Monday, March 31, 2014

2014.03.31 Who Loves a Donkey?

Well, that’s a good question. Donkeys are not the most glamorous animals, but they might be the most faithful. On many occasions in the Bible donkeys play a key role. Look up the biblical story of Balaam’s Ass about a donkey who knew better than his master did. (Book of Numbers, chapter 22) 

Horses are much more sexy of course—speedier and more graceful than the poor old dull-grey donkey. Still, the donkey carries heavy loads along often treacherous roads and does it with valorous grit.


In Christian story, the donkey carried a very pregnant Mary of Nazareth on its back, trekking from inn to inn, tirelessly seeking a place where Mary could give birth to Jesus. And again, it was a donkey who carried Mary, now cradling the infant Jesus, from Bethlehem back to their hometown Nazareth to comply with the census regulations for taxation. Joseph led the donkey who followed with trust. And Palm Sunday, often called triumphal, featured a donkey carrying Jesus through the Golden Gate, also called “Beautiful”,  into Jerusalem to face trial and execution. No one suspected such an outcome—except Jesus, and perhaps the devoted donkey.

But who really loves a donkey?

I know one lovely woman who would. She is my second daughter Jill. Today is her birthday. She would love and care for the donkey, maybe even before the people. An attorney by profession, Jill would represent animals pro bono if the need arose. Since childhood, she’s been as faithful to her passion for animal life as the donkey has been to its role as the carrier of burdens.  But do animals love back?  Jill tells me they do in their own ways—through grace by faith. (Jill, in consultation with her horse, Smokin' Gun)


 The Poet Thinks About the Donkey
    by Mary Oliver

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Avowal by Denise Levertov

As swimmers dare 

to lie face to the sky

and water bears them,

as hawks rest upon air

and air sustains them,

so would I learn to attain

free fall, and float

into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,

knowing no effort earns

that all-surrounding grace.

 Free fall/free grace.

Poet, Denise Levertov (this is not Levertov in free fall in the photo) was born in England to a Welsh mother and a Russian Hasidic father. Her father, who had emigrated to the UK from Leipzig, converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. She moved to the United States in 1948, and in 1955 became an American citizen. By the time she died in 1997, Levertov had published nearly fifty volumes of poetry, prose, and translations. She taught at Brandeis, MIT, Tufts, Stanford, and the University of Washington. It was at Stanford, where she taught for 11 years (1982–1993) in the Stegner Fellowship program, and where her papers are now housed, that Levertov converted to Christianity at the age of sixty. After moving to Seattle in 1989, she joined the Catholic Church.

Such a history—spiritual diversity in the flesh.

To avow means to assert or confess and comes from the Latin root, advocare, to advocate or summon in defense. It has a legal ring to it. An avowal is like a vow. There is solemnity to an avowal, though it is far from joyless.

Still, vowing of any kind is hard, and solemn vowing even harder. It carries more weight than a commitment, unless of course someone else is committing you to a hospital because you are unable to manage life on your own.

When you are most sure you can do it on your own is usually when you are least able to do it on your own.  

The spirituality of an avowal to me means that I actively move toward something or someone. I move toward with all my mind, heart, soul and body. Avowal is a big fat wholistic deal, freely given and with no strings attached. Trust, even when there’s no reason to trust. Knowing that there is a future even when I can’t see one.

Most days I avow myself to my faith in Godde; and most days I disavow that pledge in a million foolish and ugly ways. Damn, I start again. My sins are not just forgiven, they are remitted, sent away for now, as in remission from cancer.  We are sinners in remission. 

Actually, I think that Godde is the only sweet Being capable of making a true avowal, an avowal toward all living things with sticktoitive power forever.  Divine avowal is called grace. Human avowal means embracing remission—again and again.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2014.03.16 Stalling Out?

I feel stalled out. Maybe it’s winter blues, or world and church systems run amok. More likely it’s personal disappointment because my consistent, persistent, persevering,very good efforts to get my little memoir published have not born fruit—yet. Plus, it's Saturday with nothing to do.

Thus, I feel like Alexander having his “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” (1972 book by Judith Viorst)  I’m not a fourth grader like Alexander, therefore I’m having not one but a series of such days. Perfectly age-appropriate, no doubt, yet clever rationalization doesn’t get me out of the stall.

