Saturday, December 19, 2009

Are We All In?

Are we all in? A question either thought or asked when one is concerned if the family is safely gathered—in a home, a bunker, a shelter, a stable or a mountain cave, even a palace, a corner on a heated grate in the city, or the vehicle that is home when there’s nothing else.

It’s a good question. 

Are we all in?

I am thinking in a spiritual way, thinking of all the diversity of religious practice and story, diversity we need in order to grow, diversity that may provoke conflict and tension, also necessary for growth.

Paradox: the more healthy diversity we have the more resistant to its benefits we get. It’s like those peas your mother said you had to eat to grow—or at least to get dessert.

Hanukkah and Christmas come at the same time of year. Both celebrate liberation with light ( so does Solstice.) We tell of a new start free of war and desecration of precious traditions, places or people. For Jews Hanukkah marks the re-dedication in 165 BCE of the Jerusalem Temple by the Maccabees. The Temple had been destroyed by the Syrians. The Maccabees, the family of Judas Maccabaeus led a religious revolt, fought a kind of guerilla battle from caves and hideouts in rugged lands and ousted the enemy to secure the safety and survival of the
Jewish people.

Hanukkah lasts eight days and today is marked by lighting successive candles or lamps, gifts, parties and special foods cooked in oil, sometimes gifts and games. Hanukkah in Hebrew means consecration—dedicated to a divine purpose, holy.

Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ-child Jesus. The story-picture is romantic and beautiful: the new young homeless mama and papa gathered in a stable with the newborn babe in a manger mow, surrounded by cattle, sheep, probably a few barn rats and a cat or two—and plenty of stinking manure. But no matter! Angels adorn the scene and stars glitter against the navy blue sky, the brightest shedding light into the humble scene. The sight enchants most Christians, evokes warmth and peace and promise. Liberation, hope. This child can surely heal rifts, melt hard hearts and help the most down and out or dysfunctional among us to make a new start.

Christmas is celebrated today with decorated trees, lights, parties, special foods, and gifts—a time to gather in. Christmas can be lonely for those who don’t have anyone to gather them in. Christmas means Christ Mass, devotional worship dedicated to a divine purpose, holy.

Both festivals gather in all our hopes and fears and tell us to start again, to bring light into inner and outer darkness, to renew even the worst of circumstance with new life and consecrate it all, for it is all divine.

Our little differences and sweet spiritual nuances begin and end in the same place—all consecrated. All holy-days are zoom lenses for divine grandeur.

But Godde is also panoramic, does all of it at once as the poet proclaims. We’re all in!

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mary and Me

I chose for my ordination day the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, officially Mary’s day, but this year, 1988, my day too. I had chosen my day hoping it would fit the bishop’s calendar which takes precedence over all other calendars on earth, or so it seems. I was lucky.

Mary was a woman like me, a mother of children like me. One of her children was Jesus who, according to biblical accounts of his growing up, was more difficult to raise than any and all of my four, the same four who through no fault other than their tender existence, had been the chief reason for my rejections in the ordination process. To sexism, misogyny, gynephobia and other labels, add mother-ism, the irrational fear that your own or someone else’s mother, if given enough liberty, might just take over the world.

The Church exalted Mary, raised her Motherhood to near-divine status, surrounded her with stars and crowns and haloes and called her blessed. Blessed by divine touch she was, however in time the patriarchy of religious tradition and biblical interpretation neutered her and turned her into a virgin, for which there is no clear prophetic substantiation and whose politics of control wasn’t even subtle. They stole her sexuality, her femininity, her courage and stamina, and her alliance with God’s politics. It’s no accident that the biblical mandate for justice, the Magnificat we hear read and sung at Christmas time, is placed on the lips of the woman Mary whom God chose to be a prophet— as well as quite a mother. However, the more heavenly Mary became, the more her influence spread and the more difficult it was for earthly girls, women and certainly mothers to find a place for their humanity in church and culture.

Thought not immune from this disorder, I had grown up Protestant, untaught, so when I went to a Mass with my college roommate and spotted a woman up front—a statue and bad art, yes, but unmistakably female, I had strained to get a better look. Virginity didn’t matter as much to me as it had in high school and motherhood was a distant goal, so I’d fallen in love with Mary and with the liberating idea her prominent presence represented. I could be up front too.

I quickly identified with Mary because God had asked her to do a hard thing—be an unwed pregnant young girl risking shame and even death for the sake of God’s big new project. It happens all the time in the bible, written as if God said and presto it happened. But I knew better. I knew how to read between the lines. I knew these ancient men and women were real, their stories my story, their experience archetypal, their bodies as vulnerable as mine. I knew because I knew how God could be; I knew because I never forgot my own childhood spiritual experience.

Angel Gabriel or no Angel Gabriel, I had trusted my own annunciation and call to priesthood, which fortunately did not make me pregnant.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Emergence

Where now is the authority? Who says? Where is the plumb line for sound spiritual teachings and practices? Where if you desire can you be fully your human self and experience a dash of the divine as well?

The authority question is the besetting question of every new era.

I have no answers to these question just more questions. In fact questioning and exploring spiritual questions together in groups may be the authority of today in this age of what some call the Great Emergence.

Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly and a respected authority herself on religions in America today has written a book called The Great Emergence, in which she defines the phenomenon as “monumental.” Her focus is Christianity in America in a time of reconfiguration of tsunami proportions.

Tickle, an active Episcopalian and author of The Divine Hours on prayer, deftly sweeps through church history to give a panoramic view of trends and developments. How did we get here? Only through history can we understand patterns that lead us to where we now are.

Anglican bishop the Right Reverend Mark Dyer famously quipped that every 500 years the Church holds a giant rummage sale—searching attic treasures discarding what is no longer useful and finding some that have been forgotten and need refurbishing and new life.

We can trace such movements back to the arrival of Jesus and the change of the era (BCE/CE) and the challenge to Judaism, to the Decline and Fall of Rome and the challenge to empire, through the Great Schism of East and West, Latin and Greek brands of Christianity, to the Great Reformation of 1517....and 2000. What is emerging now?

No one can articulate it to a tee. I hear a lot of lament: I can't keep up with the changes. I hear fear: I don't want any more change! And I hear: This is a challenging and exciting time to be alive. Go where the love is.

Historically, each “rummage sale” has issued forth in a more vital form of Christianity, a new way to be a Christian; each one was good; in each “winnowing” the Christian religion was reconfigured not destroyed. The key to such a miracle is that the establishment softened to let in the new. The softer, more supple the structure the more durable.

You can read about this process of softening in the biblical book of Acts in which Jerusalem authorities listened to the experience, stories and testimonies of the followers of Jesus struggling to survive and be taken seriously. Room in time was made, though not without much pain and persecution, but Judaism survived and became stronger. (Yes, the Pharisees!)

You can see this happening now as more and more homosexual people tell their truth out loud in churches, join communities of faith, laugh, love, pray, get ordained, married and serve.

And I marvel at how Christianity in the sixth century spread to northern England and the isles, not to take over but to become integrated with the pagan religions without shedding a drop of blood. No martyrs. Look at the chief symbol of celtic spirituality—the circle. Visit Iona, a small isle off northern Scotland, and see the high crosses, many with pagan symbols down one side and biblical symbols down the other. Side by side.

Tickle maintains that the emergent phenomenon, although complex and in process, is across the boards in American culture. Every institution is rummaging and reshaping. All are being called to soften in order to move into the future in peace with weeping and rejoicing side by side.

We are called. Will we respond?

The Episcopal Church according to Tickle is ideally suited to receive and accommodate this new movement with all its changes. Because, as she says, it’s “like mercury on a counter—not definable.” That is its gift and to some its curse. You just can’t grab that mercury and nail it down even if you crucify it.

Tickle’s own prediction along with other writers and thinkers, is that the process called “the Great Emergence will rewrite Christian theology—and thereby North American culture—into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years.”

