Sunday, November 30, 2014

2014.11.30 Final Shout Out for Thanksgiving

I'm resisting letting go of Thanksgiving, mostly because it's my favorite holiday. My first reason for that is that at Thanksgiving there are no gifts!  More deeply, gratitude has become such a cheapened virtue, sadly akin to grace. We live in a very spoiled culture—consumed by consumption. It's nice to have a holy day devoted just to being grateful for who we are, and that's all.

Author Steve Almond, in his November 30, 2014, Boston Globe article, "Full of Nothing," poses a good question: "How do we summon gratitude in an age dominated by grievance. . . . It is this grinding ingratitude that leave us spiritually empty . . . and drives our ravenous consumption."

Would we rather gripe than be thankful?  Sometimes, yes, but not always. 

When I worked in an Alcohol/Drug rehabilitation Center some years ago, I'd get tired of the patients always talking about having "an attitude of gratitude." It sounded like such a clichĂ©—until I saw tears roll down cheeks and listened to story after story about how their Higher Power had given them another chance, and a third and a fourth and a fifth. Gratitude overwhelmed the gripe and the groan for many. Those who stayed with the gripe refused the grace—until they showed up again, and often again. We used to joke about the revolving door, yet these same hopefuls, driven by a tragicomic combination of hope and despair, were always welcome and always ready to try again—and fail again. 

A poem I saw on the NYC Subway train, part of an poster promoting “Ragtime,” a musical first produced in 1996 and revived in 2009, is by the poet, Kevin Young, born in 1970. I liked it!

Like hot food
I love you

like warm
bread and cold

cuts, butter

or, days later, after

when I want
whatever’s left.

Is gratitude what's leftover, or is gratitude where we locate the leftovers of God?  Or both?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

2014.11.23 Book Review and a Touch of the Reign of Christ

 BOOK REVIEW:   A CALL TO ACTION. Women, Religion, Violence, and Power by Jimmy Carter

This Sunday marks the Feast of the Reign of Christ in the Christian church. It is the last Sunday of the Christian year—a final blast of triumph for God's intervention before Chicken Little season: Advent when we all cower in fear and call on God to change the world, which Godde does four weeks later on Christmas through child birth.  It is also our 28th wedding anniversary.

There are a lot to things to be thankful for. Jimmy Carter is one.

Jimmy Carter may be our most famous EX-president. Right now he is the oldest at 90, and his voice is strong and more courageous than ever. In this book he packs it all in—everything you would want to know about the issues facing women in the world and church today. This book is a reference book—and more.

Carter roots his amazing capacity for justice in his childhood: biblical religion, the church community where he is still a member, his family, and the deep south. As a young boy, Jimmy felt the incongruence between the free spirit of interaction he experienced with black children and adults, and the segregations imposed on them by his church and culture. How come they couldn’t grow up together being together?

To this childhood truth and question, he devoted his life—understanding this strange injustice and doing something about it. His “Mama,” I’m sure, gave his politics a push. At a White House function she once exclaimed to the King of Morocco, who gave her an enormous bottle of Chanel #5, “You’re just like every other man off on a trip without his wife!”

I first “met” Jimmy Carter on television in 1969 when we were living in Alabama, a foreign country to my cold-conditioned dour New England bones and my, sometimes snarky, feminist discontent. He was campaigning for the governorship of Georgia. I was suddenly arrested by his voice. Who was this man—a deep-south southerner named Jimmy? Not usually my type, but I was hooked. I couldn’t vote, but I hoped he’d win.  

We moved back north within a year, and I forgot about Jimmy Carter until he turned up running for President as a political outsider talking about truth in government in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Political truth-telling sounded refreshing. I voted for Gerald Ford because I was proud of his courage in pardoning Nixon, but Carter won. He wasn’t a charismatic president, however he kept his word about truth, staying true to his early egalitarian vision. 

In the midst of my midlife madness, I more or less forgot about him again. But when, in 2000, Carter, a third-generation Southern Baptist, severed, after 70 years, his ties with their Convention over its opposition to women serving as pastors, I finally knew what I’d seen in him that day in Alabama. He had religious convictions, not just political positions. 

Then I read A Call To Action and found all Carter’s theology, spirituality, religion, politics, and bits of his personal story articulated in a way that turned me into a fan for life. He argues that “the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts has a devastating effect on economic prosperity caused by the loss of contributions of half the human beings on earth.”

Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have risen above many things that keep the world and the church  warring, while maintaining their own deep religious and moral convictions and spiritual practices. Such equanimity is remarkable, especially in this age of fear and narcissism.

The Carters oppose abortion, extramarital sex, and other practices that today in some circles and countries are acceptable, yet their governing belief transcends personal ethics, especially when it comes to non-violence and the dignity of all living things. It sounds like the Book of Common Prayer's baptismal covenant, our code of ethics in the Episcopal church.

The overarching issue that drives this book is eradication of violence against women and those made vulnerable by poverty, disease and other conditions.  “Violence and sexual abuse is easy if the “victim” is considered inferior—even by God.” Carter includes a lot of biblical interpretation and condemns literalist male clergy who preach in ways that perpetuate injustice and confuse God’s will with their own for the sake of keeping their power in tact.

Well before liberation theology became official theology, Jimmy Carter noticed that Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator who ever lived, and that the lex talonis (eye for an eye morality) was more important to Christians than the teachings of the Prince of Peace. 

This book is thorough to a fault—really an elaborated reference book. Chapters include: The Bible and Gender Equality, Full Prisons and Legal Killings, Sexual Assault and Rape, Violence and War, Women and the Carter Center, Genocide of Girls, Slavery and Prostitution, Spouse Abuse, “Honor” Killings, Genital Cutting (justified by NO Holy Scriptures,) Child Marriage and Dowry Death, Politics, Pay, and Maternal Health.

Quotes and documents about every aspect of the political process toward peace and justice are included. There are fascinating stories and details about human rights heroes around the globe, and specific examples of what Carter and Rosalynn have done for the cause, not the least of which was to found, in 1982, The Carter Center—Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. It's a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization.

Jimmy Carter is not a prophet like MLK, or a charismatic orator like JFK; he is a steady-state, devoted plodder and activist for the common good. This book is no page turner. Its very thoroughness, as well as the clear and dispassionate writing style, can get boring. Nevertheless, it is a book for study and enlightenment, individually and communally, and a book for every parish library.  

From Rita Sharma, Cofounder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide: 

There is no religion that despises women.
Hatred cannot come from the heart of God . . . only humans
 have the capacity to see and treat others as less than they truly are.
It is our minds and hearts that must change to release
women, girls, men and boys
from the bondage of gender-based limitation or violence.
 That change is coming, have faith.  It will be here soon.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2014.11.16 Stretching for Age in Gratitude

It seems odd to be grateful for aging, yet I am, because aging calls me to do things I might not have done, oh, even ten years ago.

What stretches me, quite literally, is my yoga practice.We are instructed to stretch our bodies to our "edge," but not beyond, not to create pain. Now, what a temptation such instruction wards off! (This lovely image is called Dancer's Pose. It's not me. I can do the pose but I sure don't look like this:0)

My culture would tell me to push—do more, be more. My ego would say, show off.  I’ve done this most of my life. Push. Push. Push. This is what my Lord’s prayer warns me against, the temptation I pray God will lead me away from. All my life I’ve prayed this, and all my life I’ve pretty much failed to heed its wisdom. Aging, however helps. It forces mindfulness; it makes me listen.

My attitude, mind you, isn’t greatly transformed. It’s my body. She talks back to me now. Living in a older body that can be crotchety, keeps me mindful of my “edge.” The yogic instruction is good body wisdom. It is also good spiritual wisdom. 

When I stretch my body, I also stretch my soul. We work together more closely now. We don't go over the edge. If it weren’t for the gentle reminders of aging, I’d push the edge.

I know this because when we first retired we moved into a city. I grew up in a big city, New York. I was thrilled to get back to city sidewalks and storefronts to gaze into, watching for my reflection and checking out the wares. There is a lovely 55-acre park near where we live, so I have plenty of opportunity to walk in nature and watch the garb of each season unfold in its course. It’s a perfect balance.

Then I fell, not once but thrice, and apparently for no reason, though I blamed the heaving sidewalks.

But I know I didn’t trip. I was lucky and only suffered black eyes and bruises, but I felt afraid. Medical tests revealed that nothing was wrong with my brain or bones. So? Aging? Yes, brains age along with everything else. My elderly brain let me know that it could no longer stretch itself to walk and daydream at the same time. I would have to be mindful of my steps.

Grateful for these little salvations, I developed a body-soul practice: Every day before my feet hit the floor, I thank God that I can walk. Every day that I take my first morning stretch and breathe, I thank God for my aging lungs that still inhale and exhale, like a bellows to keep me going. Every day I bless my body and give it a word of thanks for accompanying my wild and wandering mind and my roaming spirit—just not over the edge.

