Sunday, January 31, 2016

2016.01.31 Feminism, What Brand?

I am an unashamed feminist. In the same way I’m an Episcopalian, a Christian, and a woman. Feminism is a movement working on behalf of women to assure that they be accorded equal respect, status, and, yes, pay,  ($$$) all over the world and in the church.

I never burned a bra, just stopped wearing one—for the most part. I’m not militant, or a radical, and I don’t hate men. I just keep noticing and speaking and writing about women—what they do and say with courage, and what they suffer. I never stop wondering, questioning, observing, and working for gender equity. I'm a determined but not too noisy feminist—no warrior. 


My favorite definition of feminism comes from the writer Roxanne Gay, professor of English at Purdue University and author of an essay collection, “Bad Feminist.” Her definition of who feminists are: “Women who don’t want to be treated like [expletive] for being a woman.” 
Feminism is a movement, not an eccentricity.  Gay is a truth-telling feminist.

Gay expands on her pithy, expletive-reinforced definition to say that “women deserve to have full and satisfying lives in the same way that men do.” (NY Times Magazine, July 27, 2014) But I don’t mind the expletive. It gives clout to her commitment, and it’s not exactly violent speech.  We all know which four letters belong between those brackets. But isn’t it fun to pretend innocence with brackets?

Camille Paglia (b. 1947, Endicott, NY) writes essays on feminism, culture, art and politics for mainstream publications.

A self-described feminist, and a fierce one, Paglia is a critic of the movement. Paglia’s parents immigrated to New York from Italy. Her father, Pasquale, was a high school teacher and World War II veteran. Young Camille was argumentative in school; her former Latin teacher said of her in 1992, "She always has been controversial." Once, at camp, she poured too much lime into the latrine and it exploded. She told The New York Observer, "It symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness.”

This feminist is angry, and no narcissist. She observed that the increasing narcissism of feminist politics and spirituality has derailed the movement from its goal. She is a fighting feminist and a skilled writer, not afraid of her voice. 

Paglia wrote: "Let's get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims, and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catch-all vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses." (A neurotic is one who takes too much responsibility for everything and loses her sense of herself. But, with focus, any good neurotic can also take some responsibility for change and making justice anew.

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989), historian and author of the pulitzer prize winning book, The Guns of August, said: "If a man is a writer, everybody tiptoes around past the locked door of the breadwinner. But if you're an ordinary female housewife, people say, 'This is just something Barbara wanted to do; it's not professional.’" She probed deeply the annals of history and found pieces that had not been accurately recorded about the Great War. She exposed lies, a scholarly feminist.

And what about our biblical sisters? In the gospel of Mark (14) there is a story of a woman who is bold and wise enough to enter a gathering of men, Jesus' followers, with a plan to anoint Jesus with the only gift available to her, some costly ointment of nard. She knew a woman would not be welcome at such an in-house political gathering, yet she discerned that Jesus himself might need some soothing, given that he seemed to know he would face violence and death in Jerusalem. This  unnamed woman approached Jesus and anointed him (not just his feet) beforehand for death. Jesus' disciples were enraged at this intrusion and offense, but Jesus scolded them. He said: "Leave her. She has done a beautiful thing for me." This anointing woman took great risk to offer a tender and compassionate, also realistic, touch. She was a quietly compassionate healing feminist.

Supposedly, we are now in a fourth wave of feminism, one that will include attention to spirituality as well as politics, one that will pay attention to what is happening to women and children the world over, one that concerns itself with the quality of women’s lives both in church and society, one that lobbies for women in leadership positions, one that rages in protest at the current rise in violence against women,

We live in a celebrity-driven culture and it’s going global. The latest celebrity seems to be violence itself. Violence is part of our daily diet of news. Words like trauma, torture, horror are almost glamorized or at least over-sensationalized.  I mean who really wants to read about Whitey Bulger or see a movie about him and organized violent criminality? We do! Why are we Americans not beyond the Billy the Kid/Bonny & Clyde/Mafia/Don Corleone/Tony Soprano era?  Our tastes are conditioned to a degree by media, but that’s facile. 