I am keeping watch on a spider as she spins her web. Of course I have named her Charlotte and hear her speaking in the voice of Julia Roberts as she works. I watch. I look for the web each day. In the sun’s light, or the light of our outdoor lamp, the threads shimmer and glimmer, precariously spread across the window pane on the side of our front door. The wind blows fiercely this wintry night. In the morning the web is still sturdy. I clap. I stare at the web’s shape— circular; some strands go up and down, some go across; every one is connected—intimately separate and dependent. In its vulnerability is its strength. I am transfixed by its fragile grandeur.

Some day it will blow away completely. And Charlotte? She or her look-alike will make a new pattern in a new place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Religious Feminism

We just entered Advent, a new church year and “the year of the priest” according to hierarchical decree in the Roman Catholic Church.

I am a priest of the Anglo-Catholic variety, Episcopal, and a Christian feminist who suspects, with a dash of surety, that this year of the priest is a campaign slogan designed to recruit men, young ones, for the all-male priesthood, currently suffering from short supply. Women need not apply or consider themselves in any way included in this effort unless they want to be sideline cheerleaders.

However, it seems that the Spirit is calling women anyway. World-wide there are over 100 Roman Catholic (RC) women ordained under the auspices of RCWP (Roman Catholic Women Priests) and more in the process.

They are forming communities; they are ordained from both canonical and non-canonical communities; their bishops are pastoral not administrative; they utilize a consensus model of decision-making and democratic processes. "Our goal is a new model of ordained ministry in a renewing Roman Catholic Church," according to Bridget Mary Meehan, Bishop of Southern Region, RCWP, former Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister.

These women priest communities, yes, like parishes, rent space and the ordained women do what priests do. They’re growing.
Adversity and opposition from on high gets press and helps them grow.

Who said feminism was dead? I am the cheerleader, sending prayers, money and all my heart their way.

Some women in American culture wonder about feminism and about young women feminists. They are out there. My daughter is one of them although she falls now into the mid-life category. These women are concerned with justice, with equality and equivalence for women in all our institutions. They have made changes in their homes and their workplaces. It’s still uphill.

Our government and international organizations have recognized the plight of women the world over. Awareness of oppression, torture, stonings, violence of the most horrific kind and unjust laws that sancitify violence against women has increased.

In this country domestic violence is rampant and increasing. Sexism may have an even stronger hold on American patriarchal culture and church than any other -ism.

I am a Christian feminist. That means that because of my religious faith..............

I serve on coalitions that work on prevention of violence against women and educate my parish on that and similar liberation issues.
I harass my congregation about inclusive language, especially for Godde who I believe has no gender. The congregation is loving and listening and some I imagine converted, including some men.
I spell the divine name Godde, softer and open-ended. I don't change it because I don't usually change names by which I am introduced to someone. A woman parishioner just asked me why we don't spell it that way in the church bulletin and prayers. I told her we haven't gone that far—yet.
I preach and teach and write books about Jesus’ feminist politics.
I understand the bible as sacred literature, more devoted to story than history, giving us universal stories and characters who continue to give meaning and shape to our own relations and self-understandings;
I direct a group of women who present a dramatic rendering of the biblical women who came to the burial tomb of Jesus on Easter morn. The women play themselves; they share their personal stories of new life and resurrection. People cry.
I understand Godde as a spirit of goodness embedded in all creation, all flesh—male, female and combinations thereof.
I celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday. I am a woman’s body at the altar.

Roman Catholic women who feel called to serve Godde as priests think that their church’s stance goes beyond simple injustice. Jamie Manson writes in the National Catholic Reporter ( “But what is, for me, most exasperating about this searing opposition to women’s ordination, is that it is a rejection of faith in the power of God to work in our world. By banning women from serving as priests, the church is saying that God simply cannot work sacramentally in the body of a woman.” This is not only against traditional church teaching but places limits on divine activity. Many admire Rome for its consistency but isn’t that the “hobgoblin of little minds”? (Walt Whitman)

It’s always about sex. My goodness, Rome has invited Anglicans who are discontent about full sacramental inclusion of practicing homosexuals (male ones) to join them. They offer to ordain even Henry Eighth breakaways as long as they have male anatomy. Anyone but a woman with breasts.

For this feminist the soul of the Christian religion is body—embodiment.

Today I hear myself whisper thanks to Godde for mucous. Odd. But for someone like me with lung disease mucous excretion means an end to incessant, exhausting and futile coughing. Why thank Godde for a natural human bodily process? Because it’s a process in which the Godde who connects heaven and earth, human and divine is present—intimately so.

And if this my faith is not so? Then I will grieve deeply, for Godde will become distant, clothed in male anatomy only, and no longer a divine feminist.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks Given

There are times when the membrane between matter and spirit is tissue paper thin, times when the transcendent defies circumstance, resists control and suddenly shoots through the permeable membrane to provide something new—for no reason.

It can come through a sense, be an insight, a rush of gratuitous love, the touch of another person, or a bit of wise humor that elicits laughter. It can even be a releasing sob.

Such moments tend to happen at times of birth, death, or deep helpless pain, either emotional or physical.

To that traditional list I would add moments of gratitude and wonder when you feel the puncture of something getting to you through you, but you know it’s not of your own making or quite commensurate with your circumstance. It simply comes to you through you—a surprise, inspiring deep gratitude.

My friend just told me she got new sneakers—and feet. She has suffered from neuropathy due to M.S. With therapy, chiefly massage, she suddenly feels her feet. “All tingly with gratitude.”

Our son John, 38, who has a chronic progressive disease, loves ladybugs. He spotten one the morning before one of his surgeries several years ago and saw it as a sign, a little bit of heaven on earth. Yesterday he spotted a wee yellow ladybug and exclaimed spontaneously “Hey Ladybug, everything’s going to be all right.”

The summer I turned eight I inhaled gratitude through my nose. I was sitting on the edge of my bed after a day of riding my pony through fields and over dusty roads at the upstate New York farm where we summered. A hot breeze ruffled the curtain. As I reached down to pull off my boots and remove my jodhpurs I was unexpectedly intoxicated by the odors of the day—hay, saddle soap, horse lather— smells I knew well, smells that happened every single summer day, smells that in this moment carried more than familiarity with them.

I didn’t know what had happened, why it happened just then, or from whence it came, I just knew I felt flooded with gratitude, a joy so delicate it eluded even thanksgiving.

Make your list of blessing and gratitude, recite it well and often. And watch for those things that don’t make it onto lists but count even more. Thanks given.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cranky and Hopeful

When I was a tender and cranky teenager my mother besieged me with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Even bought me my very own copy.

I read it in spite of myself just in case my mother actually had a good idea or two. But my first suspicions about this “gift” were correct. It was over the top—not me, especially at fifteen!

My mother wanted me to be cheerful, extroverted and fun-loving like her. I’m an introvert, serious, solemn with my own brand of fun. Bad mix of personalities

That was a long time ago, but I’m still distrustful of overly cheery people especially when it feels forced or I feel judged by it.

The spiritual virtue of hope isn’t the same as having to think positively all the time. The biblical Psalms have plenty of lament, but through the process of honest lament the psalmist arrives at genuine unknowing realistic hope.

Christians who judge themselves and others for being negative need their Hebrew roots renewed. And Jesus was hardly sugary. Cheer up? Chin up? Smile, God loves you? Be happy? Nothing gospel about these except God loves you.

Unremitting negativity is as lethal to spirituality as overblown positivity. Spirituality is about wholeness and balance.

Jesus healed without a motivational speaker, judgment or cheerleading, often asking the obviously disabled what they wanted and if they wanted to be well. He didn’t spend much time trying to talk someone out of their misery or into a positive attitude.

There are actually books on how to be happy. Since when is happiness anyone’s right? Pursuit of course but not perfection. One person’s happiness might be someone else’s nightmare. Positive psychology is in now. It’s a corrective to too much psychotherapeutic emphasis on diagnostics, pathology, problems, what’s wrong with you. A good corrective but have we gone too far? Tipped over into the cotton candy vat?

