Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prayer Deals

Often the wisdom of a child is compelling, provocative, and downright corrective!

This was in a letter to the editor from Rebecca Goodwin, mother of Michael Goodwin. Michael is six. He wrote to president Obama: "Dear President Obama. Congratulations! Please make no more wars. I will not litter. Sincerely yours, Michael Goodwin."

How simple, direct and beautiful is that! Michael's mother makes a similar point adding that if everyone made a commitment to change one small thoughtless habit, like littering, the whole world could change.

I began to think about what I often think about: How does this wisdom mirrors the love and work of G-d? There are two ideas about covenant in biblical literature. One is a covenant of grant. It is initiated by God, a free gift of grace, an free offer (take advantage of it now) to partner with humanity in the work of healing the world in the work of loving our neighbors, of not doing what we hate to anyone else.

The other covenant idea is a covenant of transaction or mutual promise. It too is initiated by Godde but has some terms. This is sensible, because it adds the idea of commitment to the primary covenant.

For example, we marry for love, to love and be loved. Between the lines of our vows we promise to forgive the pain each one's shortcomings will inevitably inflict on the other and on the relationship we share. That's a covenant of grant and intention, of free giving of love with promises attached to it. Something like "I will not litter."

Michael is growing up. A sign of that is his willingness to be mutual with an authority figure, to take his citizenship seriously in return for the government's willingness to use its power for peace not war.

We make deals in our prayers all the time. It's okay as long as we keep our part of the deal and try to be compassionate and forgiving for Godde who has a much more complicated job and really can't be blamed for citizens who are free but thoughtless, who litter without regard for neighbor or neighborhood, and who aren't as grown up as Michael.

Dear Godde, Please be peace in the hearts of all world leaders. I will not forget to send my prayer thank you notes to you for all the hard spiritual work you do inside stubborn souls. love, Lyn

Friday, January 23, 2009

By the Grace of the Moon

When you want something with all your heart, mind, body and soul the way you're supposed to want God as the bible says, you can become like a teenager who would die to satisfy such a cruel craving. You become crazy; you could be sent to an lunatic asylum as they used to be called you're so obsessed.

Grief will do it, or a fear beyond fear, or addiction, or just plain desire. Feeling like this breaks all the best rules of spirituality. You know the ones about detachment, Ignatian indifference, mindfulness, inner peace, serenity and other good ideas.

I remember years ago when I wanted to be ordained a priest. Chiefly, I wanted to be able to celebrate the Eucharist. It seemed to me to be the right body language enactment for the intimacy with Godde (a Christian feminist spelling that softens and leaves deity open-ended and welcoming) I'd known as a small child and still enjoy. I encountered roadblock after roadblock some of them within myself, some in the Church. I tried to act calm but felt quite lunatic inside. My prayers were like battering rams. I was possessed without an exorcist.

I started worshiping the moon—not as a god, not because I thought there was a magic man in there, not even for its beauty. I loved the moon because it shape-shifted every single day without losing its identity or purpose. Who could do that? Well maybe, just maybe everything changes like the moon. I didn't stop my prayers or my heart's desire. I just sent it to the moon and watched.
Slowly the Church and I shape-shifted and grew up together through our midlife crises, not the first or last for the Church but my last for sure.

Years later after I was ordained I heard another moon story about a child of eight whose mother had died. One evening, heart broken with grief inconsolable, the child sat on the back step staring at the moon. Her father came and sat beside her, his heart bursting to help her. He brought his wife's compact with him to show his daughter. He flipped it open so his little girl could see her face. Then he angled the small mirror slightly until it exactly caught the full moon in reflection. The girl stared. Her father then closed the compact on the moon and handed it to his daughter. It's yours, he said.

"My father gave me the moon," she told me.

So I thought had mine.

Monday, January 19, 2009

'dom Ring

When I was a very young child I used to beg my mother to sing " 'dom Ring" to me. It required her best wit and experimentation to connect her array of rehearsals to my request. Finally, we were one. The song I loved and wanted was "My Country 'Tis of Thee," the last words of which are "Let free-dom ring."