With each step I take, I say this mantra to the rhythm of my pace: pick up your feet and fear not. The first part is my own reminder to my feet, and the second I got from Jesus and Mary.

I also thank Godde for the blessing of marriage and a good man (also full of gripes about THE church!) Also, lots of good friends and good Mercy sisters where I am an associate. And for the Holy Eucharist that feeds me daily with grace. If God can stuff grace into that tasteless old wafer we call “bread,” then Christ can surely get some grace into me—and you and you and you, aka everyone who reaches for it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

2014.11.09 Suicide Prevention and Preventive Parenting

In the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Poets and Writers Magazine there is a piece by Kevin Nance about Charles D’Ambrosio, a writer who uses words to write with imagined sympathy about his father, who found no fathering within himself.  D’Ambrosio is the author of a new book of creative nonfiction essays called Loitering.

The article tells some of the painful story about a rejecting abusive father, two of whose sons attempted suicide, one succeeded the other survived. D’Ambrosio manages to conveys unimaginable yet imagined sympathy for a dad with whom he never could connect, despite efforts. The article revealed some information I had intuited, but not known, from an outside source about suicide dynamics and prevention. It also sent me a memory, one that told me I had an empathic heart—always a good thing to remember.     

I remember Bradford, the name I will give this cousin. He used to stand in a corner looking sad, if not gloomy, at the annual, command performance, family Thanksgiving gatherings at my grandparent’s home. I used to look forward to these gatherings. The food was plentiful, the grandfather of choice was there with his quiet chuckle and enormous cigar, and the variety of cousins were fascinating to observe. I was particularly observant of Bradford.

He was ten or more years older than I was. Even at young ages I knew he was moviestar handsome—thick black hair, dark brooding intensity, and large eyes. He was an amazing tennis player, I’d heard, and went to some prep school I’d never heard of. He was not approachable, at least by me. I was probably just as shy and introverted as he was, yet I didn’t feel as sad as he looked.

Bradford’s mother was what today we would call certifiable. She was an angry little woman, a jokster who thought nothing of tormenting her children with belittling remarks she thought were hilarious. I shudder to think how she might have been treated as a child. I also couldn’t understand why my uncle, whom I thought pretty decent and kind, did nothing to reach out to his son, at least that I saw.

One seminal story is enough. When Bradford was a teen his mother began to screech at the elevator operator in the  NYC apartment building to stop the elevator at once: “Stop, stop the elevator,” she shouted in front of several people. Then she turned to her son to say, “Bradford, we’ve forgotten your teddy bear.” Some personalities could slough this kind of humiliation off, but not sensitive Bradford who shrank from such assaults. It was cruel. I hated this woman. I refused to think of her as “aunt.”

We all grew up and life changed as it does. I didn’t think more about this until I heard from my parents that Bradford had committed suicide, in his late twenties I think. I remember my first nasty thought, something like “No wonder.” And I felt so sad, wishing I had tried harder to befriend him.

I know this is a small slice of life and I know few details. I know things were very much more complex than my own vicarious trauma for Bradford. I also know the family had a story and  a history that is not mine to know. Bradford’s siblings survived well enough. Now I’m sure that Bradford probably suffered from ongoing untreated depression, which, back in the 40s, was misunderstood and shamed, just as suicide was. Depression is a medical diagnosis but despair is not. It’s a spiritual diagnosis.

When Bradford died I had another thought I kept secret: “She won.” I don’t remember any funeral or further talk. I forgot Bradford, and I never forgot him. I hope he rests in peace in the vast embrace of God whose love, I believe, compensates for all the failings of human love.

The new information on depression and suicide I referenced above is relevant to Bradford’s situation. D’Ambrosio’s "killer" father tyrannized his household and created despair in his sons. But his mother taught him sympathy.

“Suicide is very often granting someone else that person’s wish. In this case I believe that to be true,” D’Ambrosio said about his father, to whom “the idea of family was heinous—antithetical, really to how he saw himself,” according to Jon Fontana who is married to one of D’Ambrosio’s sisters. Of course D’Amrosio’s father was terrorized by his own father, but does the beat have to go on?

According to the late Edwin Shneidman, a professor of thanatology at UCLA and the putative father of suicidology, “In one way, suicide is homicide to the 180th degree.” I thought of Bradford. I also thought of the book This Is How It Feels written from the inside of suicidality.

