Sunday, April 28, 2013

2013.04.28 Godde's a Flirt

I consider myself agnostic because I know I don't know God, yet I live in the paradox that the more I admit that I don't know, the more I seem to know.

Divinity, it seems, shoots shards of Soul into my flesh like an arrow and I feel suddenly intimate—and omniscient. And then it's gone, with a wink.

Just this morning I felt such a shard and called it passing hope. Twisting up the blinds in our bedroom window to catch the morning sunlight I was taken aback by the vision of our huge popcorn tree. (I call her that because of her Easter “bonnet”, though I don’t know her real name.)

Overnight, or so it seemed to my eye, the tree had popped. Every branch and sub-branch was loaded with blossom clusters, all pink-white. I thought of the first flowering of a young girl who sticks out her chest and feels, for a moment—omnipotent.  Or the small five year old boy in the playground whizzing along on his scooter his red cape blowing behind him—superman almighty.

The burst won’t last, any more than movie popcorn shared while life reels on —but it’s enough.

I hope such experience, in which I do hear, or feel, a word I call God-in-me, is not romantic or facile or sentimental, but rather true. Anyway, it helps me move along, knowing and not knowing.

Oh, incidentally, I'm beginning to despise the word spiritual—so bleak and easy, avoidant and limp— though I understand its vogue. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

2013.04.24 What Are Prayers For?

Prayers are for anything that bursts forth from our heart, minds and lungs, whenever we are blasted from our complacency and moved to cry out ex profundis, from the deep.

To whom?

I dunno really.  But I call my unknowing God, because I need to name the mystery. I need to feel my prayers connect; I need to feel heard, to believe I am heard,which is far more important to me than being answered. 

When I worked at an alcohol/drug rehabilitation center in Connecticut I was the chaplain, the one in charge of spirituality. I felt ridiculous many days but I preached on and consoled patients and learned that anyone who tries to explain God will probably end up having to have their tongues surgically untwisted.

There was Johnnie who’d never heard of God. Well, close my mouth! Someone in the late 80s in this quite piously religious country who’d never heard of God? 

After I talked myself blue with explanations I shut up and we sat silently together.  Then I asked Johnnie if he had ever called out in anguish or joy. Yup, he said.  Who did you think you were calling to? I asked. Oh, is that God? he said and grinned. I grinned too.

I don’t know what happened to Johnnie after he left treatment, sober and hopeful, believing he had a sense of God in his bag of tricks. But I know we prayed.  

The first prayer uttered by many of us after the tragic events of Marathon Monday in Boston was Oh my God! Is that a prayer or a swear?  I call it prayer. OMG is now the latest, p.c. way to exclaim astonishment or horror and every wonder in between.

OMG is an ejaculation that leaves us all pregnant with Compassion. It heals the habit of using theological language that divides the world into good/bad, worthy/unworthy, saved/unsaved.  OMG such treason. We are one in prayer, an inner gift we all have, and none have never used.

Our prayers until now have been obvious. Now it is time, I think, for the less obvious prayer, the one I call the excorcistic vengeance prayer that cleans out our souls. 

It’s time now to pray with the Tsarnaev family—all rent asunder. Their pain and grief is as real as ours, though we want to judge it as less noble. It’s not. And there is still a God who listens and provides inner strength to them as well as to us as Compassion is released into the world.

Would I have dared to say such things from a podium or pulpit in the wake of these criminal events?  In a parish community, yes. Kneeling at my altar, yes. Sitting listening to birds outside, yes. For a national audience on TV?  Probably, which is probably why I’m not one standing in such a public position.

Let us pray.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

2013.04.21 Interfaith Faith

Yes, I watched the interfaith service at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston last  Thursday. And yes, I was moved to tears of both grief and joy. And yes, I was struck again about the energetic resurgence of religious vocabulary in our secularized culture at times of national catastrophe, in this case the holocaust of Marathon Monday in Boston, 2013.

