Sunday, September 29, 2013

2013.09.29 Who IS She?

Last evening around the dinner table over a delicious meal, which is where most good, and bad, things in life actually happen, a conversation ensued about who or what is the Holy Spirit?

We gathered as five Episcopal priests and three Episcopal laypeople  a like-minded and well-spirited group. I don't remember which impish one of us brought up the HS but it was funny because I'd just read a blog on the site of The Companions of Mary the Apostle asking the same question.

The authors' research showed that the Holy Spirit was always pictured with wings. Why? Was she meant to be an angel? The other two divinities, Father and Son, of the Christian Trinity are never winged and have never been identified as female. Why the wings?

They wondered if the wings were meant to keep the HS, traditionally identified as Sophia, Wisdom of God, in line.  Angels have wings. Angels are messengers of God, but angels are NOT God.  According to the biblical wisdom in the book of Proverbs, this divine Wisdom was God's first act of creation, first, but NOT God. Hmmm.

Even Wikipedia or Google-god had no answers.

Why this Spirit-interest now?  Maybe because change is so speedy and unmanageable we long for something withOUT wings! 

Our dinner group waxed on with theological eloquence, poetic beauty, and bits of earthy humor.  We agreed on two counts: 1) We don't know whereof we speak, and 2)Theology is always catch-up ball. 

Myself, I wonder if "Person 3" of the Trinity, no rank order implied of course, has been traditionally pictured with wings because She is the most fleet and can go anywhere and get everywhere fast, in order to plant seeds of grace where they are most needed and with the greatest efficiency—leaving the stay-at-home "men" to mind the house. :0) 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

2013.09.22 Pop Pope Brings Hope

Well, I’ve never been much for BeyoncĂ© but I do chuckle at the pop-star stats Pope Francis I is piling up— more than Ms. "Gorgeous" sex symbol herself.

Some people retain their holy right or rite of caution, if not cynicism, but most are enjoying the fresh air of hope brought by the new pope. Hope is believing there is a future. Hope to me is the most valuable spiritual gift there is. It changes the world. You can't give it to yourself but you can embrace it when it comes your way and say: I live you for today.

To have a sane public religious voice that is not banging away with atheistic fervor, or braying about his or her own version of God, or being anti-religious for its own sake in a secular culture it precious—and bodes hope. 

We all know that organized religions has fallen head over heels in love with itself, so much so that at times it has been seditiously narcissistic, cruel, and deaf.  And  we know that there is nothing more lethal to the human soul than a huge institution with too much power under its almighty skirts. Poof! You could disappear.

Not one thing, not even an institution, is beyond transformation, however and however.  

Mama Catholic Church is emerging from her closet of tyranny and shame and dragging all religions with her. The Pope is a principle symbol of this great emergence. It's time to retell the world the basics again: the good news that God loves ALL living things, and that the grace of God and the good will of humanity working together are able to turn around, even a behemoth, or an ant, or a waif, or a wild consumptive weed, or a Scrooge-like Wall St. billionaire, with a belly protrusive and obtrusive, or a beautiful young woman who thinks she's ugly.  

There's much rich spirituality, wit, integrity and theological heft in the Pope’s interview with La Civilita Cattolica, the journal of the Society of Jesus in Rome and translated for America the Jesuit magazine here. It exudes hope and mercy. Link:

Here are some facts that make me believe that something new is happening and bevel any tendency to skepticism I have in me...............
    -The Pope granted this interview and was transparent about every topic imagineable
    -The Cardinals, the hierarchy of power, elected him.
    -He is the spiritual leader of the largest religion in the world.
    -The media is paying attention, for once not to point out hypocrisy but to laud integrity.
    -He is very informed and enthusiastic about the spiritual power of the Arts, Creativity.
    -He identifies himself as a sinner and will not be talked out of that self-identification.
    -He says he used to be too authoritarian and swift to make decisions but now he is open: “A big heart open to God” the interview is entitled.  
    -He wants  the Church to be a big tent not a little cozy elitist chapel, like an ingrown toenail (my metaphor hot his).