Sensationalizing of violence has two main effects: (1) It dulls our senses, inures us, so we hardly feel its impact or startle at the sound of guns and screams of victims. “Just Another Death In New York City,” a folk song by Australian singer Judy Small, says it all. Oh, someone jumped from a skyscraper window to crash on the pavement below—noticed and unmourned as quotidian.  (2) It attracts us to violence, so we think that large and small scale violence is actually a solution to any and all problems. It’s exciting and glamorous. We can be heroes, celebrities—dead or alive. It makes us violent! Have we made an idol of violence itself while preaching against it?

What to do? I don’t know. Just keep on singing, crying, howling, writing, praying, lamenting. Above all, use whatever gifts you have to make sure you don’t yawn at the next report of violence.

Be a Christian feminist. It only means that, as a Christian, you don’t want anyone to be treated like [expletive]. Jesus was treated very violently. He also advocated for women. Women first recognized the risen Christ and spread the word. No one believed them. They just wouldn't shut up. Women persuaded men to see this: resurrection is the divine last word.

God would be a great feminist if we’d let Him [sic] be free of any gender. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016.01.24 Shimmers of Stuff

A friend recently asked, “What’s an apostle? We say in the Creed, we believe in 'one, holy and apostolic church.'" He hastened to tell me he understood “one” and “holy” but wondered what apostles were, then added that he didn’t like saying what he didn’t believe in or understand.

I thought, “Well, join the group", but that was quick sarcasm. Still, I wanted a better answer, so I said, with equal haste: “The early followers of Jesus who preached the gospel all over their little world and, thanks to them, it took hold. Apostles."

That was an blah response really. But something else, equally icky but with more pizazz, occurred to me, so I added. “Apostles were first responders.” We laughed. 

Tomorrow is the day we remember the Confession of St. Paul, known as “apostle”—a man accosted by the holy presence of the Risen Christ, a blinding light—glaring enough for him to realize that the one everyone else was calling the Christ was asking him, a non-believer to say the least, to preach the good news of resurrection. Paul didn’t turn into an apostle overnight. He didn’t run off immediately to take on this assignment. His conversion to the ways of Jesus Christ was not magic or easy. Paul spent much time, as the legend goes, in literal blindness, wondering and questioning, and coming to the truth of who he was—really, truly, deeply. All this before he went forth to do the work of an apostle, to become a Christian missionary.

This story is biblically dramatic, but do not we all go through such times when something intersects our lives and we see ourselves anew, perhaps taking new directions?

It’s nearly impossible to describe such soul-collisions, such conversionary experiences. Poetry does it best, or maybe a wise insight of a reverent mind, a bit of amateur prosody, or even a throw-off but passionate line in a TV series. Whatever it is you are, for a second, blinded.

Self Portrait
    It doesn't interest me if there is one God
    or many gods.
    I want to know if you belong or feel
    If you know despair or can see it in others.
    I want to know
    if you are prepared to live in the world
    with its harsh need
    to change you. If you can look back
    with firm eyes
    saying this is where I stand. I want to know
    if you know
    how to melt into that fierce heat of living
    falling toward
    the center of your longing. I want to know
    if you are willing
    to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
    and the bitter
    unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

    I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
    the gods speak of God.

      -- David Whyte
          from Fire in the Earth
          ©1992 Many Rivers Press

“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
― John Dominic Crossan, Who Is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus.

Who Told Me Who I Am?