According to reviews in Boston Globe and New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America makes a refreshingly honest case against the tyranny of positive thinking. I'm grateful to her for speaking my mind.While quintessentially American, constant positivity can be oppressive. I think Peale is back in town.

Ehrenreich’s book came out of her own experience with breast cancer in which she felt that expressions of dread and outrage and profound fears were the wrong attitude. One should be upbeat, positive, never angry or a victim. Ehrenreich posted on a cancer support site that she was angry about chemotherapy and insurance companies and sick of pink ribbons and was told she needed therapy for her “bad attitude.”

What happened to realistic? Affirmations are wonderful IF they aren’t quick cover-ups, instant makeovers..

There are actually people who think that they can create their own reality, make stuff happen by how they think. There’s some truth to this but it’s snaky half-truth, and it certainly doesn’t work for child abuse. Children, innocent and powerless, do not create their own reality.

Jesus did not think himself onto or off of the cross. He simply had integrity and took the risk of proclaiming the God of his understanding, the one in fact who does not prevent or eliminate suffering and evil but, often through prayer and truth-telling, strengthens us from within, which can help us find resources beyond ourselves—even learn to show, tell and ask.

And religious folks are flocking to self-help books. How to get God. How to find the prosperity God wants for you. How not to get left behind. How to feel good and gooder. It’s icky.

Ehrenreich, according to reviewer Hanna Rosin (NY Times Book Review, Nov. 8. 2009,) critiques Christian overcheer and wonders where the biblical “demand for humility and self-sacrifice” has gone to.

OK I’m a crank. I know there are people who need pep talks, encouragement, empowerment, even a little cheerleading, who need reminding that they do have resources they might not have counted. I do too this in my work as priest, spiritual director, counselor, but never to override tears and lament.

Spirituality and good religion are about trust that there is a God who cares and has more grace, will and power than your own will, attitude or positivity.

It’s a control issue!

I believe that the source of one's soul-uplift is not in one's own mind or ego strength or can-do mentality but in one's willingness to partner with the grace that’s given.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century

On our sabbatical road trip we’ve done cities: Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philly and our hometown New York City. Well, we’ve done as much of each as possible with limited time and limited bodies.

It only took us a day to discover that we could only really do one big thing a day—one art museum, one tourist event, one 20-block walk, one history museum or one zoo, the latter a necessary antidote to too much past and too many people.

Standing, staring and shuffling by wonders brings awe as well as neck and back aches—to say nothing of jostling on subways and trains, finding a bathroom and a Starbucks fort the late afternoon treat.

One of the most fascinating small museums we visited is moBia, the Museum of Biblical Art in New York It is a small space upstairs from the American Bible Society store and learning center. This museum offers regular special exhibits, lectures, concerts and workshops.

There was an engaging photographic exhibit of a recent visit to NYC of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He has been traveling to promote the green agenda, sparing no words to tell the faithful and any who will listen that any act that harms natural resources like water, air, earth counts as a sin against the deity, no exceptions.

The Patriarch claims to trace his apostolic authority to St. Andrew one of Christ’s original biblical disciples. I thought it might have been Bartholomew like his name, but such authenticating details matter little to me.

Bartholomew is a handsome, white-bearded elderly man with an air of dignity and a twinkle in his eye. Particularly engaging was a picture of him laughing as he alighted from a buggie after a horse and buggie ride around Central Park. The ride is one of New York’s famous attractions. I’m quite sure that this green man of God would never have gone on such a ride had he not been assured that the scandal not long ago exposed of abuse of the poor horses had not been corrected. Which it has been.

The main exhibition just now is the work of artist Tobi Kahn. It contains many ceremonial objects for synagogue worship. They combine the symbolism of Jewish rites with functionality and a unique artistic voice—very contemporary, simple lines, using many geometric shapes arranged in patterns that suggest deeper spiritual meaning.

For example, the Torah breastplate which protects the scroll, the law of God so central to Jewish life and religious formation, is a large wooden square composed of many different shapes in relief and arranged in such a way that I at least couldn’t make it conform to something manageable or replicable. Very bold, tangible and made from earthbound material yet mysterious and transcendent.

Where my heart stopped and stayed for some time in spite of my tired feet was to behold what Kahn calls AHMA, four Shalom Bat chairs acrylic on wood creatd in 2008. The chairs are high backed and represent four biblical matriarchs, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah, women without whom there would be no biblical patriarchs, in fact no story at all. But women nonetheless who have been overshadowed by their male counterparts, mentioned yes but not given full honor.

The very tall chair backs are painted with abstract but strongly suggestive patterns of feminine imagery, biology and shape—ova, blood red slashes of color, breasts and roundedness. There isn’t a squared-off shape on any chair.

Kahn made the chairs along with other works in commemoration of his mother. They connect with the ritual ceremony of welcoming and naming a baby girl into a Jewish family. Mothers and grandmothers, maybe even stepmothers or mentor mothers, sit in the chairs during the ceremony. On the back of each chair is space for each girl’s name and the date of her naming to be engraved. A beautiful gift of wholeness (shalom) for the daughers (bat)of Israel and all women, ancient and modern.

Kahn leads workshops for families in which they create their own miniature Shalom Bat chair to commemorate a significant family event or honor the life of a loved one, of either gender I assume and hope. since it would not do for any of us women, no matter how zealous we are to bring women into their rightful places in history and contemporary life, to be exclusive. Women and men and contribute equally and indispensably to every aspect of communal life religious and secular.

I’m grateful for Tobi Kahn’s art for its own beauty’s sake. I’m also grateful that his work serves a politics of justice, inclusion and freedom for humanity.
* * * *
I serve as a trustee of the Massachusetts Bible Society (MBS), an organization whose original mission was the distribution of bibles. We wanted people to have them. Our mission today is to promote biblical literacy. We want people not only to have access to bibles but also to to read and interpret biblical wisdom as it enhances everyday living toward a world governed by justice, peace and compassion—central biblical themes.

The MBS motto is "One Book, Many voices" meaning the bible is composed of many voices and also that it takes many voices to participate in biblical study to keep this book alive for every culture and person.

Just as every age develops it own aesthetic, so very era must find spiritual wisdom appropriate to its particular situation and a message of liberation for its day.

The bible is a vast and supple library of resources for this endeavor. Such amplitude is why many call this book holy and why biblical word, theme and insight continue to flavor literature as well as the secret desires of every longing heart.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things—About Aging

As you edge into your 8th decade you may notice you're getting older and more fun when............

-you can c.y.o.g. (choose your own gender)

-you go out to lunch not dinner because you’re in bed when most diners get started and you can’t see to drive well because the moon isn’t as bright as the sun
-your body talks back for the first time
-words that end in ah suddenly end in er as you hear yourself say, Linder’s lovah
-you and your friend or spouse get a case of teenage giggles; you suddenly hear yourself say, “Stop. You’re making me wet your pants!”
-you carefully pinch out the salt for your neti-pot and drop it into your o.j.
-hearing small children’s voices outside, even their wailing, becomes essential soul food
-you read the funnies before the news (even the word funnies dates you)
-nature is a primary source of reverence; in fact you fall in love with Ms. Spider at the window and cry when one day she disappears
-your mate sees you storing bananas in the refrigerator and shouts “Don’t!” You say, “Why not? They’re collecting fruit flies.” He says, “Chiquita Banana says...”
-you give your sleeveless tops to Good Will who, according to your granddaughter, isn’t a girl.
-your flesh takes on a life of its own, separate from your bones
-gratitude is up, griping down; laughter is up, lament down
-you pray that they come up with a less beefy, more stylish call alert wristwatch before you need one—a matter of fashion
-a box pops up on your computer screen saying your server is disconnected, but you don’t know what a server is so you call your six year old grandson.
-the ratio of medical to gossip has flipped from 20/80 to 80/20 in girlfriend conversations
-your will gets weaker but your soul gets stronger
-you think Godde may actually be your father............. AMEN.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Paranoid Paradox of Faith

Last Monday I received a phone call. “Hi. Is this Lyn Brakeman?” (Too cheery. Telemarketer for sure.) “Yes,” I say guarded. “Oh,” the female voice continues, its brightness dimmed. “Oh, well then. This is Holly from Writers Digest.” “Yes.” (Wants to know when I’ll renew.) “Well,” (Could she be more excited? Sounds like my mother used to. I imagine her jumping up and down.) “I called to tell you that your essay Electric Salvation has won fifth prize in our annual national Writers Digest contest in the category of Inspirational Writing. “Cool.” (Warming up. Inspired myself.) “So we need your email to tell you the details.” Gladly I oblige. Thanks are exchanged. “You’ll be getting an email from us soon.”