     -“We must investigate further the role of women in the church.”
     -He says he has never been a “goody-goody” and never a right-winger.
     -This pope wants to think WITH the church.
     -He loved his grandmother whose prayers formed him.
    - He lives in humble quarters in order to be near the people. "I can't live away from people." The traditional papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace has too small an entrance “like an inverted funnel,” he said.

The Second Vatican Council seems resurrected in this Pope’s words. Some people are upset that he does not declare any big doctrinal changes or focus on issues about which there is argument (abortion, women’s ordination, open communion, gay marriage) My issues!

Francis is right to say that the church has become “obsessed”with such arguments and forgotten that it raison d'etre is to “seek and find” God in all things. We’re out of balance, he said. 

I did not feel reprimanded, just reminded.  No, it’s not doctrinal but that’s the point isn’t it?

And of course I loved this papal statement: we are not to “tame” problems but live on the border and be “audacious.” (A small permission to hang onto my own cheeky little voice.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

2013.09.18 Biblical Headlines?

Sometimes, just to help me avoid over-seriousness or grim piety, I poke fun at my religion. I try to imagine what a headline for some biblical story or teaching might be like using today’s jargon. 

In ancient times there were no newspapers, headlines, reporters, journalists or features.  The news traveled orally by word of mouth. And boy did it travel fast!  Even today news gets around like lightning via i-phones, texts, emails and old fashioned land lines!

Extra! Extra! Hear all about it................

Rabbinical type in Galilee stirs up crowds with ethical sermons. Desperate, authorities debate use of drones. 

Moses sees a bush on fire. Local FD unable to extinguish, affirms it’s eternal flame.

Betrothed virgin (name withheld) found pregnant. Paternity suit fails in juvenile court.  Identified Father did not appear in court. Charged with contempt. Virgin sent away to her cousin’s.

King David betrayed by son Absalom. King does not press charges, writes more psalms instead.

New Jewish sect claims Risen Lord. Evidence suggests the claim might be true despite lack of factual evidence.  Resurrection news reported by women called idle gossip—discredited due to sexism!

God diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. Only known cure is a new doctrine called Trinity.

Early Christians proclaim Good News: God is Love strong enough to conquer death. Most  ignore. A few disbelieve for joy.  Some call for persecution.  Still others plant a Church.

Tiny parish in Philippi  under archiepiscopal scrutiny for possible Christological heresy: Jesus could be = to God?

Grammar police arrest St. Paul for overuse of the semicolon. Judge reduces length of sentence.

It’s all myth, mirth, and miracle rolled into one big fat religio-spiritual Mystery! Laugh and love in the name of all that is Holy.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

2013.09.14 Holy Cross Day

Holy Cross Day is a red letter day on the liturgical calendar, meaning it is a major feast day with its own Collect and set of biblical readings.  It’s a day set aside to remember, exaltation the calendar says, the Holy Cross.

When we were in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we saw what purports to be the site of the crucifixion, outside the city walls as was fitting for lowlife blasphemers like Jesus, not yet the Christ. The site, excavated from the ruins of ancient buildings (335 CE) was erected to venerate the cross of Christ. It was holy because it was the site of resurrection in the Emperor Constantine’s time. But it was also the site of crucifixion! The site was unimpressive—cave-like, claustrophobic, poignant, disillusioning—also appropriate. 

I’d expected grandeur, Godde knows why. I’d wanted to faint in wonder. Instead I felt stifled, longing even for tears.

Our teacher, the Rev. Dr. Kamal Farah, said the holy cross represented a new beginning: “The resurrection of Jesus is the promise of God’s mercy.”  I believed that with all my heart, and all I wanted to do was run away.

Do most Episcopal parishes keep this feast on a Sunday when people will actually be at worship? Or is it shuttled off to a weekday when no one is in church, or simply ignored? I suspect that very HIGH Anglo-Catholic liturgical parishes keep the day. It wasn’t even mentioned in our local parish.   