I was a miracle,
a gift from God.
My mother told me so.
But I demurred
and tripped on all her haloes.
No, not my status, Mom.
But gift from God?—
showed promise.
I looked above and then below
and finally looked within where
Lo! Behold!
I quickly saw that a present
was really a Presence.
    Lyn G. Brakeman, 2016

“Healing is an art. Every person is our Sistine chapel.” (A nurse’s line in the television series, “Mercy Street” )

Sunday, January 17, 2016

2016.01.17 In Knots

I grew up in the pre-Velcro age. I wore tie shoes hightops for my first sturdy shoes. Then I graduated to Oxfords, laced shoes that I could shine at night, together with Daddy as he buffed his own. Mine were brown.
Shining was easy but tying my own laces proved to be a stressful task. I would do it over and over. My small fingers would get  looped around each other when it was the shoe laces that were supposed to do the looping, guided by my fingers and ending up in a neatly aligned—actually lopsided forever—bow. I would be in knots inside and out until I mastered this task, and when I did I got gifts: the sheer joy of accomplishment, getting the praise of adults, and not making everyone impatient at my insistence about conquering those laces without help. Of course I wouldn’t allow anyone, no matter how much they urged it, to take over and do it for me. Thus I asserted my independent style early and often—mostly for the satisfaction of learning to do something new.

I felt a small jolt of similar uplift when in Gloucester someone showed me the fisherman’s way of tying such a knot. It was the opposite of how I’d learned it: the front lace looped towards me rather than away from me, and Behold! there emerged a tight and perfect bowknot. I still tie my sneakers this way—and grin. As I get older I anticipate a time when Velcro will tie my sneakers, maybe with someone bending to help as they once did when I was a small child. But this time I will be grateful for the help.

Of course I could also always elicit the help of  Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Yes, it's true, in some Marian spiritual traditions there is such a Mary-Lady with images to match.

The central idea, as articulated by Saint Irenaeus, is that Eve of Eden by her disobedience tied the knot of disgrace for the human race; whereas Mary, by her obedience, undid it. This is, in my opinion, a highly questionable and simplistic interpretation. Still, we do all have emotional and spiritual knots: addiction, depression, rage, unemployment, fear, loneliness, disconnections, on and on—not to mention institutional knots!  They are much more complicated to untie, or even to tie, than shoes are, but it’s so wondrous when you do get free of knots. 

And how fun to know there is a Holy Lady with a knot specialty who listens to me and my knots. Prayer is not dependent on whether, or what, you exactly believe. Just let it rip. She listens. 

                                                       -Artist Johann Melchior Georg Schmittdner, about 1700

This Lady wouldn’t help me with my shoe knots but she might help me undo my internal knots over getting older—crudely put, aging out. Some of my knots are physical, having to do with the rebelliousness of my body: the cough, the stiff neck, the post-nasal drip, drip, drip. I am very fortunate that Our Lady has helped the undoing of so many knots for me along the way, with help from good docs, medications, chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, yoginis, spiritual directors, a sometimes patient husband, friends and family—and prayer. Against my impious Episcopal will, I once did pray before a statue of Mary Mother at a retreat center, detailing all my worries and fears about one of my adult children whose life was in knots. I got the message in no uncertain terms: Stop being a mother!  Well, there you have it. (But I bet she had a tough time with all of Jesus' knots!)

I now confess to my own dumb persistence at trying to untie God’s knots. Imagine!

Most religions have, over centuries, tied God up in knots, knots which tightly bind the nature of God into exclusively masculine language and imagery. I believe that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit transcend gendered categories, and that it is time to liberate divinity from such bondage. Since I now know about Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, I will ask for her help with this project.

I am daily grateful that I am not materially poor, yet, as a woman, I feel impoverished spiritually by gender inequality in the church and world. I believe that our theological language empowers and enables this ongoing inequality. So I write, and squawk, and preach, and never call God HE—or SHE. 

God, after all, is not a boy’s name.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

2016.01.10 Little Epiphanies

Dedicated to……..
            and their
          Dedication by David Whyte for Consolations, Meanings of Everyday Words,  2014, 
                an alphabet book of solace, nourishment and underlying meanings.