My heart jumps up and down. I call Dick. He jumps up and down. Send email to friends and call my kids.

Tuesday there’s no email confirmation. Anxiety edges out joy. Who is Holly? Sudden panic. It’s a hoax. Go online to their site. Read the list of winners. I’m not on it. Call Dick. He dashes home to join me in my puddle of tears, asks a few details. What? You gave her your email address? I told you don’t give any personal information out to anyone on the phone. It was in good faith. She sounded true. He freaks out. Now he’s paranoid too. Guilt.

I call the magazine, manage, navigate twelve prompts and then four more after I find the correct one for my question, which is “Is it true?” Leave a message for Teresa or Marissa Brower, Bower or Bowes.

I don’t know which head got cool first his or mine but he goes to the computer at the same instant I wonder if I’ve looked at the list of last year’s winners. But it says the winners would be on line. Will be? Yeah. Early November. It’s October. They wouldn’t put them on line before the next issue is out or no one would buy the magazine. Oh.

Call Marissa/Teresa B. Leave an apologetic message. Courteous. Call writing buddy to laugh with her about my paranoid process. My magazine just came she says. Yes. Here’s your name listed. It’s true.

It’s true. I feel as if I’d just seen the bodily Resurrection of Christ and I know it’s true, a fact. I feel about six years old. It’s true. I notify the “world.” It’s true.

It’s amazing what writers go through—out here writing, hunched over computers, submitting to countless publications, editors, etc. over and over along with hundreds of thousands of aspirants all as hopeful as you are. Rejections pour in by mail and email. It's easy to lose heart, get paranoid, be sure the whole world of publishing is out to get you alone, expose your foolishness. Your spirit begins to schlump, great yiddish word. Thank God for friends who schlump too, and thank God for Spirit who raises up schlumpers.

I’m still waiting for Holly’s cheery email and wondering at the paradox: the more passionate you are about something and the more hopeful and persevering you are about it and the more faith you have in your efforts, the more vulnerable you are to paranoia when hope turns to truth.

How odd. It reminds me of the phrase in Luke’s gospel describing the Jesus followers’ reaction to the news the women brought of the Resurrection. First they called it a hoax, an “idle tale” (like the ones women always tell, right?) Then they ran to check it out for themselves. Then they had a spiritual experience of the resurrected Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus. They “disbelieved for joy.” (Luke 24:41)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Angels and Bulls

Today on the church calendar we remember St. Michael and All Angels.

Do you believe in angels? I don’t know if I do, but I love the imagery and the spiritual energy that is named angel. To me angels are metaphors for spiritual strength—the kind needed for liberation.

Angels are like bulls charging into life’s injustices full force. That’s why they are pictured with weaponry, divine armor which does not mean you are to start a war either inside or outside yourself but rather to trust that inner strength will be provided.

It seems too sentimental, except for children, to say that angels "guard" individuals. I think angels guard divine values—justice, peace and compassion—by giving us wings to fly free and help others fly.

In the bible angels are messengers, fierce messengers announcing news of something new that will require your attention, your best resources and your creative imagination. When imagination and the forces for good are let loose, angels fly, bulls charge. There is death and there is new life.

Today I read in the Boston Globe that a 1,400 pound bull had escaped from a slaughterhouse in Paterson N.J. and dragged police officers with a lasso down the street ten blocks. The bull charged forward with brute force, running for his mighty life, refusing to succumb to the forces of violence that threatened his beautiful life.

My heart flew with the bull as I stared at the photo. Angels were with that bull as he made a run for life and freedom against impossible odds. I admired that bull. His effort was futile. It took an hour to corral him, sedate him and return him to slaughter. I will think of that bull the next time I order steak and am asked how I would like it cooked. The bull’s effort was futile, not wasted.

Sometimes our best efforts for the good end in tragedy. The courageous among us make these efforts anyway. Liberation is never easy. Liberation requires heroism, strong force. Many literally die like the bull, but all liberators wake us up and all are beloved.

Once a bull was an angel of liberation for me. He came out one day in therapy when my brilliant and uppity therapist suggested I give my restless inner energy an animal identity. I knew right away it was a bull. I’d spent lots of childhood time on a farm. I knew bulls up close and personal. In spite of my fear at their ferocity and power I was fascinated. My therapist told me to be a bull, right there in her office. As appalled as I was I was at a stage in my therapy that if she told me gravel was food I’d have eaten it. I started to paw the carpet, roar, howl, snort. What was probably five minutes or less released thirty years of rage. When the bull quieted I emerged transformed. A feeling of absolute peace enveloped me and strangely sharpened my vision so I looked up at my therapist and for the first time noticed how beautiful her face was.

She asked if I had words. A hymn came to mind, “Father Eternal, Ruler of Creation.” It’s a violent hymn, relentlessly, verse by verse, detailing the destructive powers of oppression and war. The refrain is Thy kingdom come, oh Lord, thy will be done. I sang it to her.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

At the Foot of the Cross—or the Bed

Reflecting on Holy Cross Day, September 14th, on the old holy cross, I wonder why we could call such a topsy-turvy symbol holy.

Most people think it’s nuts. Even many Christians. A great and innocent man of God is killed for preaching divine mercy and justice and roiling up the rabble and we call it divine love? divine will? How do you make common sense or sacred sense of such a hideous instrument of execution, signaling cruelty, injustice and other sins against humanity too fierce to mention And Christians say it’s God’s self-giving love? Or worse, it’s for your own good, or God needs this lamb’s blood to ransom us from sin. Not very loving, eh?

One of my favorite movies is Thelma and Louise. It’s a gruesome story of two women who commit murder in the wake of rape, become fugitives from the law, and decide to die together rather than submit to further abuses in a patriarchal system. Their decision to drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon felt noble to me, heroic, holy. My tears flowed sorrow and joy. I learned a lot about myself, women, injustice, cruelty and spiritual freedom. I think of Jesus’ choosing death. I think of God’s choosing resurrection.

I bet those women ended up somewhere near the right hand of Godde.

Our good friend of years and brother priest Richard Schuster died the end of August. He had devoted his whole adult life to works of justice and love, developing a non-profit organization, St. Lukes LifeWorks, to help the underserved populations of the city of Stamford, Connecticut get jobs, training, counseling and housing. He saw his work as ministry. He did it for people and for God.

Richard was only sixty-four. His disease, pulmonary fibrosis, took hold and went faster than anyone imagined it could.

On Friday August 28 we had a dinner date with him and his wife Angela. We two couples had been good friends for years. Our dinner date morphed suddenly into hospital and hospice and huge oxygen tanks that pumped oxygen into his failing lungs, almost like a home respirator without the nasty nasal gastric tube.

We debated about it all and, undeterred, decided we’d come anyway and bring in some take out food from one of our favorite haunts Mitchells Fish Market. When Richard heard we were coming and getting food from Mitchells he perked up and ordered—broiled trout, garlic mashed potatoes, two pieces of key lime pie and wine.