Watching yesterdays' concert, the beginning of the inauguration of our next president Barack Obama whom a granddaughter calls "Rock," and hearing my old favorite sung with majesty and dignity, I wept. I do that a lot in my old age. My tears were a mix of hope, relief and fear. I'm vulnerable; we're vulnerable; the whole globe feels wobbly on its axis. And yet . . .

The stated theme of the festivities was "We Are One"—unity. I heard another theme: freedom. Freedom is a hard ethic. Put it together with the desire for unity and you've got a tall order.

To oversimplify, I think freedom and unity can only co-exist, not necessarily cozily, where there is love, mutual (your need is as important as mine) letting-be. You have to care enough about your own freedom to want it for others. To have the same desire is a good start to unity. Then you offer to help others discover and realize freedom in and for themselves. Then you let them help you live your own freedom. And so it goes.

We have learned to love and build ourselves up as a nation. We lost both freedom and unity when we tried to hold onto them by overpowering others in the very name of what we value most. The more we think we are striving to help others achieve freedom and unity on our terms the more freedom and unity we lose ourselves. Paradox,no?

Religious historian Karen Armstrong says with a grin that where there is paradox there is the Holy, or G-d.

Some speak of national shame. We should shrink. But, in classical theological thought shame is the necessary precursor to the positive re-articulation of one's life. Can that be true collectively?

Maybe this nation, long enthralled with its own freedom, progress and self-love, is ready to turn itself inside out for the freedom, progress and self-love of others. Is that enough unity?

Let freedom ring.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

There But for the Grace of Luck

All she could say after her near-death accident was: How lucky I am. How lucky I was.

Here’s the scene: My friend is driving along a well traveled innocent main road in Vermont on her way to pick someone up at the Burlington airport. She is feeling happy. She loves this friend and looks forward to a brief visit. It’s early January. It’s winter in VT. Things freeze up fast in winter storms’ aftermath. Night driving can be dangerous. But it’s 10 a.m. Today is bright, sunny. The patch of black ice is smooth, looks just like the open road, captures the well treaded tires of my friend’s Volvo and takes her where she neither plans nor wants to go—skidding wildly, out of control, 40 mph, off the road, crashing through a fence in front of a house, hurtling forward, helpless, saying “No. No. No” over and over. The ending: a head-on life-saving collision with a big old tree, possibly apple, in which the Volvo ends up the loser. My friend escapes; air bags deploy. Trembling, she puts her hand on her chest that has taken such a wallop. My friend’s body has bruises but is intact. The car door opens without balking and she slowly lowers one leg and then the other to the ground. It is solid, frozen—no ice.

The second ending: Whispering about luck, my friend looks around. Where is she? She steps aside. There— mere feet beyond the old apple—a ravine gapes at her.
“How lucky I am. Oh, how lucky I am. God, how lucky I am.”

I feel lucky too that my friend is alive. And I ponder. Was this luck or grace in the Christian sense of divine gift? Is there a difference and if so what is it? As a priest I feel compelled if not obliged to reflect on the spiritual meanings of things. I think it is spiritually care-less not to reflect on quick, easy use of mystical language.

My friend is a faithful and reliable Christian, but she didn’t use that worn out theological clichĂ©, “There but for the grace of Godde go I.”

That phrase pops up quickly for many religious folks, almost like an air bag deployed to protect, to deflect the awful impact of tragedy and the awful question, WHY. I understand the impulse, but the phrase implies a deity who arbitrarily sprinkles grace around like confetti, to say nothing of what it implies about the one who may end up dead in some ravine or other.

One final query: Can there be bad grace? Nope. Bad things aren't generated by Divine goodness. Simply so. So if you hear Godde's inner voice whispering to you that you're a loser or a schmuck, it's not from Godde. Delete it. What about bad luck? Yes, but for luck to be bad you have to label it "bad." "I'm lucky" is a positive statement.

