Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Prophetic Lying for Truth

In a lie often dwells a deeper spiritual truth—prophetic and something not to ignore.

When I was in college I nearly had an achievement breakdown. When I joined the world for real at about six I was already working on my strategy of choice to gain my father’s unconditional approval/attention—love by achieving in small matters like learning my letters and then bragging.

It didn’t work because, as I later came to know, my somewhat recessive, depressed, boozy (his own strategy) father loved me all along and it wasn’t for my achievements.

When I hit school in earnest I upped the ante on myself and achieved excellence in most things even Latin. It helped that I did and do love school and learning, but I was fast letting the world remake me in its own image and forgetting the God I’d met under the dining room table at three, the same one who, when I chattered on about all my thoughts, feeling, doings, neither applauded nor scorned but simply listened, made no corrections and, I felt sure, smiled.

Sadly I forgot about my early spiritual experience and took on American culture and its drive to success often at great cost. Even back in the forties we were a can-do culture and I became the most can-do-energizer-bunny I could be—compulsively so.

Phi Beta Kappa,When I called my parents to tell them I had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, my father said “There must be some mistake.” Then quickly he laughed and added, “Just kidding, darling, that’s great.” I think that was the moment when, as inured as I was to my father’s style, I began to remember my God, began to glean truth fragments about myself, my dad and the American addiction to success, a profound cultural deception: if you don’t succeed (top grades, top credentials, top honors) you may not survive (get elected, get a good job, be a winner, survive.)

I remembered my own experience as I read about the recent exposure of painful lies, fabrications devised in worship of a false god. Religion calls this idolatry. It always stems from a ground zero spirituality of fear—not being loved and so engaging in efforts to prove oneself when there is in fact nothing you have to prove.

Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat got caught serving this lie in an effort to prove his worth. Blumenthal, attorney general of Connecticut, is running for Senate in Connecticut. It looked good until it was discovered that he had falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam. Why? Would this make him a hero? He already is a hero, or at least he has served his office well and was very electable—until his lie was discovered.

Most ordinary people, voters want/expect integrity. The biblical God in Genesis chose Noah to build a salvation ark because of his integrity (in Hebrew tam), not for his wood-working skills.

But I wonder if Blumenthal is a prophet in disguise. I wonder if there is a deeper truth under his unwise lying. I wonder if his action exposes the underbelly of the sin of this culture, the lie that drove him to lie in the first place now playing a role in revealing, not his personal sins but the sins of the system that enables, no encourages such behavior, even makes it almost normative.

The drive to succeed exceeds a normal desire for excellence when it causes one to lie to achieve something in easy reach. But before we condemn Blumenthal wholesale let’s look at the larger cultural context.

The paradox I discern is this: whether Blumenthal meant it or not his deceptive action exposes a truth we need to examine. Falsification could be seen as a symptom, a prophetic act of defiance against a system gone awry with rank ordering. The more inauthentic we get the more the deception is revealed and hopefully will lead to a change of ways, to ceasing and desisting from all these categories of who is acceptable and who is not. It is simply not the way of Spirit, not the way of God—and just plain not good for you at any level of being.

Could it be an honor not to have served in war or not to have straight A’s at Harvard?

All the great religious prophets exposed truth by doing something so counter-cultural, so deserving of dishonor that it got them ostracized if not killed. It happened to Jesus a lot and in the end cost him his life. Because he dined with society’s dregs and refused any honors himself he dishonored himself. He also called attention to the need for less competition and more compassion.

And from his dishonor itself we are still learning what true honor is, just as I learned and keep learning over and over not to sell my soul for the next accolade, no matter how sweet.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Flying Prayers at Pentecost

I saw something recently I’ve never seen before.

Before the sun had settled below the horizon there was a pinkened glow on the cloud cover and hanging from it was a rainbow. I’ve never seen a hanging rainbow the rest of its usual arch completely out of view. It looked like a colorful waterfall. I thanked the Creator Godde for this sight, marveled at such beauty, and circled the car for another turn of the harbor road so I could see it again—and again.

I imagined I knew exactly how old Noah in the Bible story must have felt gazing out from the famed ark of his making, an ark to save Creation as the story goes. I was only in my Honda saving nothing but just as grateful—and oddly happy for no reason. I felt suddenly like the young child I was, happy simply with life on its own terms, replete with tragedies, horrors and hanging rainbows. The invisible divine spirit connected me through beauty to my inner beauty.

I understood why children know how to appreciate mystery, how to take holiness for granted, and how to pray with fearless integrity. I understood why Jesus designated a little child as the ideal candidate for Godde’s kingdom.

At St. John’s in Gloucester, the parish where I’ve been Priest Associate for thirteen years, we do a rainbow-like array to celebrate the Holy spirit, Person # 3 of the Trinity, Godde’s helper and the one I call the Great Connector. Every one is invited to write a prayer on a colored dove. The doves of many colors are cut out and strung up on invisible wires to hang in the sanctuary over the altar. The sight astonishes.

All our prayers are flying, a visible recognition of the traveling power of the Spirit—and of prayer.

The best ones belong to children, not for their humor or cuteness but for the raw power of their authenticity and for the themes of love, gratitude, desire, concern for others as well as self, and for their honest recognition of pain and fear without making it the center of the prayer. Here are a few examples from children ages 2 to 14.