Of course this is only one perspective about the issue, but it is an important one to consider. Kudos to Charles D’Ambrosio for using his writing gift to write with such poignancy, authenticity, and, yes, compassion about the terrorism and tragedy he survived.

So what’s preventive here and where is the good news?

-I’m not planning anything rash, in case my interest in this topic alarms anyone.
-Parents always reject their kids to varying degrees; it’s usually not personal to the child.
-Schools address this topic with honesty. Promote mental health. Don’t wait for a tragedy.
-Consider preventive parenting/mindful parenting: If you are contemplating having children, disregard religious pressure and any literalistic interpretations or the biblical mandate to procreate. Rather, know yourself, and the mate who will parent with you, very very very very well, history and all— even if you need therapeutic help to accomplish this. Love isn’t enough. If you're not fit to parent in any way, be humble. Forget the Holy Family model—sweet, but dated.
-If you become a parent and can’t cope, don’t take it out on the child. To abandon is better than to destroy.
-Have conversations in church about the wisdom, or not, of setting up parental dynamics with God and clergy.  Is that really a healthy projection?  Jesus did grow up, remember.
-Pray for yourself.

I am filled with gratitude for my parents and all parents who do their very best, often against odds.  I give thanks for those who choose against parenting for good reasons, and with cost. I am grateful for myself, my former and present spouses, my children and theirs. Thanksgiving.  


Sunday, November 2, 2014

2014.11.02 A Roman Catholic Priest Speaks Out—of Turn:)

To hear a “silenced” RC priest speak out was, to be honest, a pleasure. Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist Father and a native of Galway, Ireland, is on a speaking tour in the US, having refused to be silent about reforms in his Church. The group that arranges such reformist speakers is called Catholic Tipping Point. This event was sponsored by three organizations: Dignity, Call to Action, and Spirit of Life Organization.

In 2012, the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith was “unhappy” with Flannery’s views, chiefly on the origins of the all-male priesthood, in part because of economics but mostly because of institutional misogyny and the necessity for collective discernment on matters of faith and morals. He declined to recant, was forbidden to minister as a priest, and silenced. His non-confirmity is, he said, “a question of conscience,” the title of his new book.

Jean Marchant, a  woman Roman Catholic priest, introduced Flannery—with joy in her voice. I felt the lilt and remembered the joy so many of us felt when our Episcopal church finally deigned to ordain women as priests in 1976. We are a smaller and more limber institution, but, believe me, the issue of women’s place in the church is not settled. Women do not enjoy equity.

Tony Flannery spoke for an hour with Irish charm, humor, and little bombast. He is the founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, which, he quipped, is “not exactly al-qaeda.”  He feels sad about what has happened to him— but not defeated. The Spirit will be alive in the Church if we get certain basic items understood, he told his listeners (perhaps 100 people, most RCs, I’m sure.)

Flannery believes that two very basic modus operandi must change in order for other things, such as women’s ordination and the rethinking of Catholic teachings on sex, will flow from these changes. They are:
       1) Centralized authority: decisions can be handed down without processes of discernment. “When the church centralizes too much it loses its ability to listen. No conversation is possible. Centralized authority is the scourge of the Church.” He called the infallibility doctrine a “millstone” for popes who are, after all, human men.


(No woman can be chosen for this office, but I do wonder if she would accept it anyway. I think women in church politics will slowly change the way things operate.)

       2) The Magisterium: Who exactly IS this magisterium, this teaching authority? The Vatican II Council reminded the Church that this authority is not just the Vatican’s, but rather the sensus fidelium, that is, the conscience of faithful people. Flannery cited the way Pope Francis presided over the recent Synod of Bishops, asking for discussion, input, feedback and discernment. Francis encouraged speaking without fear and offered his own willingness to listen, even though the final decision will be his. This is a conciliar model. Flannery called this “hugely important” and an openness for the voice of the Spirit.

Flannery said he wasn’t sure of many things about God, but said: “I am sure of the  Holy Spirit—or we wouldn’t have a Francis.”

I believe that women hold up half the sky, over half the church, and half the divine image. (Genesis 2:27)

[I find it ironic that the originator of the idea that women hold up half the sky was Mao Tse-Tung, First Chairman of the Communist Party in China, and a dictator who, despite his progressive reforms, also oversaw many human rights abuses.]

Nothing, and no one, is pure. AMEN.