You know what it feels like when your car stalls out, right?  Suddenly you lose your GO-power. The stalling out phenomenon is worse in an airplane. I learned about it when, back in the 70s, I took a pinch-hitter course, learning how to fly a small plane. My then-husband was a pilot and owned a Piper Cub. He was an excellent and safe pilot, and I was confident I’d never have to pinch hit. The real reason I took the course was to write about the experience, and also get a photo of myself standing at the wing of a small aircraft—grinning. Those were my Brenda Starr Girl Reporter days on staff for a small local weekly newspaper—my first paid job ever.

My instructor talked a lot about stalling out, especially while taking off. I know little of aerodynamics but a stall on take off, he said, was more dangerous than a nose-down stall that could cause a tailspin.

Technically, a stall can be described thus:  Sufficient airspeed must be maintained in flight to produce enough lift to support the airplane without requiring too large an angle of attack. At a specific angle of attack, called the critical angle of attack, air going over a wing will separate from the wing or "burble" causing the wing to lose its lift (stall).

When the plane stalls on takeoff it feels as if it starts to slide backwards, hovering there, threatening to descend tail first.  In this image, the lower plane is in stall—like me just now.

A skilled pilot knows how to get out of a stall. My ultra-calm instructor was my co-pilot making sure I didn’t overdo the power trip, a big temptation, and stall out. I loved powering up—rising into the air. In a small plane you really feel, well, as if you yourself are a huge bird. 

But how do you "pilot" your life when a stall happens? I have no idea really. I hovered around for a while, doing nothing purposeful, moping. I gave God my worries, but not my aspirations. Were they too high? I had no idea.

So here’s what I did: I mopped the disgusting bathroom floor covered with winter grit; I went for a walk in 50 degree weather; I met a friend for lunch. She felt blah too, so we ordered pizza, one for each of us. I ate some bread before my pizza arrived. Really!  My friend was more sensible and restrained. We laughed a lot. Back home I ordered some new skinny jeans from a catalog because I’d punctured a small hole with my pointy fingernail in the ones I got for $20 at CVS. I called another friend who wondered if I were "too attached". I told her no, I’m sleeping and eating fine. I’ll detach tomorrow—maybe.

I marvel that the high point of days like this is enjoying a glass of wine in the evening with my husband and watching a British soap, like "Doc Martin"—the local doc in a tiny town in Cornwall.  Martin is perpetually ill-mannered and grumpy as hell—and we love him.

Writing about my stall-days helps. Godde knows why but I feel better just getting it out and onto a page.  Feel free to take it all on yourself but don’t feel too sorry for me. Hope and energy return slowly, like wind on wings. I remember this from other stall times in my life when I didn’t crash.

Behold!  The psalm reading for evening prayer was Psalm 138. I use Pamela Greenberg's translation. Verse 8 flew off the page and into my heart. The psalmist prays: If I walk into the thick of my sorrows, you keep me alive—against the wrath of my fears.

End of slumpy stall for today. I'm alive. Sadness and fear can't kill Soul.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

2014.03.09 Women Who Love Too Much?

Upskirting? Really! What the bejesus is this? Don’t they think we wear underwear? What do they expect to see? Or sell? Luckily, I hardly ever wear a skirt any more. But fear not, if you get arrested and jailed for upskirting I will come visit you in my skinny, no-peep jeans. I will not post bail, however.

Upskirting refers to the practice of taking secret photos under a woman’s skirt with a cell phone on the T (public transport). How the @$%? do you do that?  It’s a feat for a contortionist. 

Inspired by public outrage, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts criminalized such sexual surveillance, drafting their bill in just over 24 hours—a record. (Boston Globe, 3.7.14) 

Such action proves how fast the legislature can act if it is motivated. It also proves how much it dallies unless we cry out, and how much praise it gets from the media for alacrity. I’m not impressed.  Cartoonist Dan Wasserman says it with humor.Who are "they" really?


It got me thinking once again about the plight of women. Will we ever be free from whatever it is that makes people, mostly men, think that we women are objects to be exploited, mere skirts to be peeped under? Women shouldn’t be blamed, but if we want justice and equality we must be part of the solution. But no uptrousering!  I suggest a ban on skirts. 