We gathered, sat on his bed while Angela fed him a little trout, two bites of potato and almost all of one key lime pie slice. He was alert. We laughed, sharing old and odd memories of our escapades, including our plans to reform the church calling ourselves Parish Management Services, which we dropped when we figured the acronym was PMS. We all cried; we touched; we said prayers each one according to our own styles and words; we touched some more, hands, arms, head, his flesh cold to the touch; we said good bye and good bye and good bye with love. It was a holy communion at the foot of his bed, his "cross". Then he left and started his journey home. We ate the rest of the meal and the pie, drank the wine and hugged. A holy communion.

Although sad these last moments were transformative for us all. We and Angela have a living memory that will stay with us for ever or at least every time we dine on key lime pie and loving conversation.

Isn’t that what Jesus’ followers did with his tragic death: gathered, shared, prayed, loved, sipped wine and broke bread together? Is that enough meaning?

Isn’t this what we Christians do every Sunday when as community we gather at the foot of a cross for the Holy Eucharist?

It’s enough meaning for me, holy enough too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Shack - a Review

Today is the anniversary of my late father’s birth day. If he were alive today he would be ninety-eight; instead esophageal cancer left him with too many bags, drains and tubes and no way to eat, so he went to bed the day after Christmas, 1982 and died. I loved him, alcohol, cigarettes, despair and all. My grief was long and hard. He died too soon for the length of my love.

I never thought God had a thing to do with his premature departure, causally at least. I don’t know what Dad thought. He didn’t talk. He’d say on and off throughout his life, What’s the point? and those were his last words to me as he lay dying. I had no answer but I don’t think he expected an answer, at least from me.

Dad had a reverence for the holy even in the midst of feeling defeated by life. He had a respect for religion and the transcendent. I could tell by the way he sang the Christmas carols in full bass voice, almost happy. I’d look up at him when I was a kid and think he knew something but couldn’t quite grasp it or let it take hold of him.

Traditional portraits of God— judge, monarch, Big Daddy watching from on high, subduer of deepest desires and passions—may have made it hard for my father to love and feel loved by God. He grew up in a family of six boys and two girls, number five flanked by two sisters who used to dress him up and play house. His father was passive, sweet and inebriated while Ma was a stern rising tower of authority. “Ma’s boys” could do no wrong. Dad was successful but I’d wonder if the occasional yearning I spotted in his eyes longed for, craved, a missing peace.

It’s not God but our misconstrued images of God that wound and kill us. The patriarchal God who points fingers and plays favorites has scared too many people for too long. That God, He, is the projection of a frightened church. That God, He, is still alive and well in too many shivering, cautious hearts. That God, He, has been the image of choice (for there are many images in the bible) in the church for too many centuries now.

Many clergy preach other, but mental imprints and hierarchical domination language are still used in worship and still hold power over souls.

I wish my dad could have met the portrait of God in The Shack.

When I read The Shack this summer I felt affectionately connected to God— in myself, in creation, in other people, and on high. Not new feelings but renewed feelings.

I’d resisted reading it in part because it was all the rage and I’m cynical about the tastes of the masses, and in part because I’d heard it was evangelical propaganda full of biblical literalism and not for sophisticated progressives who take the bible seriously but not literally, like my image of myself.

The Shack is a parable, a wisdom tale designed to startle and reveal something new. The story is about a father’s spiritual trip, and I say trip, because it is not a steadfast faith journey that evolves and matures over time with trust and prayer. It’s a crisis trip, an internal psychological/spiritual conversion of soul and mood: from a life of grim plodding, possessed by grief, laden with a habit of gloom larger than Eeyore’s to a life full of joy grounded in wisdom not rapture.

The plot isn’t complicated. It’s a reiteration of the story of the biblical Job, the good guy who is struck by more personal tragedy than anyone should have to bear and asks, Why? Job is far more dramatic in his impatient refusal to let go of the besetting question about why bad things happen to good people than is Mackenzie Alan Phillips in The Shack who has sunken into a faith of empty duty and spiritual deadness—until he gets an odd invitation in the mail.

The ideas in this book aren’t new: God in three persons, God who meets us and loves us at the center of our pain, Jesus in living color. It’s evangelical Christian propaganda as I’d feared.

What is new is that the theological ideas are wrapped, often not too tightly, in personal narrative, someone’s experience filled with characters you can fall in love with, identify with, care about. You keep reading even though you think you can guess what might happen, and to Christians the story is the one we hear in Church every Sunday and then some—with a twist. One of the novel’s characters is God-relating-to-God. Hey, don’t you have inner dialogues? But are yours all filled with mutual respect and love—and good boundaries, for godssake?

The gift of his book is that it gives readers a new image of God, not an abstraction or doctrine but as characters in a novel, drawn with sympathy and color, characters that sustain the narrative, characters you want to know. That’s new and it is charming.

What makes The Shack not really a good novel is that its plot is weak, the writing not very creative, the dramatic action not suspenseful but forced into the service of an agenda, the solutions contrived, the wisdom un-nuanced. The plot quickly takes second place to the agenda of the author and collaborators with just enough change of scene to keep you going. What starts as a story turns into a sermon, embarrassingly preachy in spots. especially near the end when a clear Christian refrain shows up uninvited. I cringed. My Jewish blood also curdled in a couple of places that were unnecessarily anti-semitic and insulting to the Hebrew scriptures. The story doesn’t carry its own weight throughout.

As I’d feared it is also biblical literalism thinly disguised. Why am I not in a rant? Disgusted? I don’t know. I just got into the scene, the relationships, corny but alluring, often followed up with a tidbit of irresistible wisdom like the Eden myth question: “Rumors of glory are often hidden inside what many consider myths and tales.” Or the human soul as a living fractal—wild, messy always in process, patterns emerging, alive, growing and needing constant tending.

Jesus takes Mack on a walk across the water. I giggled with them as they stepped off the dock, carrying their socks and shoes and rolling up their pants just in case. This and other biblical scenarios are simply portrayed without fanfare. They’re just acted out in character. Who cares if they actually happened? It is not fact that inspires faith but warmth.

This book is vulnerable, open to all kinds of scholarly nitpicking, literary scorn, religious defensiveness, much of it justified. But does it work anyway? I think it does for one reason only: the characters are lovable, charming, their voices convincing. You want more. You fall in love. You want this kind of love, this kind of God. I wonder if that is why this book is so popular. It allows us to fall in love, to be as a child, to let go of proofs, to enjoy a story that touches our humanity at its most vulnerable and presents an ancient Christian insight in new garb.

In addition, this book may serve as a bridge between the foolishly warring left and right religious camps. It's a string bridge to be sure, but one that both side may be able to execute with caution.

If The Shack does nothing else it give us fresh dynamic language and imagery for divinity and goes a long way to balance transcendent and immanent, love and freedom, revelation and psychology.

This is evangelical Christianity in its loveliest form. Happy Birthday Dad. Is this “the point” you always asked about?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Spirituality of Scarcity

I’m thinking today of a little five year old girl whose hands are wrapped to twice or three times their natural size with gauze bandage.

The child is blonde, petite and has a name far more beautiful than Sprite but for privacy’s sake I’ll call her Sprite because it fits her.

Sprite is in the Shriners Burn Hospital in Boston. Naturally inquisitive and trying to be helpful, she pulled a full steaming pot of hot coffee off the counter and onto her front body. Luckily her face was not burned but her hands took a full hit.

Sprite, as her pseudonymn suggests, is a spirited girl with a shy smile and looks to kill. You think she’s one who gets lost in her mother’s skirts until suddenly she turns into a commando. Once at a celebration at our parish church, where there was more cake than anything else, she ran in first and got a plate piled high with several helpings of several cakes. As I approached I leaned down and commented on how delicious the cake looked. Sprite pulled her plate to the side, walked off fast, tipped her head in the direction of the cake table and said, It’s over there.