Words like God, prayer, sacrament, blessing and many citations from scriptures abounded, led and modeled, in this situation and others, by our President Barack Obama—and he’s had more than his share of such occasions. Of course it was a religious service, therefore such language was natural, but it was also a civic commemoration, a collective funeral. Our civil “religion”emerged as strong and healthy as our spiritual religion. Is there a difference really?

A few things I loved.........
    President Obama should have been a preacher. He took to the podium as if it were a pulpit, which it was.  He cited verses from II Timothy 1:7 which are worth repeating here. Paul the apostle was encouraging his student and disciple for his mission to teach and proclaim the gospel of grace: “For God did not given us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” These are inner gifts available to us all.
    Is there a call to turn to our faith traditions for solace, strength, and national invigoration?  Could it be that God, whom many think of as omnipotent in the way the world understands power, is begging us to consider a new/old theological perception: Godde as love within?

    The visual diversity was an astounding image. Many “minorities” in leadership.
     Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke with calm eloquence and offered a biblical insight: Crowd and community are often present but are not the same phenomenon. A crowd is a bunch of individuals grouped together, loosely or tightly, each individual invested in her/his own desires and interests. A community is also a bunch of individuals but these individuals derive their identity, meaning, purpose, and quality of life from being part of a community with a unifying vision.  Marathoners and fans have formed community over the years—and a vision, without which the people perish. (Scripture again.)

    The cello, played by the inimitably passionate Yoyo Ma, is the one singular instrument able to convey the pathos of such a time—mournful, melancholic, yet as deep and rich as soil and soul ready to receive new seeds of life. In the final phrase the melody grew faint, trailed reluctantly off, leaving and not leaving.

    Nasser Wadeddy, Islamic interfaith activist for democracy and an American citizen by only one week, remembered his own terrifying experience with a bomb explosion on a road in Damascus, Syria.  (Some will recall St. Paul’s encounter with Christ on a road in Damascus, a time when he began his turn away from violent persecutory ways. )

    Closing Hymn: “American the Beautiful” based in beauty and grandeur of landscape, not military victory as was our national anthem.

And didn’t love.............
    Extremism in any form, including a bit too much American positivism and can-do pride
    The phrase: “This doesn’t happen in Boston!”
    That there were many many more men than women up front—still, still
    I heard no prayers uttered for the young male criminals
    That people who "don't believe in organized religion" flock to God and the offerings of organized religion when something catastrophic and inexplicable happens yet never mention the sacred in other venues or give religion a voice in public conversations. Do people flock to cathedrals for political reasons, or for spiritual reasons?

This week Boston and the nation have traveled the arc from vibrant life through death and despair, into hope and hints of healing, and now the journey arcs forward into a climate of uncertainty, unsteadiness and wondering.

Yes, we will go on.  Yes, nothing will be quite the same. The best way I know to assimilate the “new normal”  is to find a community that is not a crowd.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

2013.04.17 What To Do In the Valley of the Shadow of Death?

Hold hands.

The Boston Marathon tragedy has many complex facets and remains incomprehensibly tragic. Even so, we seek actions, answers, and accountability. The fact is that there isn’t much to do but pray and hold hands and wait as more data roll in to enlighten. Enlightenment, however, is only half the truth, holiness the other. What happens in such holocausts is not reasonable, or explicable. It is only healed by love and borne in faith.

“Reason is the soul’s left hand, and faith her right, by these we reach divinity.”  John Donne

Right now we are summoning every reasonable resource we can to understand. As tomorrows accumulate, faith will clasp onto the hand of reason as together they unite to help us go on living and loving.

The soul that does not value human life is stunted; and the soul that does not value divine life is equally disabled.

One day the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and "a little child will lead them," according to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (11:6) A little one, perhaps like Martin Richard below, who died as the result of the bomb explosions at the marathon on Boston's celebration of Patriots Day.  Will we follow?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

2013.04,14 Potentiation Never Ends

“In the beginning . . . “  he began in somber tones.

I wrote it down in my brand new spiral notebook marked Old Testament; “In the beginning  . . . “  Then I waited, through a long pause, for more.

“In the beginning God potentiated life—over and over and over.” 