What Shepherds Do

Shepherds keep watch still.
Shepherds stood stock still
   agaze, agape, light-struck at night

We imagine them sore afraid
We are sure they made haste to follow

But no……………

They stood still to watch over their sheep.
What shepherds are made to do.

Stand still. God knows where you are.
                      Lyn Brakeman, 2016 

A Hymn and a Poem
I have enormous respect for the spirituality of Anglican hymnody, both its texts and its music. I love to sing and discover that voices age like everything else. I’d get depressed if I didn’t also put trust and hope in evolution: everything will change in order to grow. We don’t lose the old and familiar, though we add to it, amend it, and seek nourishment in resources and people outside our own tradition, to let more light in. Have you noticed that each time we let light in to grow we die a little too?  It must be so.

        To die and so to grow. If you have not experienced this
        you are only a dark guest on a lonely planet.

                             Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,“The Holy Longing”

Thus it may seem odd that my favorite hymn is quite outside the Anglican comfort zone. The music is classical yet the text is offered as a hymn in the Unitarian Universalist Hymnal. It is an anthem of peace, both for religions and nations: love what you love, and hold it dear enough to be able to love what others hold dear.

Finlandia   music by Jean Sibelius, lyrics of Finnish Anthem translated to English

This is my song, O God of all the nations
A song of peace, for lands afar & mine
This is my home, the country where my heart is
Hear are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations
A song of peace for their land and for mine

Holy Scripture  John 1:14 in the New Revised Standard Version.

Tiny words can make a big difference. This Advent I’ve been praying with some scriptural texts, all very familiar, but, by paying attention and by repetition, I have noticed them in new ways. One example popped up in St. John's Mystery of the Incarnation......of all places.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

So? The translators have chosen this wording over alternative translations that say: “as of the Father’s only son.” The use of the indefinite article “a” instead of the definite article “the” to modify father, in addition to the elimination of the capital F for father makes the phrase metaphoric, signifying a profound affectional bond. God is to Jesus as a father is to an only son. (Remember those Miller analogy tests?) Any father? Any parent? Any son or daughter? Divinity to humanity? The phrase is allowed to be symbolic rather literal. It can not easily be used to justify any claim to Christian superiority or exceptionalism.
Little things mean a lot.  So do little choices.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

2016.01.03 Spotlight!

Spotlight! The Star of Bethlehem shone brightly on a poor family hovering over their newborn son. The unusual brilliance of this star attracted some Eastern sages, Magi who followed it to see what it spotlighted. It was a long uneasy journey they risked, seeking hope for a troubled world, seeking a sign from Divinity. This is a Christian story, and for Christians it means Divinity (God) becomes flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. It means that the Love of God knows no bounds. We call this manifestation the Christ. We call this mysterious happening Incarnation. 

Fortunately, these Magi (not kings) were wise! They were sure enough of their calculations to bring with them riches and gifts for the newborn, one way to help this family begin the climb out of poverty and assure the survival of the child. They were also sure that what they found was a sign of divine presence and salvation significant enough to make King Herod jealous. So they told Herod a whopping lie, something like, “no big deal, King,  just a rumor."  Then they went home by a different route to divert Herod’s notice and quash his plans to assassinate any potential rival, even a divine one, to his own imperial reign. That’s the ingenious story. It is not literal but richly symbolic. To me it means that in every Nativity there is hope for new life; in every Nativity there is God; in every star there is light to follow if we’d but look carefully.

Spotlight!   As soon as it hit theaters, a few weeks ago, we saw the movie, “Spotlight". It's about the Boston Globe's 2001 superb journalistic, and I’d say prophetic, series that exposed the cover-up of the pedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. I'd read the series, but film is the right medium to capture the whole action. The movie is brilliantly acted, and, according to those who lived it, accurate. What is portrayed is how corruption in one institutional system goes well beyond individuals, their institution, even their city and state. Not a new phenomenon, yet it’s a great emotional challenge to fully integrate into your consciousness the immensity of the impact of broad systemic sin. I admit to being a bit re-traumatized personally. We sat in the dark theater, stunned, and watched the entire roll of credits before we got up to leave. Not our usual get-up-and-exit strategy.