The most painful but necessary routine in the burn hospital is the daily changing of the dressings. It’s done with as much care and medication as possible but........ During her first ordeal Sprite began with the polite speech she’s been taught. Please stop. There were explanations and careful touch I’m sure but it didn’t stop. Stop. She howled. Nothing. If you don’t stop I’ll kick you. And she raised her small legs, the only limbs left at her service. Follow-up the next day: I hate nurses!

How hard it must be to hurt a child. Training in this work helps but it never takes away the torture and the echo of the screams. Sometimes we have to wound to heal.

People today are quick to speak of spiritual abundance, the abundance of divine love. Glib and silly, locating Godde in one place when Godde is in all places. Abundance stands at one end of a continuum with scarcity at the other. We favor abundance because it is positive and trendy but it limits the breadth of Godde’s love and sounds idiotic to someone who is in the midst of scarcity like Sprite, a five year old with no hands—to her not 2-3 weeks but eternity.

What is the spirituality of scarcity? I mean how is scarcity imbued with holiness, a spirit of goodness. I don’t know. To me it seems right to suggest that Godde is in the tiniest things. When you’re starving for real food a scrap of bread, broken and shared by people in a concentration or prison camp is divine. When you’re starving for the spiritual food of love a small gesture of caring or a touch when everyone is helpless to change things is holy.

To me Sprite's impolite crying out and the vigorous response of her legs are signs of divinity in the middle of scarcity. Alive: screaming and kicking.

Not a bad prayer either.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mary Magdalene. Favorite Calendar Girl

Today on most all church calendars this day is the day we are to honor the person, ministry and holiness of Mary of Magdala.

She is my favorite calendar girl.
I’m always disappointed this feast falls in mid-summer and that most parishes do not honor it on a Sunday. After all her day is designated a white day, an Easter day, a day when the church dresses up for hope. July 20 was suffragette and author of a women’s bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, day; July 22 is Mary Magdalene’s day; August 15 is Mary the Mother of Jesus’ day. Everyone’s on vacation!

The Episcopal church calendar is a wondrous thing. It is the richest and most diverse of all church calendars currently in print. On it we designate days on which we remember holy women and men. Our saints are not appointed by fiat or according to how many miracles happen in their name. (The miracle criterion, in fact, seems unnecessary to me because today’s miracle may be tomorrow’s unquestioned accomplishment. What’s miraculous may simply be the capacity and willingness to live a good life full of flaws, forgiveness and renewed effort.)

The Episcopal calendar girls and boys are selected according to their holiness of life, miracle or no miracle. Someone nominates, a task force researches the life and work of the nominee and the General Convention , our legislative body, also elected, votes them into the calendar—or not.
I love our calendar because it honors many cultures and many professions and callings that manifest holiness, the goodness of the Divine recognized in human life and work.

Mary Magdalene is a biblical holy woman. She doesn’t have a clear story all her own though she is present at Jesus’ passion and on other important occasions. Although she doesn’t have her own narrative, many stories have accrued to her name. Mary Mag is famous for having had seven demons from whose power Jesus liberated her. Seven is a big number, also a symbolic number meaning generative.
How many people out there either did or do think that Mary was a prostitute, a sexual sinner or at least a penitent woman laden with sin and needing absolution as her healing? This is not in the bible but a later interpretation of her big seven. How easy it was, maybe is, to assume that her “demons” were sexual. It could have been metastatic cancer, or multiple personality disorder from trauma, or multiple birth defects. Ah!

What I love about Mary Magdalene is that she is in me spiritually:

-She is familiar with Jesus. They know each other. It’s mutual. Mary calls him my Lord, not the Lord. Recognition is an astonishing gift, a sign of intimacy, especially when you recognize the holy in another and in yourself.
-Her tears. She stays at the tomb after the other have gone. Lot’s wife in an earlier story is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom and Gomorra, her former home. God had told the family to leave before it was burned because of sin. Mary turned back to the tomb to peer in, let herself grieve, sob, wonder, search, remember. It’s important not to hop too fast over and beyond your grief. Tears are a spiritual gift. Follow them. Magdalene was not punished but rewarded with a powerful vision.

-Mary was the only biblical woman to be commissioned as an apostle. In John’s gospel, written as late as 100 CE this story is remembered. Mary is told to go and tell the others what she has seen of resurrection life and hope. She told.
-Mary according to tradition started her own community of Christians and wrote her own gospel. Bits of it have been retrieved. Scholars pieced together her message about things Jesus told her that the others didn’t hear, chiefly that the working of God’s spirit are internal. Mary witnesses in her gospel to the immanence of God not just the transcendence. (In fact there is a humorous scene in her writing about a dispute with Peter who is angry at her insights and her uppity woman nerve telling what Jesus said to her that wasn’t what Peter heard. Peter was told to go feed the sheep. Mary was told to witness to the powerful inner working of divinity. Levy comes to Mary’s defense and Peter goes off to sulk.)

Both commissions are of equal importance for us today. Know and care for your inner religious/spiritual life and know how to take it forth to manifest goodness and compassion in whatever you say and do.

How is Mary Magdalene in you?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sacred Ambivalence

I’ve had a lot of eccentric spiritual experience. Lots of people have. It’s not crazy just something that’s hard to talk about, hard to nail down and validate. God has spoken to me from within many times. God uses questions, short sentences and even one word comments.

Recently God interrupted my obsessive mental monologue: What if my memoir is just another achievement for my ego? And God-in-me said, So? One little word-question stopped me cold, silenced my fear and shame, and told me the truth: So what if it’s an achievement, can’t I also give it to you as a gift?

You might think that these kinds of “voices” have brought me clarity, a stronger religious faith, some surety.

But that is not the case.

Thank God, for if it were, what would there be for me to question, nag God about, write fierce words about, preach on, teach, fuss, obsess, lament and wrestle about for the rest of my days?

Oh, I have given and will keep giving answers to open-ended questions, because I love to do that; I just don’t have answers of the kind people long for, answers laced with certitude.

And I have told and will keep telling of resolutions to struggles, and try to nail peace down because I love happy endings that are true—and not.

I’m not disappointed by this ambiguity. Ambivalence seems to me to be the only sane stance in life, because when I move too far to one side (zealotry) or the other (atheism) of religious expression I end up not liking myself much, and I’m one of the wisest agnostics I know.

I call my ambivalence sacred, because it tempers my drive toward omniscience; it keeps me balanced; it helps me maintain a spirituality that is both intellectual and compassionate; and it reminds me of the one thing about which I’m not ambivalent: the first “eucharist” at which I was “ordained” to preside under the dining room table as a “priest” with Ritz crackers and a tiny invisible congregation who listened to my words and received the sacrament.

Under the table I found my vocation, my hopeful soul as a child, and enough power to keep me going until I could come out from under the table as a woman and priest.

Under the table I fell in love with a God who who wasn’t afraid of authority or cocktail hours, a God within me whose love never dies even when I betray it, a God who gave my my vision for the Church and maybe for all humanity.

To be both political and mystical as the Church in all its expressions should be we will find a table big enough for everyone to crawl under and sit, either to chat or be in silence.

As it is now we spend too much time on top of the small table fighting for position and power.

Will it happen? Probably not, but there’s nothing wrong with asking.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What in the World is EfM?

I have been a mentor for the Education for Ministry (EfM) program since 1984, and I write to say that it is, in my un-humble opinion, the best program of Christian spiritual formation that the church has come up with since, well, whatever you think the best thing is.
EfM is my favorite way of being a priest. A mentor is not a teacher but more of a guide and accompanist to students in a small seminar group who study together, pray together and engage in a process of theological reflection on their lives over four years.
There is a small tuition ($340 a year with scholarship aid available upon request) for which a student gets all the reading materials, thirty-six lessons a year, and the mentor a tiny honorarium.
The curriculum comes out of the Episcopal seminary of the South, Sewanee, TN. It is sophisticated material but not inaccessible. A student signs up to be in the seminar one year at a time. Most students love EfM and stay to graduate in four years. The diplomas are handsome and frameable. It is quite an achievement to graduate and grow in grace.
The Bible turns out to have much relevance to your soul; church history astounds and enlightens; theology up to today teaches you it is a verb, something you do; your own spiritual desires, quests, gifts and questions are known and loved.

