Sunday, February 28, 2016

2016.02.28 Death Is Not Eternally Ugly, Is It?

“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919), the great painter in the early impressionist movement, said this to his assistants as he instructed them to finish his last sculptures in 1913. By then Renior was severely crippled with arthritis. He'd kept on painting through it all. Such passion reminds me of an organization I choose to fund in small regular ways: Foot and Mouth Artists. Despite the ugly pain of paralysis, these artists create significant beauty, holding brushes between their toes and teeth.  

There is death in life, before biological death. Can death be beautiful I wonder? Can beauty contain elements of death?  Many great artists paint, write, dance, or sing painful death scenes, like crucifixion. The art alone evokes beautiful feelings. I mean feelings profound enough to move one to the soul's core—of love, sorrow, even anger and fright, or deep joy. Sometimes, memory and awareness, changes of heart, and healing come out of death’s beauty. It is the beauty that remains.

When my sister Jeanie died at 34 after surgery for the removal of brain aneurysms, it was painful, and so unnatural as to be free of pain—almost. Though I shed tears, I couldn’t cry for a while, because I couldn’t believe this had happened. Jeanie was too young to die. She was the mother of three young children, my little sister, and a sweet soul I never knew well enough, and now could not remember well. The photo, taken not long before she died, of Jeanie with her husband Don and the children— Chris, 9 and Kellie and Michael, twins about 6—hangs on my bedroom wall. I see it every morning as I get up.
When this death intersected my life, I tried to think it through. Thinking accomplished a lot to contain raw feeling, but it did not, could not, forgive. Forgiveness, I thought, would help me move on. I thought of forgiveness not as a moral issue, but as spiritual path to new life in the middle of  unforgivable death—not resurrection for Jeanie, who I thought was just fine now, but for myself. I didn’t think I had to forgive God, though at times I hated Jeanie for dying before I could get to know her better. With every death, I guess, one must forgive the utter failure of life, and beauty, and theology, and everything you thought mattered enough to die for, to console.  I searched for Godde, for some beauty to hang onto till the pain passed.

I also had to forgive well-meaning sympathizers who said dumb clichĂ©s, such as: “The good die young.” What trash! Worse: “God meant this for a reason.”  Or, “This too will pass.” True, but so damn what? Yes, I did search diligently for a reason. At first I blamed Oklahoma, where Jeanie and her family lived, descending into desperate and shameless Eastern elitism.

There was, it turned out, a medical reason: aneurysms at the base of her brain which, despite symptoms and many medical consultations over the years, were never diagnosed until it was time for emergency surgery. Too late. The surgery was “successful,” but Jeanie never woke up. “Cause of death: respiratory failure.” So said the death certificate. 

The oddest experience opened a small space for my broken heart, my memories, and my grief, and, very strangely, a consoling mix of pain and beauty. My father, my living sister Laurie, and I went to a local church to pray at the approximate hour Jeanie was being cremated. It was my idea but I don't know why I thought of it. We didn’t talk much about our reasons or about why we each thought this was important, more important than the public funeral to come. My mother had chosen not to join us for reasons known only to her. So we three went. We just sat there together in our separate silences in a dimly lit sanctuary—a church but a church unadorned, barren.  

Do you know how impossible it is to imagine the whole body of someone you’ve loved being thrown into a fiery furnace and burned up? A crematory is a furnace that combusts at temperatures as high as 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes from seventy to two hundred minutes, depending on the weight of the body. Jeanie’s wouldn’t take that long. I winced, thinking how much the fire would hurt my dead sister. Oh God. The biblical story about Daniel and his three friends being thrown into the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the emperor instead of their God popped into my mind. God showed up in the furnace and the three men emerged, as unburned as the soles of firewalkers’ feet. The story was true myth—no facts but lots of truth. Would God be there for Jeanie now? What would God look like, ablaze with flame-tongues, yet unconsumed?  We three sat side by side on the hard pew in the stone chapel. I didn’t look to see if Daddy or Laurie was crying. I hunched up tight, put my hands between my thighs to warm them, and hoped.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

2016.02.21 Why I Support Hillary Rodham Clinton To Be the Democratic Nominee for President of These United States

I’m no policy wonk; nor am I more than an averagely-informed political activist, so I will try to keep this at least clear-hearted, if not especially bright-minded or serene. You can read more measured professional opinions and statistical data elsewhere. 

The woman I hope will be our next president is Hillary Rodham Clinton. I will refer to her as Hillary, not out of disrespect or any attachment to informality, but frankly because alternatives are, well   . . .  funny:
        -HRC? The other major contender is BS.
        -Clinton? Fails to honor the fight Hillary put up to retain “Rodham” in her married name.
        -Mrs. Clinton? Ok and respectful, but incomplete.
So Hillary it is, and how progressively wonderful that most journalists and others refer to the two front running Democrats in  the 2016 presidential campaign as Hillary and Bernie. 