I loved that word, potentiate. I’m not sure if that is exactly what he said but that’s what I heard and never forgot.

Potentiation is what God, by whatever name, and there are many, is all about—over and over and over.  My time as a seminarian at Yale Divinity began in 1978 with this enormous required basic biblical course in Hebrew scripture.  The professor, Robert Wilson, has been teaching, potentiating, there for 40 years. (I never thought this then, but I bet he’s about my age now:)

I remember when some students nearly went nuts over an exam question which asked us to connect the texts about Sarah and Abraham in their aging process, with its attending issues, to our own lives and ministries. How would we use these texts to inform our pastoral care work, say in a nursing home? 

My recollection was that many students were angry and protested this approach, calling it proof- texting and all kinds of other putative interpretive “abnormalities” they thought were forbidden when working with sacred texts. I guessed they were afraid of aging and death, or other demons too fierce to mention.

But I loved it.  The issues were the same then as they are now, and I got it.  For me this approach made scripture come alive, and its people real. Years later I wrote two book of midrash stories using this connective experiential approach.

Recently I read that Robert Wilson said:”Religious tradition canonized the biblical text but it didn’t canonize an interpretation.  That is the job of each generation. . . .That’s the human condition. It was also an exilic problem.  How did I get where I am? How do I deal with tradition, with what has happened in the past? You have to figure out where you are and how you got there. It’s what being a fully involved adult means.”

It’s what Creator-God is all about: unending potentiation.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

2013.04.10 Christian MIngle and Prayer

The TV ad for the dating service, Christian Mingle, promises:  “Find God’s Match For You.”

My first ugly thought was something like: OMG, I'm not sure I'd want to mingle exclusively just with Christians.  Good Lawd amighty forgive me!

BUT, we live in a consumer-driven/ marketing-obsessed culture.  What a thrilling prospect this ad promises, especially it you’ve tried all human means to find what some call “the perfect mate.”  Well, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a marriage, or a relationship, made in heaven, mostly because I don’t think of Godde as a yenta.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do think God cares greatly about each and all of us and desires our well being as much as we desire our own. Godde cares enough, however, to give us freedom to use our gifts, both natural and acquired, to live fruitful lives and discern our choices, even if some of them don’t work out just as we’d hoped.   

None of the above means to me that God has a plan, or a mate created and already picked for me, or you, if only we’d join Christian Mingle and find out—for a fee of course and with a guarantee that our mate will be a Christian, likely of a more conservative stripe than, for example, me. If you believe God has a match for you, then sign up. You may find someone who believes the same, and be compatibly happy ever after. 

How do we meet and mate?  Let me count the ways. Right now I am praying that a dozen women may meet a man who will love them and be loved by them, for better or worse. Why? 

Well, I pray not because I think God will matchmake, but because these women have told me their longings and I let everything be known to God—all my own fears, hope, longings, anxieties, sorrows, and desires— for myself and people I care about, near and far. Once I let God know what I want, I say AMEN and leave it, for today.  I don’t know the outcome, I only know what I’d like, and I’m not afraid to say it. 

Very often things work out as I desire, but not always. Is that because I was wrong to ask?  Not at all.  Is it because God didn’t grant my request?  No.

Prayer for me is more about nurturing and deepening an open and honest relationship with Godde, in whom I live and who lives and breathes in me, than it is about expecting prayer to make things happen. 

The Lord's Prayer prays: THY will be done, not MY will be done.  It’s an act of faith and trust, not control. I pray for the same reasons I talk to my spouse and closest friends or family about my concerns.

For me prayer (and its equivalent practices, including Reiki, meditation, et. al.)  is what connects me to Godde-in-God, to christ-in-Christ, to God-in-me—and you.    Prayer is what lets me in on myself, too.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

2013.04.07 Phineas

The sanctuary’s emptiness made it even more hallowed than when it was filled with exuberant hosannas and bloated hallelujahs—echoes of Easter spent.   