EfM is ecumenical and most groups have students from a variety of faith traditions. In our groups we have had Episcopalians, Methodists, Unitarians, Roman Catholics, a Quaker or two, United Church of Christ, and even an ordained pastor who wanted a small group of prayer, learning and community outside her own parish work.
The word ministry sometimes creates anxiety. People think about ordained ministry. The premise of EfM is that all Christians are ordained to ministry at baptism and further, that every encounter or happening presents an opportunity to enhance or impede the flow of divine Love.
Over the four years we discern our gifts, inclinations and passions together. Each student comes out with a sense of what her/his ministry is, often what they are already doing. Ministry after all is what you do, with whatever you have, as who you are, wherever you are—inspired by Love.
Sometimes a student will come to the truth that her or his ministry is to herself; sometimes a ministry is the skill and pleasure of encouraging others; sometimes one desires further study, even moving toward ordination; sometimes a ministry is taking a major step in a new direction altogether. Often a student decides to take the training to become a mentor him or herself and start a group.
A seminar group offers support but not judgment, advice or problem-solving. What happens in a weekly seminar? We begin with a brief worship (prayers, poems, music, silence, meditation) each student taking a turn. Occasionally there will be a Eucharist, sometimes even a group Eucharist. We share what has amused, attracted, stunned or confused, angered us in the week’s lesson. We take a break to EAT!!! People bring amazing food to go with our spiritual food. We engage in a process of theological reflection, often amazed to discover how rich our tradition, especially biblical, is and how it sheds light on our lives and gives us wise insights we’d never thought of.

The joy students often experience is knowing themselves more deeply, appreciating their ministries, and getting comfortable with questioning their religion. We eat, pray, laugh, love and learn together.

“It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done for myself my whole life.”
“Just to learn that there were actually three popes at one time freed me!”
“I never understood the Bible just from listening to little snippets in church.”
“Wow! Really eye-opening to get to know Jesus so well. Never understood that whole thing and now I consult Jesus like a friend.”
“I can pray out loud for a group and create a little worship service without clergy help.”
“I see my school teaching as ministry and my own students in the light of grace. It helps my patience.”
“I have learned to trust my relationship with myself.”
“I’m really awake in church because I recognize stuff.”
(And one I can't resist from a disgruntled teenage son who is now forty: "Mom! It's all over the calendar! EfM, EfM, EfM.......eternal (expletive deleted) meeting!"

As a mentor I find that congregational life is enlivened by an informed laity.

EfM is nationwide and international in scope with students all over the world participating. Check the website on how to find a group or call your local Episcopal clergy or diocesan office to inquire.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Goodbye Margaret

Recently, NOT via Facebook or google, imagine! . . . I have reconnected with two best girlfriends of old, one from first to sixth grade, Margaret, and the other from high school and college years, Annie. Just when we found each other through old school connections we have had to say good bye, God be with ye. Annie died a year after our grand and talkative reunion in person, and Margaret is in the process of dying and too far away for a visit except by email. My farewell e-letter I share for anyone in a similar situation.

Dear Margaret,

What a loving thing for your son to do creating a Maine nook so you're able to be there and gaze at your beloved summer place as you lie in your bed in hospice care resting and dozing in beauty.

I am so sorry we won't be able to meet in person, but I want you to know what a powerful influence you were on my childhood, mostly one of mischief, laughter and just being girlfriend-to-girlfriend as we grew up together and managed to survive even the gunny sack blue serge lower school uniforms.

You made my young life, growing up in a family where there was love and caring and also alcoholism and anxiety, joyful. Thank you Margy with a hard G as I used to call you.

In addition to you I counted on God. As a kid I would often find refuge from the eternal and everlasting, or so it seemed, evening cocktail hour under a large dining room table where I chatted (gave little sermons) with my imaginary friends and a fourth friend I called God. I'd snitch Ritz crackers from the cocktail tray, eat one and leave the other four lined up on the table's cross beams waiting there for my friends and God. Later I would come to understand this childhood ritual as my first ordination as a priest and a call to a vocation I didn't pursue for years. Being a mother came first (two daughters, two sons, all grown with families of their own.)

That's a tiny but formative piece of my story. I wish I knew more of your story and the joys and sorrow that have filled your life over the 60 years since we last saw each other. I did google you and see that you did a lot of philanthropic work in the arts and consulting. Also your info sounds like you are a feminist or at least a promoter of women's gifts and passions. There's a reason we were such soulmates! I saw your photo in the yearbook and you hadn't changed a wit from sixth grade to graduation.

I hate to have to say goodbye just as we're saying hello again, but such is the unsteadiness of life and death.

Perhaps I will put this in a card also as I'm not sure how much email time you will want to spend as you rest and move into your death. Be sad but don't fret for there is nothing, even death, that can separate us from the Love beyond all loves some of us call God.
I send you this ancient blessing and, although I don't know of your own religious journey or faith, I send it in the spirit of grateful memories for our short but lively friendship.

God bless you and keep you;
the face of God shine upon you and from within you
and bathe you in peace

this day, this hour, this minute and for ever. AMEN

I love you my bright childhood friend.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Blog Snacks With Lemons

This blog is NOT a diary!!
It’s not full of trivial personal anecdotes with no soul, meat or meaning. I hear that is a reason some folks avoid checking in on bloggers and hope I have moved beyond the heaving narcissism of my “Dear Diary . . .” days.
My spiritual lemons are meant to awaken, provoke your reflection and call you to your depths.
But they might make you pucker up in case you expect some can-do or how-to spiritual advice that will last as long as your nose.
This week I offer these spiritual snacks.
-Boston Globe headline quote, 5/22/09, from President Obama’s speech, a necessary corrective to the Cheney same-old rant. Obama: “ I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values . . . “ Lemon: We cannot keep this country safe from our enemies without the power of our enemies.

-Jim Wallis: “New vision is always what any society most needs, and the edges of society have always been the most likely place for it to emerge. To generate something new, one must be listening to voices other than the loud voices of mass society.”

-Feminist Lemon: The feminization of any institution is no better for humanity than has been its masculinization.

-Ani Di Franco: “Someone you don't know is someone you don't know
Keep a firm grip girl and don't let go
Behind every hand extended another lies in wait
Keep an eye on that one - Anticipate”

-Jesus of Nazareth: “Be innocent as doves and wily as serpents.”

-Wily Lemon: There is little or nothing evil but that we make it so.

-Spiritual Lemon Policy: There is only one thing more important than individual rights and that is the common good.

Lemony wit/wisdom, oldie but goodie: “My grandfather knew the exact time of the exact day of the exact year that he would die.” “Wow!, what an evolved soul! How did it come to him?” “The judge told him.”