So I’m glad my friend praised her luck. I’m content to leave the difference between luck and grace a mystery. Amazing luck is as godly to me as amazing grace.

My friend is alive—for no reason.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Victor RCA

I seem to be on a roll with beasts, babies and special vision aided by technology.That's what I do when I'm playing homealone#10, not sick enough to be abed but not well enough to blast off in madness.

My "roll" is okay as long as I don't get stuck worshiping the technology instead of the vision beyond it or the spiritual wisdom within its service.

A front page photo in this morning's Boston' Globe pictures President-elect Barack Obama flanked by his new and sadly necessary constant companions, armed policemen. That isn't unusual but at the center of the photo stands a little boy, looking to be either ten or six or eight and shiningly blond. He faces the
powers and stares up at Obama whose hand is outstretched. Obama wears an expression of compassionate distress as if he is saying "Oh no."

We can't see the boy's face and the caption tells us nothing about the photo just that Obama is at the Capitol to build support for his economic plan, see p.A6.
But the artful eye of the photographer captures the right moment. What would a child say?

Jesus famously told his followers that the wealth of the kingdom can be seen and realized by and in the presence of a child.
There are many interpretations of this wisdom, but for me just now it makes me think of Victor RCA.

Victor has two black eyes, one more than his RCA namesake, and his head usually cocks to one side or the other. He's a Jack Russell so he barks at most things, even strangers who are passing by outside and even when Victor isn't standing guard at the window. Victor's barking doesn't last long and once he knows you he 's all affection.

Our son John acquired Victor who at the time was homeless and a giveaway. It was love at first sight. John will say that Victor saved his life when he went through a life-threatening series of surgeries a few years ago.

Victor was/is a communicator of divine grace, always present, ready to love unconditionally—barking included in the love.
When John and Emily had their first child, Phoebe Catherine, they wondered how Victor would take the invasion, read how long and how much would he bark? When they brought Phoebe home Victor, instantly curious, did not bark at all. He merely sniffed and kissed in the rough wet lapping ways dogs do.

I'm still curious about the no barking. The new parents had given Victor one of Phoebe's wee hospital hats to condition him to her scent before she made her home debut. That was smart and likely helped. But no bark at all? I know Victor and he still barks at me before he kisses me. Maybe I should give him one of my hats? But I still wonder.

Maybe Victor's non-barking love had to do with the cap scent. It's best to do all you can to make things reconciling and peaceful even against strong odds like Victor's barking habit. It's good not to sit around expecting a miracle but to give a miracle an assist if you can.

But I think there's more, something like the presence of a child on the scene. A child changes things. A child can convert the hardest hearts, heal a whole family sometimes. I've seen this happen at an addictions intervention. After everyone had their persuasive but loving say, the littlest member of the family a four year old who understood nothing except that Grampa might need her to jump into his lap at that moment. The child swung it round.

A child might also stifle a Jack Russell's barking habit. Victor has remained non-barking with Phoebe. In fact he now tries to clean her ears with his sloppy kisses.

Maybe that little boy in the photo, who obviously touched Obama's heart, will stay with him in spirit-memory. Maybe the child will inspire the man to sell a hard package, even one involving taxes. It depends where you look. This press photographer caught grace in the eye of the camera.

Xray Vision

Just before Christmas this year I read an article in the Boston Globe (December 23, 1008) with this line in it: "The painting that is now a horizontal nativity was once a vertical crucifixion."

At first I thought it should be reversed— that the Renaissance painter, Jacopo Tintoretto, would have painted a Nativity scene before a Crucifixion scene. But not so. Using Xray technology at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, curators have discovered that the Tintoretto "Nativity" painted in 1580, contains a fascinating "hodgepodge" of images, a painting behind the painting.

To the trained eye "Nativity" has been an embarrassment, although it is enormous and presides over the museum's Koch gallery "It's off," said an asistant curator.

