Wednesday, October 27, 2010

2010. 10.27 Countercultural Spirituality

I went to get my free pass during open house week, a short five days, at a women’s healthworks fitness “club.” The word club at first turned me off. I thought of the infamous country club, source of my father’s worst binges and my mother’s worst anxieties. But I knew that was irrational. So I headed off.

This club was exclusive. It was for me, for all women. I had heard of it from a colleague so it must be good. I told myself all these things and ignored my body’s inner twitch of resistance.

I had been looking for a good yoga class and also maybe some place to go that had treadmills, bikes and the like for when the weather became unwalkably cold.

The women at the front desk were welcoming and smiled. I filled out a lengthy form swearing to hold them harmless in case I dropped dead and wondering if I needed a physician’s permission if I told them I had asthma—or my age. They wanted all of it so I was honest.

The apparent director came bustling over, perused my form, asked a few questions about my experience, then told me what I should be taking and the fee to join the club. It was open house week so I didn’t have to make a commitment. Then she gave me a whirlwind tour and showed me all the amenities, lockers, showers, sauna and machines. Nice.

I decided to stay and,needing better definition myself, take Body Defined because my friend was in that class—and it was only an hour. How could lifting a few weights, some of which I do at home and stretching hurt.

When I got to the class I had no idea what to do. The teacher didn’t seem to remember she’d just met me and I was new. Women were scurrying about picking out their weights, their mats and a platform apparatus. thank God my friend was there.

The class was just not my style—too fast, too breathless, too noisy. The director barked out the instructions, a voiceover competing with the loud, incessant, and absolutely unvarying beat of rock and roll. I thought of the boom box cars that drum down the street driven by young bobble-heads and wondered if people in this culture ever sat still.

This club had minimal relational hospitality and stressful pacing of motility in class. It seemed like the culture we live in today that keeps a pace so exhaustive, frenzied, and draining that you’d think life itself was a race. For what?

I need something countercultural. A seminary professor of mine once warned us that sound religion and spirituality was always countercultural. For Christians he put it this way: “Look for Christ in the margins.” Don’t know about Jesus but clubs like this and I don’t mix.

People crab about religions being a danger to yours soul’s health. Culture can be too.

If you immerse and saturate yourself in the pace of this culture you might get sick, and what you think is healthy might not be.

I’m headed for the margins.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

2010.10.20 Inner LIght by John T. Brakeman

by John T. Brakeman

John Brakeman, my son and fourth child, teaches fifth grade. He wrote this meditation in 2008 to share with his students after he had been through extensive surgeries and had lived with pain and in fear for his life.

Paradoxically, the more pain and suffering he endured the stronger his faith in prayer and Higher Power/God became.

Paradoxically as well, the more spiritual his self-expression became the less welcome it was in school the principal of which told him he couldn't share this with his students because, although it was entirely personal in nature, it might rouse parental ire.

Today the meditation is framed and hangs above my home altar. It reminds me of John's courage, and also of the ultimate fragility of the one small sweet life each of us has and that humanity is by nature spiritual.


A bond with light signals so much change.

A light is used to see so many things.

With just a fleeting thought we think of light as a way for us to see in the dark.

This is to secure us for the things that we might run into.

Light bends and can be made into many different colors.

Its flexibility shows us that change is possible.

The human spirit has light and possesses almost the same properties.

What do we want the light to show us and what do we want the dark to open up to us?

It’s those things that are opened to us that allow us to see ourselves.

How do we want to exist for the rest of our lives?

Life challenges or God’s plate allows us to see our light.

When the light presents itself it will ask you one question—What have you learned?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Overbrimming Cup:Yale Divinity School, October 2010

This decade is my reunion decade. I’m not a reunion person, preferring I guess to leave the sanctity of the original experience in sanctity, but now I’m gathering together the many fragments of my life for my memoir—and reunions re-member.

I did my high school 50th in 2006. Turned out I liked the same people I’d liked 50 years earlier. And I got to spend a whole day of uninterrupted conversation with my oldest, dearest, most intimate friend Annie before she died the next year leaving me wanting more.

Did college 50th in May, 2010. Missed some friends and re-loved others. I was still enchanted with the things that had brought me there in the first place: the beauty of the campus, the continuity of the institutional commitment to women’ education, and the alluring mystique of women together— learning without fear. I felt proud of my women’s college.

My seminary reunion at Yale Divinity School (YDS) October, 2010, was my 28th, not even an official reunion year. It was also my first reunion there. But it turned out to be the most exhilarating of all my reunions—and the most exhausting.