A woman once wrote a book called Women Who Love Too Much about the pathological way in which women stay—and stay— in relationships that aren’t good for them. Such behavior was labeled co-dependency.

I’m not referring to obvious physical or emotional abuse, though many women hang in with that out of fear, but perhaps domestic neglect or some subtle demeaning that corrodes the soul over time. 

I once went to a workshop to “fix” myself. I felt neglected and helpless in a marriage troubled by a combination of workaholism and functional alcoholism, the hardest to confront. I drank to cope. It worked; I didn’t notice how I felt.

The workshop presenter ticked off a litany of self-defeating characteristics of co-dependent behavior. I had every single one. I felt lower than an inch worm. The lady with the answers that would “save” me made my inadequacy worse. Something wrong with me—or was it the book? 

Women who “loved too much” didn’t know how to love both the other and the self. That was a good point and helpful but something was still not right. How can you love too much? I was out of balance but I DID love.  Deep down I was moved by love.

I thought of Debbie, one of those “love-too-much” women who called herself a “dumb, stupid codependent” all the time.  As a child, she’d forced herself to stay awake until her father returned from his bar, light up a cigarette and then pass out in a chair. Then Debbie went to work, cleaning up and making sure his cigarette, teetering on the edge of the ashtray, was snuffed out so no fire could start. She lost sleep and her grades suffered but her love was real. One day I got so sick of her talk I blasted her: “Hey, stop with the stupid-me stuff, love-too-much crap, and listen up! You did what you did out of love, didn’t you? Well, didn’t you?”  Debbie grinned.  

I still think loving too much from a true heart is a spiritual motivation that sets us free. Just make sure you’re on your own love list though, and don’t label your ways of loving “sick.”  Will love stop upskirting and its ilk?  That will take several villages of women empowered and spiritually free. In the meantime, wear pants and let yourself off the self-blame hook.

Debbie calls me every Christmas. She is caring for her aging parents. Too damn much love again.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

2014.03.15 Ashes to Ashes

It's a gray day, little vibrancy in the sky and little coloration on the ground. A boring noisy high-pitched dog yelps on in the neighbor's back yard. Her name is Eugenie, so glamorous. Nature portrays the mood of the day which for Christians is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

A gray-as-ash day is very appropriate, although I often think Nature controls all things—such arbitrary governance! Still gray is good, because life happens most often in the gray areas, never black and white as would be easy. That is the case with this gray day when we turn to ourselves, our neighbors and our Godde to acknowledge that we have, well, blown it— in many small and big ways. Sin is no more pure than is righteousness. It's all gray like this day. 

Lent is NOT necessarily a time to give anything up, nor a time to TAKE anything new on. Rather, Lent is a time to reflect on how religious faith, prayer practices, and rituals in community enrich your spirituality, your soul's health. to 

Lent kicks off with a ritual by which we say prayers, praise the grace of God, and commit ourselves to a process of discernment and reflection about who we are, who God is for us, and how we walk with Jesus Christ in the way of compassion, even unto death, and beyond. We smear ashes on our foreheads to signify that we are mortal and, though very good, not perfect—ever. Just gray.

 Lent is serious but not depressing, not for soul-lashings. 

Just STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN. The hardest to keep of these three commands in this addictive, consumerist, rush of a culture is: STOP!!  Deep breathing might help.

Here are two offerings I will be leading to help get yourself in the gray:

ARE WOMEN GOOD FOR GOD?  The Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman will offer a quiet retreat day on Saturday March 15 at Miramar Retreat Center in Duxbury, MA. from 10a.m. to 3 p.m. Cost is $40.00 including lunch.This day is for women and any men interested in exploring the implications of the odd query above. Through meditations, quiet prayer time, journaling and spiritual direction with Lyn on request, we will focus on the biblical stories of Mary of Nazareth and the Syrophoenician Woman. What happens when a woman summons the courage to speak her mind directly, to confront Divinity, to challenge social and religious norms?  To register call Miramar at 781-585-2460 or email at