For example, a bearded shepherd, supposed after all to be entranced by the new baby in the crib is instead focused upward toward the sky not the central event. No parent in his or her right mind when snapping the one millionth photo of a newborn baby would aim for the sky.

It seems that the artist changed his mind and chopped up the original crucifixion canvas for reasons not known, pieced together a new vertical canvas, painted over the old subject matter and came up with "Nativity" (1580) It's a cut-and-paste job. It's not rare to paint over things but "to cannibalize your own picture is a very rare thing in European art," according to the curator.

Theories about Tintoretto's motivation abound of course, just as they do in a whodunnit mystery novel. It made me think of a line from Yeats' poem "The Magi." The poet describes the three sages silhouetted against the dark blue sky, traveling "hoping to find once more/ being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,/ the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor." (Now I have cannibalized the poem by lifting the lines from the whole. But that's what Xray vision is; it focuses you where you need to see more. And spiritual Xray vision can help us detect the Holy in the oddest places, like crucifixes and gathered stable beasts peering at a newborn.

I wonder if, like the Magi in the ancient biblical story, Tintoretto was also unsatisfied with the gruesome death scene and suddenly needed to remember and re-present the birth. By Xray both are there.

Too bad we can't just cut up life like a canvas and pick and choose the parts that satisfy us. But we can remember and most of us do. Nevertheless, life is a mixed bag and, unlike horse and carriage or love and marriage, you really can't have life without both birth and death, the vertical and the horizontal always present in shadow form, one hovering in the background as the other for a time takes center stage. Then they switch, like Tintoretto switched his canvas's in focus and direction.

But it's all there by Xray.

Medical science takes Xrays to find disease, yes, but to determine as well the proper focus for healing and life-saving treatments.

It is spiritually healing I think, for us to live as peacefully as we can with this annoying mix. For at any moment the worst can become the best. If you polish up your spiritual Xray vision you can find life in death, blessing in curse—and even the reverse.

Good religion is always about transformation, things not being what they seem. With soul vision (spiritual Xray) I can sometimes see, when I take time— gaze enough, assume divine presence and ask for it— the Holy in the vulnerable beastly flesh, resurrection hope in a suffering death, the picture behind the picture behind the picture.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dream and Journey

Francis of Assisi, founder of the order of Franciscan monastics and named a saint for his wisdom, his love of all critters even human ones, and his devotion to Jesus, said,"The journey is essential to the dream."

It's the message on our Christmas card so I've looked at it often, sometimes with rue. Why can't I have just the dream and have it just come true, presto? Or at least just keep on dreaming.

But I don't really want that. I want both. The dream keeps me living, learning, reaching and praying. And the journey keeps me awake, out of dreamland. The journey is sheer plod no matter what— pricked by brambles, tripped by unexpected obstacles, hoarse in the quest to be heard, confused by suffering, and angered by detours.

Still, you can't have one without the other. To journey without a dream stifles mind, body and spirit, all three. To dream without a journey? About the same I'd say.

My dream ever since I met Godde under the table when I was a small child and mysteriously knew I mattered —no matter what— has been to introduce that Godde to everyone I meet.

Today the journey is particularly difficult. God is a matter of indifference. Hatred might be easier, something to argue with. Indifference kills. But old wounds, bad teachings, "religious" wars staged by people who put God's name to it because they're afraid to use their own, overmasculinization, violence, suffering, injustice, all trauma and horror have never killed Godde and won't now.

I forgot Godde myself once because of an old man with a long white beard in a movie theater who looked like my picturebook image of God and who did bad things to me. Wrong God.

In time I remembered the right one, the under-the-table one I'd experienced. Because it wasn't just my narcissistic fantasy I still have the dream— and the journey.

You can too if you want. Try writing personal letters every day. Don't keep it all inside. Put it in writing. It's always better out than in. Make sure to address yourself to Godde or whatever you call your soul's desiring. Sign your name
as if your prayer-letter mattered.

I haven't realized my dream of making known my under-the-table Godde in any grand way, but I keep the journey going and in small ways let others know they matter as Godde let me know I mattered.