I felt spent too. I sat alone in the pew of a tiny suburbanish church, its steeple piercing the blue sky, humming the hymn of the 50s, What’s it All About Alfie?”   Out of the corner of my eye I saw something green poking out from under a front pew. I stooped and discovered a leftover palm—aging and beginning to brown and dry.  Its still sharp point stuck stubbornly into the aisle.  Inexplicably, I thought of Phineas.

Phineas was like a perfect storm: thick glasses, overweight, duck-footed and lumbering. His face was pocked with teenage acne, and he played the violin.  Put those ingredients all together, then put poor Phineas in teenage terrorist camp, by which I mean the daily school bus full of testosterone-challenged seventh grade boys.

Every single day Phineas would slowly climb onto the bus. Every single day the boys would call to him to come to the back of the bus and sit with them. Their cooing was not friendly. Girls tended to sit in the front of the bus, as did I.  Yet, how could Phineas sit with the girls?  It would have made his perfect storm even more disaster-bound. So he lugged his violin to the rear of the bus.

They pushed him to the floor; they grabbed his hat; they spit on him; they opened his violin case and tried to play on it while singing dumb songs; and every single day Phineas would miss his stop and have to walk back to get home.

God knows what awaited him at home. Love, I hope.  But if I were his parent I’d drive him to school and pick him up. But he might not have told his parents about his daily torture. Why add to his humiliation like Mr. Fitz, the paunchy bus driver, did? Mr. Fitz laughed and scoffed and never intervened to save Phineas, or me.

To witness such suffering and feel helpless is a trauma as vivid to me now as it was sixty-three years ago. My choices seemed almost as paralyzing as Phineas’s must have felt to him. I could fight, flee, or freeze. I was too scared to fight so I froze in my seat, wishing and wishing, fervently as a prayer, that Phineas would fight. 

After a few weeks of school bus culture, I chose flight. I made my mother drive me to school. Knowing she’d remember my carsickness, I told her I now had bus-sickness. I did, but it wasn’t motion sickness; it was compassion nausea.  I didn’t tell the truth, nor befriend Phineas because I feared repercussions.

By senior high school my own hormonal rage kicked in, and I actually dated one of those bus bullies to see what he was really like. He told me his father hit him, then laughed. I was sixteen years old when I understood that bullying was total avoidance of vulnerability, mostly because someone had bullied you first and you had to make sure it never happened again. This boy had turned into a macho hot shot, full of bravado and just as scared inside as Phineas, and me.

After high school I never saw Phineas again, but I never forgot him. I never knew him except by heart. When Google-God came to be, I searched Phineas but found no data that fit my Phineas. It’s funny, but I count him as one of the inspirations that called me into ordained ministry—one way to make up for having been a silent complicit bully myself.  

Sitting in the pew fingering the palm’s green tip, I said one small alleluia for Phineas. I hoped he was alive and a concert master violinist in some major symphony orchestra where huge crowds applauded and never hissed.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013.04.03 Poetry of Rob Brakeman

I'm proud and pleased to share with my blog readers my son Rob's poetry.  He has recently become a blogger himself. You can find his work on  Poetry is one of the creative endeavors that, to me, is very spiritual. Why?  Because it has a way of going to the heart and soul of the matter, giving it full dignity as it is, grit and all, while at the same time communicating hope and new life. Matter and Spirit together.

Here is a poem Rob wrote some nine years ago when his brother was critically ill and Rob kept vigil in the hospital. His brother would do the same for him.


an already slow elevator that stops on every floor
doctors and nurses, interns and surgeons
light blue OR scrubs and white coats
pens, clipboards and beepers
white sheets
the strange and continual smell of onion soup?
is that it?  onion soup?
peristaltic pumps clicking on and off,
beeping too loudly when the bags are empty
intravenous pick line and dried blood
that yellow paste around every IV insertion
bed sores
blood pressure and pulse
an impatient nurse
no information
fluorescent lights
adhesions and adhesiolysis
holy shit

and there you were
in the middle of it all
like a small pea
held delicately between the forefinger and thumb of a giant

   by Rob Brakeman when his brother John was in the hospital, 2004-5