For Christmas I want Transformers. I build them myself. They come in a kit, Grammy.” I laugh. I tell him okay. He laughs. It helps.

Children—even the ones most deprived, most alienated, most discarded, most depressed—still, even at the youngest ages, have dreams and hopes and aspirations and memories.

Who or what made you feel loved, even just for a moment or in a small way? 

I google Transformers, toy. Sure enough they are build-your-own whatever. If you can figure it out, feel free. It’s harder to build-your-own anything when you’re 80 than when you’re 5 and building your whole life in a toy you know is a robot. I laugh. I remember. It helps. Here is a Transformer transformed.




Maybe we can rebuild God?  God, we are told, transforms things, even the worst of things like injustice, inhumanity, evil, collective anxiety—maybe even the climate. But can we transform our ideas and images of God?  Will we?

Yup, we will.




Sunday, November 10, 2019

2019.11.10 How Many Resurrections Are There?

The seasons of Halloween, All Saints, Daylight Savings are all about surprises and disguises. What you thought was one thing is suddenly another. There’s grief. There is also the joy of plain old wondering and searching for what you can’t see. Who is behind the mask? Where did that hour of time go? What now can be trusted?  This is surely what the early Jesus followers must have felt after he died and they could no longer see him in the flesh, even though he had told them he was always there. They told stories and learned how to see through and beyond the obvious. They did not conjure doctrines. They asked crazy questions and they laughed. So do we.

Could There Be a Badger Jesus?

You want to hear a resurrection story? I’ll tell you
A resurrection story. I saw a squirrel get squished
In the street. This was on Ash Street, near where a
Family named Penance lives. Things like this rivet
Me. Religions don’t live in churches. Religions are
Not about religion, in the end; they’re vocabularies.
This squirrel got hammered. I mean, a car ran right
Over it, and the car sped down the hill, and I recall
Thinking that some dog would soon be delighted to
Be rolling ecstatically in squirrel oil, but then, even
As I watched, the animal resumed its original shape
And staggered off into the laurel thicket, inarguably
Alive and mobile, if somewhat rattled and unkempt.
Jesus and Lazarus must have known that feeling, of
Being sore in every joint, and utterly totally fixated
On a shower and coffee and a sandwich. Or walnuts,
Depending, I suppose, on species. Our current form
Is a nebulous idea, is what I am trying to say. Could
It be that resurrections are normal and the one we’re
Always going on about in the Christian mythologies
Is only One a long time ago, when there are millions
Per day? Could there be an insect Jesus and a badger
Jesus and a salmon Jesus? Could there be impossible
Zillions of Jesuses? Isn’t that really the whole point?
American Badger

Thank you Brian Doyle, brilliant “incarnationist” poet. You understood deep incarnation—deep, as in the divinity of all living things, even the dead. I wish you were still alive and writing in your down-to-earth heavenly way. You got the point. You get the point. Thank you.

Look everywhere, especially when you’re squished, or think you are. Don’t forget to look in the mirror—deeply. 




Sunday, November 3, 2019

2019.11.03 How Can A House Divided Stand?

Saints and sinners live side by side everywhere—in every home, town, city, nation, country, church—and in every soul. When you know and embrace this wisdom your house will not be divided.

What happens, though, when ignorance and evil conspire to become institutionalized?

Recently, on the nightly news commentary show, Greater Boston, we heard an interview with French artist and filmmaker François Ozon. He talked about his creative process in making a movie about the abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. The film is based on true stories and real people and is entitled, “By the Grace of God.”

Ozon spoke about his well-curated decision to make a movie, rather than a documentary or even a docudrama, about the pedophilia crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in France. He got actors to play the parts of the priest, those who exercised ecclesiastical authority, the adult men who'd suffered abuse as children, and their families in Lyon, France.

THE STORY

All the victims had remembered in silence. One man began to search for the others. They found each other, shared their shame and their stories, and were able together to effect some change in a centuries-old rigidified, hierarchical, religious institution. How did they accomplish this?—through the power of truth, collective action, mutual support, media, and the secular legal system.

All of the men had been part of a scout troupe led by one parish priest who was sexually attracted to children. The narrowing of the focus plus the dramatization of the issue made it flesh, made it real, and therefore palpably credible—much more so than a docudrama would have. 

Although this film is in French and has subtitles, the dialogue isn’t complex, and the subtitles are not bothersome.

MEANINGS

Besides a sinking heart, I felt a rising rage AND an expansive hope after I saw it. There is much more to this trauma than meets the eye. 
    -This is NOT as simple as an indictment of the institutional Roman Catholic Church. It is about centuries of patriarchal power abuses and coverups, involving complicit men and women at all levels—saints and sinners all.
    -It is about the politics of money. 
    -It is about confusing the Church with God, commonly called idolatry. 
    -It is frighteningly connected to what is going on in our nation and the world right now.
    -It is about ancient wisdom: words of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke way back in the first century CE: A house divided against itself cannot stand. (Mk. 3:25, Mt. 12:25, Lk. 11:17) You don’t need a personified figure called Satan to know this truth. 
    -It is about the ultimate value of breaking the silence and the shame that engulf addiction and related compulsions, diseases that keep full healing out of reach for too many. 
    -It is about tragic, treacherous exploitation of the best of religious values: forgiveness and divine compassion, and the Mystery of the Holy within and among us. 
    -It is about a terrifying exploitation of the Gospel: Jesus himself loved and touched little children, did he not?
    -It is NOT about priests who are evil, but about priests, such as the one in this film, who repeatedly ask for help for their mental illness and get refused. It is about priests, such as the one in this film who, when confronted, confess over and over. THEY TELL THE TRUTH.  (This is not about all priests of course, but I had one such priest as a client some years back. He had been stripped of everything, including his pension. I saw him for free and felt about as powerless as he did, except to proffer forgiveness divine. I did not know how to psychoanalyze his disease or help him, but I knew moralizing wasn’t helpful at all. He knew that too.) We need more research.
    -It is NOT about pedophilia, because that means love of children NOT sexual love with children. A better word might be pedo-predation.
    -It is about calling Holy that which is Evil.
    -It is about the inability to see saint and sinner at once.
   