The day, if it doesn’t fall on a Sunday, can be moved to the nearest Sunday so that the Sunday parish Eucharist will be celebrated to honor the Cross of Christ, the same as if the cross were a named saint or other.

What’s with the cross? Darned if I know. I grew up Protestant and the only crosses I saw were empty, nice shiny gold usually, but pretty meaningless—bland. The first time I saw a cross/crucifix was in a Catholic church. It grabbed my attention so strongly that I felt ashamed. After all it was pretty graphic-ugly. Was I the type who would gawk at executions or casually knit while heads rolled like Dickens’s Madame Defarge?

But one ought always to pay attention to something that fascinates even if one’s feelings are ambivalent. So I did. Eventually, to my anti-Catholic mother’s horror, I bought a small crucifix and stared at it. I prayed for some wise insight. All I got was my own tears and one thought: God cares.

I wouldn’t get what I’d call deep soul wisdom from this horrific alluring Christian symbol till I hit the skids of my own helpless suffering, nothing like crucifixion but enough to wipe me out—a pile-up of losses (deaths, divorce, rejections). I suppose it was then that I knew for sure that God did not prevent or eliminate suffering or evil. Not much consolation really, but honestly if God would intervene in such a way would Godde not have done so for Jesus of all people?  Or Moses or Buddha, Mohammed, or me. Oh damn!

I prayed to my cheap little crucifix as if God were a spiritual EMT, even when I knew better. Mysteriously I felt better, so maybe Godde was about as powerless as any dearly beloved who hangs in way beyond hope. This was very bad theology, but I didn’t really care. 

Give me a cross that is both empty and full at the same time, I prayed. And here’s what I got, in time.

My first patient at the alcohol/drug rehab center where I was a chaplain I’ll call Noelle, although almost thirty years later I still remember her name. I went to see her in the detoxification unit and greeted her with a bright smile. She greeted me with a blast: “Get the fuck out of here, you fucking religious freak.” Horrified, I obeyed. My staff community reminded me that Noelle would be calmer “dried out.” 

Nevertheless, I felt nervous to see her again. She entered my office and confronted me right away and truthfully:  “It was that tiny cross around your neck. It looked huge to me,” she said. “My mother used to throw God and church at me all day, then beat me up at night.”
I took off my cross and gave it to her to inspect.
“Kinda pretty,” she said.  “Small too. But it’s different. It has a hole in it. That’s where the dead body’s supposed to hang isn’t it?”
“Yes, usually. What do you think?”
She fingered the cross and held it up.
“Want to try it on?”
“Nope. It’s yours.” She handed it back. “What does the body-shaped hole mean?”
“That God can take us off our crosses and help us heal.”
“Just like that?”
“With your help. But you gotta follow God off the cross, which for you now is the pain of your alcoholism. Living without alcohol will feel like another cross for a while.”
“I can’t imagine life without alcohol to stop the pain,” she said.
“You won’t be alone. You’ll have AA meetings, lots of buddies who know what it’s all about, and listen to you forever, like the best family you can imagine.”
After Noelle left I fingered my little cross. Sure enough it was full and empty at once. I decided to keep wearing it , fucking religious freak or not.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

2013.09.11 Good Wisdom

 The 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s poetry, Leaves of Grass, contained a preface, which was left out of subsequent editions, and in it he wrote:

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

So there you have it. (Why in the name of anything did it get left out after 1855?)

This is perhaps the most charmingly beautiful word picture of—I don’t know what. I dare not project or theologize such naked truth. It’s just too darn beautiful. 

Oh, let me be a poem.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

2013.09.08 Pride Reaches and Overreaches

Pride goes before a fall...and you’re riding for a fall. My father used to say these two phrases coupled on occasion. It was a wisdom I knew, actually believed, but heeded less. To me growing up it seemed a boring strategy, even if true.

I reasoned thus, until at six I reached too far and made a discovery. On the top shelf of the medicine cabinet I saw a balled up tissue—out of reach and sight, but not to a precociously curious overreaching child.