Lemon: Godde has no way to you but through you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Priest Wears Dangling Earrings—Still

Just three known-to-me times in my twenty-some years of being a priest, active in parishes, counseling, spiritual direction and chaplaincy, have my earrings made the headlines in someone’s mind—once for scandal, once for shock, and once for delight.
The Episcopal Church voted that women could be ordained in 1976, a very good year for church and USA. I was ordained in 1988 after some struggle, but women were still not regular fixtures at parish altars. We just didn’t look right. To some we were an offense.
When I started celebrating at the altar in my first parish in Connecticut I wore the correct uniform except for one thing—my dangly gold earrings. They were delicate, teardrop-shaped like a fish, the Christian symbol after all, but they raised eyebrows. No one said anything to me personally but by Monday morning the moribund, covered with dust and cobwebs Suggestion Box contained two slips of paper. We knew there was new life for this old box because the messengers had carefully left the edge of the white message paper sticking out of the slot.
The messages were for me. One note said, “The priest should NOT wear dangly earrings,” and the other one was like unto it. I gave them to the male rector, told him they were for him, went home, fumed to anyone who would listen, asked Godde what to do, and wore buttons not danglers the next Sunday and several more until the people knew me and liked me behind my danglers. Then I wore the danglers again without comment. It was okay to be an anomaly but not wise to flaunt my gender ornaments in anger and just to mock others. Motives count.
The second time my earrings drew comment was when I officiated at the wedding of my former spiritual director, a French Jesuit priest who had left his country, his religion and his order to marry a sweet young thing named Mary. He hadn’t left his Roman Catholic priesthood, just transferred into Episcopal priesthood. A priest is a priest is a priest. Okay for him to have me officiate but the shock for at least one Catholic wedding guest jumped unbidden out of her mouth. “Look! The priest has earrings!”
The third time my earrings became the center of someone’s attention was in the yes of a six month old child at her baptism. She was screeching, her parents blushing and shushing when I reached for the child to get it over with quickly. Suddenly she stopped her wailing and stared at me with smiles and coos. That was just before she grabbed at one of my danglers and yanked. In spite of the endangerment to my ear everyone laughed. How cute!
The moral of this story is that dangling earrings can be dangerous, but isn’t that true of all adornments? They stand out, command attention, turn heads.
Scripture has a tradition of adornment. Godde adorns with beauty those whom society casts out. Godde raises them up, saves them from the muck of human degradation and abuse, calls them beloved, and dresses them in garments of fair linen, and fits them for halos—and the women get dangly earrings.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hands On!

In the church we have a sacred practice called laying-on-of-hands to pray and bless. Having just come home from a refresher training about legal and pastoral issues on the dangers of too much touch I offer a cautionary tale.

We have a beautiful handsy blessing practice in the Episcopal church. It’s odd maybe to be doing this sort of thing in a world gone mad about boundaries, no-touch, and the swine flu. Nevertheless we continue to do this in our parish.

Last Sunday was the first time we ever did this with a child, a ten year old boy I’ll call Johnnie.

When people are about to go in for surgery or have a dear one who is seriously ill or even when they are moving away and leaving the community we pray for healing or safety or whatever is requested. The person in need of community support and prayer stands in front of the priest who is celebrating that day, The priest invites those who are able and comfortable to come forward, and gather around the person to focus their hearts in prayer with that person. The priest lays his or her hands on the head of the suppliant and everyone else extends their hands to place them either directly on the shoulders, head or arms of the person asking for prayers. The priest prays out loud and the whole congregation joins into the prayer with their own prayers and with their spirits.

Johnnie was headed for major back surgery to correct scoliosis. The rector asked him if he'd like prayers for healing. He said yes and then asked several times When?

When his Sunday came he stepped forward, stood before the priest with his head slightly bowed but not enough to conceal his bright expectant eyes. Everyone gathered.

We made a chain of hands, lines of hopeful, fearful, trusting, loving energy flowed from all those hands into the boy.

I was there as the assisting priest that day and told Johnnie I would place one of my hands directly on his back in the place where the spinal correction would be effected. He nodded, his crop of dark hair skimming his eyebrows. I thought what a beautiful boy he was.

When I first became a priest and did this blessing I worried about where the right words would come from There are formulaic prayers in our prayer book, but we usually count on the Spirit to give us the best words. And She does!

Spirit-inspired prayers are some of the most moving. Silent touching focused prayers are some of the most moving. They come from many hearts all beating their love into the heart of the one in need.

This day the prayer words were not only eloquent but simple and specific, including blessings for courage and soothing of anxiety for Johnnie’s parents and siblings all there with their hands on their son and brother. I pressed my hand firmly into Johnnie’s back. His little five year old sister did too, her eyes wide open in awe.

This was a holy moment, a community moment, a godly moment. There was enough spirit around and tears and sweetness to guard against both swine flu and the succumbing to the currrent cultural affliction I call boundary paranoia and touch-panic. What price Love?

Everyone knows prayer is no guarantee of outcome but we do it together anyway because it matters to us and it matters to God and it matters to our relationship.

In Johnnie’s case, the surgery went well. He will be home soon. He has a new lap top to keep him from wanting to run and play and get rough and tumble and risk jeopardizing his recovery. His mother and father will need prayers to keep him down. But his deformity will not follow him through his life creating worse and worse pain and giving him a bent body as he ages.

And he will never forget the laying-on-of-hands he received on May, 2009, in the Easter season from the hands of a small Christina community at St. John's Church in Gloucester, Massachusetts —hands of people who didn't all know him well but who all love him well.

Johnnie’s will carry this love in his body for the rest of his life; he will remember this day in his flesh forever.

This is the point of religious community, isn’t it?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Tortoise and the Hare

Recently I’ve been aware of a racy restless tension roiling around inside my soul as well as my gut. I’m impatient. time is more finite than I’ve ever experienced it before. And, though I’m not old, I’m getting old anyway.

There are days I wonder if even Godde can keep up with me!

My questions of the day to myself is: Do I have too much hare energy and not enough tortoise energy in my fuel tank? Do I have too much hare wisdom and not enough tortoise wisdom commandeering my mind?

Then I look around me and wonder if the whole culture, at least in my northeastern corner of the states is over-hared and under-tortoised. People honk when it‘s obvious that the line of traffic can not move. I don’t see much meandering along the streets. People on the subways hang their sleepy heads in exhaustion at the end of the day. Kids seem over-programmed. When do they play?

I have no good answers except the usual bromide about getting balanced. I love my hare and I love my tortoise, BOTH.

Today I will try to remember my tortoise and praise her for her slow steadiness of spirit. They say she wins the race, but I don’t think that’s really true. The hare can win if she’d take a second to stop and kiss the tortoise, maybe take a minute to stand on her back to view the scenery and come back to check on her progress. And the tortoise could pick it up a little too.

Then again they could travel together and cross the finish line of whatever together.

And what if there isn’t even a race!?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Memoir Musings Part Seven: Ordinations journey

How many ordinations does it take to make a priest? God knows!

In seeking an organizing structure for my personal/professional journey I have come up with the word-theme ordination and a new title, Ordinations:Becoming a Priest From the Inside Out.

When I play with words I look first at derivation, even before definition. There I often find clues to the word’s soul, where it was born and what its true meaning or vocation is. Ordination comes from the Latin root ordinatio, to put in order.

By definition, ordination means the act of making someone a member of the clergy, conferring on someone the authority of a sacred office, which can mean that the person has the status of the office but may not be clergy. In some traditions for example, lay people are “ordained” to serve for a time as an officer in the church.

Ordination also can mean the ceremony by which this ordering takes place.

By the traditional Anglican understanding of ordination (with a courteous bow to Luther's great idea of the priesthood of all believers conferred upon all Christians at baptism), you could analogize and say that ordination is to priesthood as authorization is to your credit card. Religious ordination is a sacrament of grace and it also means you have institutional sanction to do what priests do in an official capacity. You’re card-carrying.

I’ve come to see that I have had many ordinations in my life, significant occasions in which my personal life has aligned itself with my vocation as a priest before I became a priest in the Church. In all these ordinations I have felt authorized, ordained by the presence of the Spirit rising up from within me or conferred upon me by external means. My ordinations have always reset my course in some way, have always given me both new life and challenging tasks and have always authorized me to do something new.

They happen in prayer, in adversity, through significant relationships, in wilderness, wrestling with Church politics, rejection, compulsions and sins.

My book chapters weave personal themes with professional categories like a tapestry, following my ordinations path from the first one under the table when I was three to the official one by the Church when I was fifty.

It took a long time and much ordaining to get my spiritual ordination together with my religious ordination, but I’ve actually been an ordained priest for sixty-seven years not twenty-one.