God, please don’t let Teddy collapse he’s my best friend. (six year old boy re. his beloved childhood bear that has been mauled by love like the Velveteen Rabbit)

I hope/pray that Piper has a happy life in heaven. (boy, 6 about the dog the family had to euthanize.)
I pray for Piper to let her know I miss her and I love her. (sister, 3, of the above)
That all people of Haiti have food and homes. (girl, 10)
I pray my Daddy’s shoulder gets better so he can play golf with me. (boy 7)
That nobody gets huuuurt. (boy 2 1/2)
I pray that Maggie always stays safe. (girl, 5 about another beloved dog)
I thank God because I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of. Amen. (girl, 10)
I pray that everyone is happy and that the people in war get home safely. Amen. (girl, 14)

These prayers represent the substance of spiritual truth—the ordinary stuff of life for its own sake encased in hope. They will fly well.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"August:Osage County" Theater Review/Life Review

We just saw the play “August: Osage County” starring Estelle Parsons at Boston’s Colonial Theater. It was a three act play, lasting three hours with two intermissions which could have been three because of the intensity of the drama.

For those of us who grew up in families like the dysfunctional/addictive one portrayed in the play it was a life review, an opportunity to view from a distance the way we were—and for some still are.

For me it was a panoramic view on a small stage. It brought tears, laughter, honest empathy and hardy applause for the resilience of all the characters who, in spite of being almost destroyed by the ravages of addiction, forge, each in their own way and according to their own personality, a path to freedom— or at least to another chance at freedom giving life.

But this play, written by Tracy Letts, is a classic tragedy showing as much appreciation for the vulnerability of human life as the classic Greek tragedians did. The matriarch takes pills; the patriarch drinks, but the tragic hero is the whole family (parents, daughters, aunt, granddaughter, cousin and in-laws.) The tragic flaw is lack of boundaries. The individual is subsumed into the chaotic death-dealing dynamic of a system in which the power of the whole nearly obliterates the parts. In family therapy this is called enmeshment. I call it the sprout family (can’t pick up one without picking them all up.)

People caught up in an enmeshed system divorce their minds.

The opposite of enmeshment is estrangement, a way some systems develop to control the many threatening feelings (anger, guilt, fear, sorrow) that naturally arise but are too dangerous to express in response to the disease of addiction. This is as much of a control strategy as enmeshment. It just looks different, more like a bunch of closely related people all in thick rubber suits with slits for the eyes. They don't talk, feel, hear, touch (just brush up against each other if necessary)—and can barely see. But they all feel safe as they go about the business of living together.

People caught up in estranged systems divorce their hearts.

Either way you sob inside.

This is life as apocalypse now. It’s like living life in a mine field with no time or energy for anything but constant watchfulness and mental, emotional and physical tension.

In this play each daughter copes, taking on a role in order to control the chaos. The oldest is the “hero” who tries to achieve some respectability for the whole by doing it right, if not perfectly. The middle daughter is the “clown,” trying to control by distracting attention from the pain, and the youngest daughter is the “lost child” who controls by being passive and self-denying, believing that her quietism alone will control the raucus “caucus.” All roles fail to achieve the desired end.

The central characters (parents, daughters, aunt, granddaughter, cousin and in-laws) are drawn and rendered with tenderness not sentimentality and a fierce attentiveness to the irony and humor of the situation. But somehow they all care about each other. And in the end their individuality breaks through the armor of the adopted role. Who cares if their choices are functional? Who cares about the outcome at this point? Truth is revealed. They leave one by one.

All this unfolds because of an excellent script, exceptionally gifted actors and an unexpected twist in the parental dynamic that bring both death and new life.

Estelle Parsons plays the “villain” no less trapped in the system than the others but rising above it in spite of her drug-induced haze by telling the truth with a scalpel for a tongue and no compassion. Yet we witness a transformation here too although she ends up as tragedy would have it abandoned, sick, and as wounded as the rest with less chance of escape.

I found redemption, something I think all great art must have, not only in the characters' individual triumphs but in the final collapse of the matriarch who stumbles upstairs to seek refuge in the arms of the outsider, the family housekeeper, the one who stays for the most part outside the melee and so is able to cradle the pathetic matriarch and croon a lullaby.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

2010.05.05 Fleshing It Out

All flesh.
Beautiful young and beautiful old.
Wrinkled and smooth,
bright pink, coffee, opaque silver, chocolate
freckle-flecked and acne-pocked—meeting ground for divine grace.
All flesh.
Flesh bloated with Spirit—meeting ground for grace
I wonder if flesh energy alone
propels this train forward, hurdles it into the big city
transporting people (SRO)
people eager to
walk twenty miles for hunger,

some hoping to make it
some sure they will never tire
all ready for their own thirst and hunger
and wholehearted pride

But I, not walking today, get caught in the roil,
the heat that spins off all that energy.
I close my eyes, thank them all, feel grateful
for the great kenosis at Park Street
center of the Hub—or the Universe.
* * * *
I wrote this poem because I suddenly felt awed by so much enspirited human flesh eager to help others raise money so all flesh would have enough to eat. I thought of the God of Jesus who chose to create, empower, inhabit all human flesh; I thought of the biblical prophet Joel who centuries ago wrote a true vision and put it in the divine mouth. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see vision. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2:28)

And here it was, realized on the T in Boston early one Sunday morning.