This movie was the right medium to catch the whole action. Its timely release dredges up the whole scandal once again, and rightly so, because, Pope Francis aside, it’s not over, and cover-up is still the name of the game. I see similar behaviors (misuse of funds, loss of vision, exploitation, dishonesty in leadership, not to mention the reign of -isms) in all our major institutions. I call it the death throes of patriarchy, a system of rank-ordering which has failed all humanity.

But how do we confront such deeply-rooted politics? We just start slowly, and stay thorough and observant, spotlighting where we can.

 Some quotes from the movie that stuck with me.

"It takes an outsider to change a system.”

In this case, the presence of an Armenian attorney, Mitchell Garabidian, who took on victims’ lawsuits, and a newly arrived Jewish editor-in-chief at the Globe, both of whom had interest only in the truth not in any religious or cultural attachments. I would add those Globe reporters on the inside of the religion who had been blind to the whole truth about their beloved Irish Boston, Roman Catholic Church, but not blind enough to have no vision at all, nor blind enough to have stayed active in their church.

Spiritual blindness is usually related to idolatry, a big fat sin………  In this case, I think, the idol worshiped above true divinity was, maybe is still, the mystique surrounding priesthood, aka  “Father.”  The journalists investigating the system were astounded with their findings, yet clear-eyed enough as “lapsed” Roman Catholics to look at their church from the inside out—not quite knowing why, but ready to be awakened. Courageous work!

The process made me think of the biblical Hebrew prophets awakening the people of Israel, and of Jesus the Jew with a new vision of the sacred covenant between God and Israel. Some Jews listened and followed his re-articulation of their own Torah covenant, and some refused, but were awakened enough to reflect on their own system. Historically, such processes happen over and over.

How will today's Roman Catholics respond? In the film Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law was almost a tragic figure, so corrupted by systemic sin that he didn't even see his part in it. When Marty Baron, the Globe's editor-in-chief, paid Law a visit to let him in on the story about to break, Law was impassive and gave Baron with a wrapped-and-ready copy of the latest Catechism.  Such effrontery and profound denial is hard even to imagine. (One wonders if he too was abused by a priest as a child.) But over-attachment to Catechism-ism and denial remain necessary ingredients for massive cover-up.

“It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village to abuse a child.”

Officials at the top of church and state took care to heap the whipped cream of top-down politics while I, and others, listened to the underbelly of pain and trauma effects in our offices. Counselors, some clergy, medical personnel, social workers, and activists for social justice listened, organized and called attention to the whole truth. Victims also organized for truth. It took time!

Cardinal Law eventually was whisked off to Rome with a wrist slap and the offer of a posh apartment to live out his days in peace. Well, I doubt if he enjoyed deep down spiritual peace. Few criminals with any conscience at all do. Yet Law allowed the crimes to continue, and he stayed safe and out of prison while the Church paid out billions in damages to victims and backpedaled as fast as it could.

Spotlight! Since the movie came out, I have heard from three different people about someone close to them who, when young, suffered abuse by a priest in the name of godly love. Boys and girls. It is time to spotlight these wounds and heal the shame that binds. Also to acknowledge all the good priests who’ve served faithfully in a corrupt system.

Spotlight! We are entering the season of Light. What will we let ourselves see? Is it not time to be bold? Yes, we can see good things, often ad nauseum. Do we have courage too to spotlight ugly things like injustice, violence, addiction, greed, war, gun regulation, political and corporate corruption, unfair labor practices, and of course,  maybe especially, abuses in the name of divine love? Believe me, I’ve heard many a fear-inspiring sermon that abuses the image of God, as the author of hellfire and damnation. Theological crap!

Consider prayer, personal and communal, as worthy a spotlight as action.