I wrote to a friend earlier today: “Just got back myself from 3 days of reunion at my div. school. My cup runs over.  Exhilarating and exhausting.  Is there such a thing as TMS (too much stimulation)?  Not if it's real Spirit juice I’d say.  It just keeps going on giving life. The 80-90 year olds were the most inspirational.  “Celebrating 8 decades of women at Yale Divinity School” was the reunion’s focus. All my memories fell into the deep bowl of history where they felt nurtured not swamped. One at a time we women have done it starting from the first four woman enrolled in 1932 with 204 men (YDS founded in 1871) to 2010 when the school is 50/50 male/female. I am grateful for my big fat broad ecumenical education—different from the strictures of a denominational seminary whose graces are the bestowal of ecclesial identity plus. And........ we got a baseball cap marked with Yale Divinity School. Also one more carry bag for my collection. Faith and excellent worship, preaching, intellectual papers on the latest theological developments, and the arts. Did miss Eucharist but they do that in their regular chapel worship. I saw the rota. I’m flying.”

My friend wrote back that she had wished she’d gone to my reunion instead of hers where the men were all old and bald and the women frumpy and full of shit.

The pioneer women were brave and they can still laugh about it. Margaret Farley, RSM, first full time woman on the faculty and first tenured professor in Ethics, gave the key note address. She reminded us that there had been amazing advances and still women do not have a lasting home in ministry. Perhaps the journey is the home, she suggested, as women keep forging new roads to full inclusion that will help other women find homes when they come knocking.

Many women it’s true have laid down their lives for the love of the right and to make sure other women benefit. A Jesus-y thing to do. It’s a great and lengthy love story that goes on. Every great love, Margaret reminded us, is tried by love and not destroyed. The point of the cross of Christ is that relationship can hold— no matter what.

It’s amazing how the truth of something you have known and know can again illumine and stun.

My own memory of Margaret Farley from an ethics class back in the ‘70s is small but I never forgot it. She was talking about faith and saying not to assume or presume. “After all,” she’d said, “Peter thought he had faith and found out he didn’t. And Judas thought he didn’t have faith and found out he did.” (I was flipping back and forth being Judas and Peter.)

Bits of humor, wisdom, and challenge to remember our love story at YDS and take it forward.

In the 1950s women had one bathroom across campus. They called it “The Women’s Room” after Marilyn French’s book title. It was YDS’s first unofficial women’s center.

The Dean in 1950 lamented to the 10 new women students what a serious thing it was that they (all 10 of them) were here, because they kept out all those men. Your pictures were the deciders the dean told them. We picked the ten who looked as if they could stay the course. (Good thing they weren’t posture pictures or centerfolds!)

Fueled by the fervor of the ‘60s, women flooded into the seminaries. Recruiting wasn’t allowed. Joan Forsberg, 1953 graduate was then dean of students and affectionately remembered by many as a steadfast encourager, really savior, of women’s vocations, said “I’m not recruiting. The Holy Spirit is just blowing them in the doors.” (By the time I blew in (1978) there were 185 women to 418 men.)

Believe in your gifts with humility but without apology!

Education in some denominations is suspect. One woman told us she wanted the “halo effect” of a Yale education and now makes it her ministry to use her privilege to help women see that education has value and doesn’t threaten spirituality or charismatic holiness. (Being at YDS opened my mind, also opened my heart and soul to the Holy.)

A 2007 graduate, with her generation’s charming uptilt of voice, told how they brought the Vagina Monologues to YDS, only getting backlash because they performed it in the chapel. (I did a monologue script with my collar on and brought 2 astounded young women to our parish. Who knew vaginas could do evangelism.)

To balance the personal and the professional remains a challenge for most women, and many men now too. (The surety that I couldn’t balance these two was a chief reason for my being turned down in the ordination process in the Episcopal church. “Dual vocation” they’d called it. Now I lobby the church to recognize bivocational ministry ie. serve as a priest in a parish and in another setting too. So far bishops don’t favor this but as always economics and failing parish endowments will drive the part-time agenda home to roost.)

“I came to YDS a devout Roman Catholic and left a pagan,” one woman said. The late Professor Letty Russell a much revered feminist, author and advocate for GLBT inclusion told her, “You don’t have to be in the church to do ministry.” (Letty once told me that inclusive language was more about God than it was about humanity.)

Wives who had helped their husbands get through school were honored, remembered, and applauded.

Beloved mentor the late William Sloane Coffin, some time chaplain at Yale, told women, "Faith is reckless. First you leap, then you grow wings.” (I did that.)

Nancy Jo Kemper, ’67, recipient of the William Sloane Coffin award for peace and justice, is famous for her response to the that allowed guns (loaded I presume) to be brought into churches, “Jesus would puke!”

The presence of female students in the early days didn’t stop professors from addressing their classes, “Gentlemen.”

Don’t listen to the noise of dismissal and silencing or shut down difficult conversations or confrontations in the name of reconciliation!

