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.