OUTCOMES   

The amazing work of this small group in Lyon realized one big legal change: the statute of limitations for seeking reparation or accountability for such predation has been extended in France from 15 years to 30 years. That is restorative justice and hopeful. When we work together, give up our unholy divisions and collaborate for the good of all, we can change our system. Their work continues, and despite complexities, there’s hope for the pope.
   
Without question, this film dramatizes one of the most painful death throes of patriarchy. If you have ever tended to someone who is dying you know what death throes look like—jerky, often lasting for days and weeks, painful to watch. The only thing to do is to be patient, present, take lots of breaks, have people who will listen to you, and pray without ceasing. You are hurting more than the one in the throes. If you are faithful you will trust the outcome and the divine hope within it.

TITLE

See the film to catch the fullness of the power this phrase evokes: By the Grace of God.

BIBLE  Remember the story of Zaccheus, the money manager/tax collector/business man who intuited something sacred going on with  this Jesus and his teaching? The crowds pressed, so Zaccheus went up into a tree to see Jesus as he passed by. Jesus spotted him, glanced up. Their gaze locked. Ever wonder what Jesus saw in Zaccheus's eye, and what Zaccheus saw in Jesus's eye?

WISDOM 

Remember always to ask: the grace of God according to whom?
A divided house cannot stand, but it can be rebuilt.





Sunday, October 20, 2019

2019.10.20 Importunity

There’s this brief but potent little tale tucked into a series of parables about faithfulness and healing in Luke’s gospel. I’ve always loved this story, nicknamed “The Importunate Widow.” (Luke 18:1-8)

I love the word importunate. It’s a word that demands attention—so startling in fact that later translations of the story substitute the lamer word: “persistent.” But who ever looks up importunate?  It means persistent to the point of annoyance or intrusion, and comes from Latin importunus (inconvenient) and the god named Portunus who protected harbors or ports—protected. Importunity connects to opportune, coming at just the right time, or perhaps the nick of time.  Which time is it for this woman, the right time or the worst time?

The parable is about a woman, a widow and therefore on her own and vulnerable, who raises nagging to an art form for good reason. She will not be put off or sent away by the judge to whom she repeatedly appeals for justice against her opponent. One could assume she’s demanding a retrial without an attorney. Finally the judge, sick of her importunity, grants her request—not because he is just, but because the woman is a nuisance, an annoyance, in the manner of a mosquito whining in your ear at night causing you to slap your own ear to get the thing to shut up.
 Is this a story about faithfulness? Or is it a story about justice won? Or is it a “MeToo” story? I vote for #3 and note history: women have felt importunate for centuries, but have been silenced, publicly and behind closed doors—even unto death—
    - by strong cultural norms dictating how women should behave,
    - by women themselves out of fear,
     -by women who have silenced daughters and sons, passing on the silencer tradition.

When my oldest daughter, Bev, was about five she was unjustly punished, and I failed to stand up for her. My spouse/her dad was not a violent man, nor was there overt domestic abuse in our home. This is one small importunate incident. We had weekend guests who were preparing to leave on Sunday morning. They came down the stairs with their suitcases. As we were bidding them farewell, my daughter spotted one end of a toothpaste tube sticking out of Mr. X’s suitcase. It was funny. She pointed and laughed. Her dad became furious, yelled at her, and sent her upstairs to her room. My heart ached for her, yet I said not a thing. Hardly importunate of me. It was a petit mal trauma, the kind that leaves scars on a soul. You see what I mean.

What is remarkable—and truly importunate—is that this story appears in a tome as ancient as the Bible and is called holy. Jesus, as interpreted by Luke, introduces this story as a story about the need to pray and never lose faith. This is a classic case of someone’s, in this case Luke, putting words into Jesus’s mouth— interpretative words. It happens, you know.

The story purports to be about prayer and faithfulness in prayer to God. BUT……..

Faith is too weak a word for the untimely importunity this woman exhibits. Stubborn trust in her own experience and need is more accurate. We know nothing about her circumstances, except that she’s a widow and has an “opponent.” She “continually comes” at the judge, who is corrupt and NOT anyone to pray to. He grants her justice—“so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face”. The idea of course is that God will grant justice more swiftly and fairly than this unjust judge on earth. But where does that leave the woman? Flip the parable.

I see God incarnate in the woman. I see the God who plunders the depths of God’s own desire for justice, a God who never gives up, a God who is the nag, and the beggar, and the abandoned infant, a God who is importunate in empowering human agency with wails in the night and pounding fists on our souls. Can we hear such a God in our midst?  [Oh, this may seem like very undignified behavior for God, but I assure you, it is not at all above the behavioral repertoire of Ms. Holy Spirit to inspire such importunity.]

Jesus, as interpreted by Luke, seducer of Gentiles into Jesus’s flock, plummets headlong into the fray with the widow and judge, taking us with him. Then adeptly he steps back from the action to deliver a challenging and final crowd-stopper:

“And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”