Encourage a different perception of religion. Go beyond, like Jesus did.

The Alumni Award for Distinction in Congregational Ministry went to Lillian Daniels, ’93, who was told by her committee she had “no discernible gifts for parish ministry.” (A certain trinitarian committee of Three overthrew that judgment as the same Three overthrew the dual vocation judgment on my behalf.)

“You can’t help others be comfortable with you being powerful!” (It took me years to get that and still I can demure and recede from my authority.)

In a NYC city Methodist church a parishioner said to the woman pastor when the congregation had hired another pastor, “Pastor, we’re getting a woman!” (Reminds me of the parishioner who said as I was standing there, “I better ask the priest”—the priest being male.)

One women chose interim ministry to expose congregations to women leaders so they might call a woman pastor. Desensitization works.

A woman got an A in Old Testament, scandalizing the school. The professor surprised himself. “I don’t usually give my A’s to women. What will they do with them?”

A humble award recipient Nai-Wang Kwok ’66 thanked YDS for its report card with the A-, saying he’d done some things right and there was more to go.

A 70s wife remembered the “irregular” ordinations of women in 1974 and ‘75 and called them “astonishing” and a new vision. “The Altar Guild was the ultimate and you had to be invited to be on it by a male clergy,” she remembered.

What made this reunion so special for me was of course the history and the remembrances and seeing how far women had come. Yet one can celebrate awards and hear great memories at lots of reunion gatherings. At seminary reunions, however, all energy, study, and song is devoted to Divinity. Worship punctuates the round of events, and it’s not just token worship. There is praise for the assembly, yes, but the praise that shines most brightly shines on God. Halleluia. (In Hebrew that means shine your praises on God.)

I am grateful to have gone to a school that is not denominational. Diversity is what makes growth and creativity. Too much homogeneity can stunt growth, suck the soul right out of faith.

In 1971 The Berkeley Divinity School (BDS) an Episcopal seminary merged with Yale Divinity School. When I was a student there BDS had a building a dean and offered some prayer book services. It was a non-demanding presence for Episcopalians who felt like orphans and/or needed support from the "mother" church.

Now there seems to be an effort to make the BDS presence more visible, give it its own curriculum, require more worship attendance of Episcopal students.

At one of the worship services I noticed a little “army” of Episcopal women clergy, sitting together, all collared up looking quite stiff. They all crossed themselves at the same time. It looked odd, even ominous to me. It smelled of regression, a kind of elitism. They stood out like sore thumbs, and their presence didn’t look like a proud act of witness or resistance. They were there for the BDS graduate society luncheon that followed.

I thought of the bright white clerical collar I once lusted after, the collar that signified belonging, authority, vocation, inclusion. At first I wore it a lot; then it got stiff; now it has a ring around it. How do you join with the people, advocate for the ministry of all the baptized when you stick out like a sore thumb?

I remembered my spiritual director Madeleine L’Engle in the 80s said to me, “Now, my dear, when you get ordained do not turn into a little man.” When she said that she meant be a woman priest in my own style, not imitate the current model, march to my own, and on good days, the beat of Sophia’s drum.

Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament professor when I was a student, consoled me as I lamented having been turned down for ordination. “Lyn,” he’d said jerking his thumb toward the office down the hall and lowering his voice, “look at the model.” The “model” was an Episcopal priest, a dear professor who lived with his dog and his pipe, a man who we all swore slept in his mile high collar.

Dr. Marcia Riggs ’53 had just preached on the gospel story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. This unnamed woman had confronted Jesus, called him up short when he displayed exclusive attitudes about the dispensation of healing miracles. A woman who took risks, a woman not of the Jewish heritage, a woman who told Jesus off, who refused to allow him to limit the mission of God’s gospel. A woman model for us today.

I went to the BDS luncheon and felt as if I didn’t belong, being one of the few clergy out of uniform. The collar that had meant I belonged now by its absence meant, or felt as if it meant, I didn’t belong. What counts for belonging?

I wondered about separatism and thought it painful. I am proud of my tradition and its breadth of spirituality. I would hate to see it make of itself an end in itself. I would love to see BDS grieve its former identity, accept the new creation the merger had effected, give its money to YDS, and encourage Episcopal students to celebrate the rich diversity that will grow their souls and yes enrich the beauties of their own tradition as well.
* * * *
I had gone to YDS in the ‘70s because I could commute. At the time I had wondered if an Episcopal school would have been more formational in the tradition I’d chosen and loved. Would I be Anglicanized enough? Would I fit in? I struggled many years to get ordained a woman Episcopal priest. I still rejoice in my vocation and love my tradition and church.