I just had to know what was wrapped in this egregious tissue. I reached and stretched to reach some more till, with great pride, I retrieved the tissue. As I was climbing down I missed the edge of the bath tub. I fell and cried and bled from my head as the tissue flew from my grasp, and one tiny tooth fell out of it and into the tub. It was my tooth.

My fall hurt. My grief hurt worse.  For that was the day the tooth fairy I’d bet my heart on died. 

Who needs a quarter when you can have faith in a small magical fairy who comes at night to take your tooth and leave you a reward just for losing it, for growing up?  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

2013.09.04 A Gethsemane Moment?—Write About It

Last week I had what I VERY loosely call a “gethsemane moment.”

Naming my blues after the agony of Jesus in the garden is highly pretentious but it came to mind as I prayed and reflected about what had happened to make my mood take a plunge from buoyant to dregs for no reason that I could see. Nor could I imagine why Gethsemane came to mind.

New Testament gospel stories tell us that Jesus went with his disciples and followers into the Gethsemane garden to pray on the night before they entered Jerusalem to confront the powers. Most of us know the enormous anxiety that accompanies even a small confrontation which is conflictual. Dangerous!  You want friends around you to encourage and support you. Jesus was no different. He begged his three best friends to stay awake with him in his darkest hour. They fell asleep! Such friends! Such utter and ultimate feelings of aloneness. Such abandonment. 

In my "gethsemane moment" I felt alone with thoughts like: no one calls, no one cares, I have no use to anyone, no purpose, belong nowhere, on and on in a morass of dramatic irrationality. I also felt physically exhausted, not tired just spent. I prayed for insight. Nothing. I called friends. Not home. Dick out for the day.

I was tempted to condemn my feelings; instead I focused on Gethsemane. I'd been there just two years ago when we went on pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine.

Gethsemane is a small garden outside Jerusalem. It is tended in very loving, and I might say excessively protective, ways by a group of Christian monastics. Tourists are not allowed into the garden unless they have arranged for special permits and then only in small groups.

We Episcopalians walked around the garden and gazed into it over the iron fences. Olive trees line the road to the garden. In Jesus’ day there were no Christians and no tourists—just olive trees. Five of them are 1880 years old. They evoked worship in me. They are huge, gnarled, majestic, preserved in their ancient beauty, like guardians of Mystery. I wept. AND these old olive trees still yield fruit—very significant because olive oil and its products are the mainstay of the local economy in Israel today. The word gethsemane means olive press. 

To soothe my "gethsemane moment" I ate dark chocolate and read the day’s comics. Then I wrote because it's what I do.

Three insights emerged.

1)  I was missing my manuscript, my memoir, my story, my life in words, years in the making, but most intensely labored over in the last year almost every single day for several hours. The day before I’d delivered it to an editor. Her skill and work will take over for now. At first I felt an uplift, like a weight dropped from my shoulders. But the next day my mood plummeted. I was grieving.

2) It’s good to exaggerate feelings, blow them out of all proportion. It brings them to light so you know exactly your own state of mind and heart.  Such purposeful exaggeration keeps you from judging your feelings as silly because you already know they are overblown. So I let them be.

3) My feelings were nowhere near the depths Jesus must have known. Gethsemane came to mind not so much because Jesus felt similar aloneness, though he did, but for the sake of the olive trees—images of time, memory and aging, and the knotty wisdom of necessary bereavement.  

Irrational, yes. Ridiculous, no.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

2013.09.01 Tribute To a Poet and Poetry

Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate poet, Irishman, Dublin resident who also taught at Harvard, devoted dad of three and husband of one wife, ebullient raconteur, imbiber, lover of the land, user of plain-talk words that make sense of life and don’t rhyme but have rhythm,  just died at 74— my age.

The purpose of poetry, as I see it, being a priest, is to consecrate what is,—simple things like bread and wine, small children, your own fruitless malaise, or the latest obit. You can do it with hand gestures, a smile for no reason, humor, deep listening, a kiss, a poem, like this one by Heaney:


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.