THE ART AND CRAFT OF SPIRITUAL WRITING  The Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman will teach a course at Grub Street, Boylston St., Boston, on Saturday March 22, 10-5 p.m. Writers say that all good writing is spiritual, which is true when writing inspires us to engage our own deepest heart and mind. Yet there are nuances and particularities to focus on, especially if one uses religious content, vocabulary, symbols and ritual when it is appropriate to a character or to yourself, if it's memoir. We will talk about both differences and connections between religion and spirituality and encourage writers to be free from either/or thinking. Much of our time will be spent writing and looking at samples. To register go to or call 617-695-0075.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

2014.03.02 Whirlwind Theology

Have you ever wondered if Godde was in the whirlwind as much as in the still, small voice? Ever thought of God as chaos? Oh no, God is order and harmony! God subdues chaos. God speaks, and presto!—there are firmaments, stars, all kinds of vegetation, critters galore, and finally the piece de resistance: Us!  Ta daaa!

That’s what I grew up believing. Chaos is bad, but luckily, God always brings good order out of bad chaos. It was not until, what do they call this age?— my ripening years, that I questioned that view. What if chaos were not endemically bad?

I said this once in an EfM group and a friend who later was ordained priest had a strong reaction. In fact she exclaimed loudly, “Oh no. God brings order out of chaos. Chaos is not good at all.” I shut up. I could understand her point of view as a recovering addict. AA often turns God’s name into an acronym standing for G(ood) O(rderly) D(irection).

So there!  Yes, but.......does that mean Matter is endemically bad and Spirit is its remedy? 

The Rev. Martin Smith on a recent retreat spoke of the “new gnosticism.” He meant the dualism,  between matter and spirit: the all good and all-powerful Spirit and the all-bad, inferior helpless, if not formless matter. Smith announced provocatively, “I preach Materiality.”

I have preached relationship theology. On odd Mondays I get fearful that I’m arrogant, making humanity near-equal with divinity. Humanity and divinity are not equal or the same, yet there is an up close and personal connection—like a mutuality of desire working together. Sometimes, however, I think we humans assume that our own will is very far from, if not opposed to, Godde’s will. I wonder. My essential will is that I may be as healthy, life-engaged, and full of compassion as I can be for as long as I may live. God’s will? Likely the same as mine for myself. You?

One could get all ego-centric about this symbiosis, but beware. The view of opposing wills and desires sets up a dangerous and false split between spirit (all good and all-powerful, named God) and matter (formless and worthless in itself, named Man...nary a woman in sight). Over time in religious traditions and beyond, God became masculine and superior, and Matter became feminine and inferior. This is ungodly politics, and for an ungodly number of centuries. 

Catherine Keller, Professor of Constructive Theology at Drew University, in her book, The Face of the Deep, A Theology of Becoming, makes a well-supported case that biblical creation is a beginning. The beginning is a relationship between the heavenly/up-there and the earthly/down-here that will evolve and unfold in many complex ways over time. Matter matters.

I'd say we are not divine, but we are divinely equipped to stay in this chaotic relationship.

Novelist Chaim Potok began his novel, In The Beginning, “All beginnings are hard.” Well no kidding! Remember your first day of school, first date, first cooking disaster, first realization that your kindergarten teacher actually went to the bathroom, first experience with death? My first labor pain, my first birthing, my first book. A friend of mine remembers the first time a date exposed himself (flashed it all)— his “subtle” way of asking if she wanted sex. At 12, she was so appalled at the sight she threw up all over the poor guy, and his member.

If, as Keller and other scholars suggest, evolving life is dynamic—an always-unfolding process of non-linear multi-dimensionality. We have a model of perpetual becoming—a theology of becoming. I find this appealing and scary.  Is nothing secure? Who is in charge in this model of permanent becoming?  It feels like a whirlwind—all churned up. 

A whirlwind? Wait.........didn’t Godde speak to the biblical Job out of a whirlwind? Yes! Job wanted to know where the heck God was while he, a good righteous man, suffered and spun in the torment of his own pain and fear. And the Lord spoke finally to Job out of a whirlwind. I’ll be damned! My relational line of thought wasn't half bad. But a whirlwind?

“Whirlwinds in meteorology are complex chaotic systems that suggest not pure chaos but rather turbulent emergence of complexity at the edge of chaos.”   

Complexity emergent, just the beginning of something new—all the time? So chaos is not pure, eh? So this is how Spirit and Matter interact? 

Listen up! The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.