I would choose again to go to YDS and would recommend it to anyone wanting a theological education, whether they aspired to ordination or not. I would recommend it for its academic excellence but also for the experience of belonging it offers today in a church that is softening denominational boundaries and being de-institutionalized for its own good—and for the sake of its own spiritual belonging in the evolution of God’s mission of peace, justice and love for all.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Can We Divorce Spirituality From the Transcendent, Divinity?

I read an interview some weeks ago (New York Times Magazine, September 6, 2010) that shocked me.

The author Deborah Solomon questioned Deepak Chopra the man from India raised a Hindu and turned California guru of alternative wellness. Chopra is the founder of a wellness center in California.

I have read some of his work on meditation as a health practice. I confess I have not studied it, because I was not drawn into his thought save for his insistence on a holistic view of wellness.

I detected, however, a subtle suggestion that we could actually take control of our moments, days, even lives by meditative thought. We could almost MAKE or WILL ourselves well by this practice. Too much me and not enough God.

Where was there room for Divinity, for Spirituality meaning that transcendent mystery some call grace, others coincidence. Where was the Holy? Where was the divine/human relationship? Where human trust, faith, hope?

I suspected idolatry, worship of temporality with the expectation that would be enough.

If meditation became your god then what if a day came when you couldn’t do it?

If self-reliance your god on whom or what would you rely when resources dried up?

If science were your god and it had no cure or you couldn’t afford it, then what would you trust, where turn for healing?

Or...if your work was your god what happened when you couldn’t work or lost your job?

Where would meaning be found at the end of your rope?

I am not against meditation, know of its benefits myself, and often suggest it to people as a way to draw energy back from the distractions of a high speed culture and into the self or soul, a way to focus and center on Divinity, to bring together the transcendent dimension we call Divinity with the immanent dimension we call soul.

I call it contemplative prayer.

At any rate meditation is far from new to religious traditions. Neither btw is spirituality. Chopra seemed to me in this interview to calculate his thoughts in a dichotomous way; that is he offered an either/or mentality I didn’t find congruent with what he claims to represent: wellness.

For example, when queried about the Islam center in NYC and whether Sufism represented the reform branch of Islam, he responded, “Yes, traditional Islam is a mixture of obedience to Allah and if that requires militancy, so be it. Whereas Sufism exalts beauty, intuition, tenderness, affection, nurturing and love, which we associate with feminine qualities.”

Seemingly, male/female and Sufism/Islam do not easily co-exist in Chopra’s analysis.

I think growth toward wholeness, and incidentally wellness, happen when the best of tradition is supplemented rather than supplanted.

Asked if he believed in God’s existence, Chopra responded, “Yes, but not as a dead male.” I would agree if I thought the Christ spirit were dead or male. Mostly I thought it a snide slur.

Chopra defined his practice as “what I can only call a secular spirituality.” Can there be such a thing since secular still means any activity or attitude that has no spiritual or religious basis. Didn’t the idea of spirituality stem from religions’ awareness of Spirit beyond human boundaries but interacting within human process?

Or has it morphed to being just human values, nice cozy things like belonging? And aren’t humanistic values contingent, relative to culture? Perhaps Chopra means spiritual humanism?

Why try so hard to divorce spirituality from religion? Just because religion is unpopular in this age?

Spirituality and religion were also polarized in Chopras’ definitions in response to the question about how he would define spirituality as opposed to religion? “Self-awareness and awareness of other people’s needs.”

Spirituality is by this definition self-centered while religion is centered on other people. Is this another dichotomous solution? Aren’t self and other awareness part of holistic wellness?

Healthy spirituality can not be divorced from the need to be aware of the dignity of all human being and the whole created order. Equally, religion can not be sane if divorced from soul-awareness and nurture. Both/and.

The interviewer pushed on asking what religion he would say he is. “I say God gave humans the truth, and the Devil came and said, ‘Let’s organize it, we’ll call it religion.’ ”

No comment.

OK just one. Do you think meditation classes aren’t organized, that we students don’t know who the teacher/guru is and where s/he belongs in the structure? As long as no power abuses (and I know of such abuse in a meditation group in which the teacher, playing god, took physical advantage of a student’s vulnerability) occur the ordered/organized structure is in place for our wellness, just as in a functional family.

Trellis and roses make a necessary whole.

The interviewer soldiered on commenting that religion was free to worshipers and Chopra’s meditation retreats were costly. He countered with tax free donations to religions and the wealth of the Vatican. He thinks insurance companies should pay for his lifestyle management classes and they would save money.

That is a good idea and I agree we need to see, as Chopra said, “that alternatives medicine is now mainstream.” Another either/or?

I use traditional medicine and all the “alternatives.” Only I call them “complimentary.”

We need to remarry spirituality and religion—the best of both.