My writing points for Hillary:
    -I read her memoir Living History. In it I met a woman of intelligence with a passionate and authentic story to tell. When she ran for president in 2008, critics evaluated memoirs by all the candidates, including Barack Obama’s, and found hers the most authentic.
    -I’ve been a feminist for years, a Christian feminist who believes that maleness and femaleness are created in the image of divinity. I’m no biblical literalist; nor do I discount that some biblical wisdom is inspired by God, so counter does it run to traditional human practices. This imago dei idea from Genesis makes my soul sing.
    -Hillary Rodham Clinton is a born politician in the best sense of that word. We need leaders like Hillary, and we need the perspectives women bring to leadership. The gift of gender is one formative factor in a  person’s profile. When women are on board, a discernment/decision process tends to be more collaborative, more inclusive of diverse points of view, and, dare I say, more affectionate without loss of strength. Also a little wild.
    -There is gender as gift and gender as handicap in a society organized around rank-ordering and -isms. Hillary knows in her flesh that women have not achieved the dignity and respect commensurate with their qualifications—simply because of their gender. If she knows that about women she knows that about other disinherited groups.
    -Hillary has stayed true to her desire to make democracy work for the common good. She has made many egregious errors of judgment. I believe she has learned to be more cautious, focused, and still to retain her vision. I don’t trust political rigidity. I don’t trust religious rigidity either. 
    -Hillary’s transitions and transformations over her long career have been painful. An early example was her movement away from the party of her family of origin to a party that better articulated her progressive vision for social justice. I know how much that can sting. I did it myself.
     -It is time for American’s “greatness” to include a recognition of the dishonesty and injustice of sexism and elect a woman as president—not at all costs and not any woman, but for the sake of who we say we are—and for the Statue of Liberty, herself. Economic injustice is not the only injustice.
    -I know what it is like to be consistently behind the patriarchal eight-ball, to keep trying, and to get up and try again because you believe in yourself and because you have a voice and a vision that matters enough to never say die. Hillary is ambitious, sometimes too much for her own good—quite unpopular in a woman. I used to be ashamed of my ambitions—until I met Jesus and then I blamed God for us both.
    -Hillary has survived public ridicule and humiliation in her marriage. Living through the trauma of personal betrayal is humiliating enough, but going through it in the public eye and holding onto personal dignity through the impeachment threat and other scandals, takes courage—not just to grin and bear it, but to stay the course. I chose divorce and she chose to stay. Either choice is very difficult, and neither is right or wrong.  Either way it’s messy. The eye of the Church softened its gaze toward me. Maybe the nation will do the same for her.  I care about good credentials in a leader. More important to me is a sturdy well-smelted soul to go with them. Hillary has not become enslaved by her wounds.
     -Hillary isn’t popular. Fine with me. People say she isn't warm. Boo hoo. I don’t know how anyone can be warm under such pressure. Nevertheless personal caution is not necessarily a sign of weakness but of modesty, a lost value in today’s world. That’s not a bad boundary for a public authority figure to maintain.
    -People don’t crow and moan about aggressive men in politics or other fields of endeavor. Aggressive women? Well, they are still considered a threat to the system. They are.
    -Hillary is too establishment, they say. When I was a young teen I was thrilled to discover that the longest word in the English language was antidisestablishmentarianism. 11 syllables! Eventually, I learned that it meant opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England. Would I want to disestablish the institutional Anglican Church I’d fought so hard to get established IN via the Episcopal Church? Just because the established institution of power needs to change and evolve doesn’t mean it is rotten to its core. Women are still trying to break the Episcopal stained glass ceiling. I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t care so deeply about the health and wholeness of that for which I fight.
    -I learned that I myself, can really mess up, defy many establishment norms, be forgiven by an established institution, and continue to lobby for reforms. Maybe the same process can be true for Hillary in the institutional halls of government and with American citizens.

    -Hillary has a spiritual life of prayer and goes to church not just for public appearance's sake. How politicly incorrect! 
    -Metaphorically, Hillary could be a stealth Robin Hood in female garb since she has already begun robbing the rich through collecting their outrageous fees for her talks. It’s ironic, but so was Robin Hood.
    -Is there temptation to elect a woman just because she will be a first? Yup. There is equal temptation NOT to elect a first for its own sake. Take your pick.
    -Bernie Sanders would be the first Jew. We don’t hear much about that, now do we? God forbid. But are we more scared to be anti-semitic than we are to be sexist?  Or is there just resistance to a woman in high office? The way it looks now, and it is early I know, we shall have a first woman president, a first Jewish president or, let’s say, a first unashamed and authentic public bully president.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a wounded woman who has the potential to become a wounded healer. Such a gift, if realized, has much to offer public office. But then I am a person who believes that security/safety is NOT the highest value. Humility is.

Do I pray about all this? No, actually, not exactly— only that God will make sure the best woman will win.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

2016.02.14 Turning a LIfe Around?

I know I should be Happy Valentine-ing it so Happy Valentine's Day to all you dear readers. I do love you, ya know.  And love, even in its smallest, funniest expressions, least expected or traditional, does turn lives around.

A man in treatment to recover from addictive disease once told me that he hated love because it was so gooey. I asked him what he loved, and he burst into hearty laughter, saying: "Gooey caramel candy covered with melty chocolate. Better than a beer!" And there you have it.

When things turn around there is usually a tumult of reaction, inside and out. It can be a new direction you decide to take, a new understanding of a relationship, a sudden humorous take on what you thought was sacrosanct or right for you. Or a new way of thinking about God and your relationship or your language about God. 

On Thanksgiving in Maine, 2014, I wrote: "Along the Kennebunk beach road looking out to sea there was a sunset so spectacular people stopped and stared; people pulled their cars off the road and jumped out with their i-phone cameras to snap a shot. Reverse selfies!— turning the camera's eye away from the self toward something much grander and more beautiful." Such a switch is refreshing in this age of selfie-ism.

Beauty will save the earth, I'm sure. It arrests us, even those in the midst of despair or in the grip of evil. All it takes to turn a life around is one moment, followed by a lifetime of hard work and commitment. Watch for the moments. And by all means feel free to project theology onto them.Such beauty may be a beckoning.

How do you know what is transcendent and what is immanent? Whether God beckons you from without or within?

William Temple,  one time Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-1944) wrote a brilliant book called Nature, Man, and God. I read it years ago in seminary and didn’t understand much, except that I never forgot the way Temple fused aspects of Divinity which our tiny minds inevitably separate: the close presence of God, immanence, and the distance of God, transcendence. Is God far away or is God as close to us as our own breath? Can we have one without the other? Nope. Temple wrote about the transcendence of the immanent and the immanence of the transcendent. We’re stuck with both together at once. (Temple's mind was not blurry like this image:)
Christians see this fusion in Jesus the Christ. Look for it in yourself, too—or in Nature or Music or Humor or any prayer. 

I  know a woman who calls God “Honey".   She regularly loses her keys and other small possessions that matter to her and prays: "God, Honey, I lost my keys again. I was sure I left them right here. Any ideas?” Then she bustles about and usually finds what is lost.

My one-time Jesuit spiritual director once suggested that I find an affectionate name for God, something to down-size divinity, draw it close, like a lover or a teddy bear. (My comforting god was my thumb which I sucked mercilessly as a child.)

Overwhelming almightiness and superpower dominance is admirable of course in a window, or miles away at the high altar, or in the towers of cathedrals, but I wanted to touch and feel and sense—and name with affection. I tried calling God sweetie, then darling, my mother’s favorite term of endearment, but nothing stuck until I thought of beloved. I don’t regularly call anyone else that, but for God, whose love I’d been taught was too vast even to imagine, let alone hold onto, and I can imagine anything, Beloved seemed close enough.

Henri Matisse, born in 1869, in Le Cateau, France, had no interest in art. He went to law school in Paris and never visited a single museum. Had it not been for a case of appendicitis, he might never have become an artist. Bedridden for several weeks during his recovery, he took up painting as a way to pass the time. It was a revelation, a turnaround. He said, "For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone ... carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man." At 22, he quit the law to begin work as a full-time artist. He was a revolutionary who dressed like a bourgeois, and he once said, "It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.”

Don’t worry if you don’t think of Godde like everybody else. Just find a way for you. Just make it your own. Then see how it feels when you behave toward yourself and others exactly as your god-image behaves. You might find out it's pretty much as you want to be treated yourself. 

“Wheresoever you go, go there with your whole heart.” -Confucius

A woman who is struggling through rounds of chemotherapy for cancer, without remission, asked for prayer just to stay with the treatment. She said humor helps. She also said that a fresh new day with the sky pure blue and the sun in full shine mode, even a winter day, raises her soul  She has had many blood transfusions and calls herself Vampire Jane (not her name).  "Vampires are strong. They get good blood, right?" Right.

And I can not resist sharing a couple of typos. Mistakes, even unintended, can break right through fear and tension and the most violent of prejudices and differences, everything that mandates against going out on a limb, everything that causes us to fight.

Occasionally the institutional Episcopal church goes out on the limb and doesn't fall off the tree—yet.  After the Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, was elected bishop in New Hampshire in 2003 there was plenty of flak.

Maine's Bishop Chilton Knudsen offered "listening sessions" at every congregation she visited after the controversial consecration of Robinson. People could come to talk, ask questions, even kvetch—and also listen to each other. The bulletin in one parish read (Freud would love this one!):  

"After the service today, the bishop will remain in the chancel for a listening session to hear your comments about the election of Gene Robinson. You are welcome to stay and share your thoughts with her. If you don't wish to stay and meet with the bishop, please heave quietly."

“Be not sad, surly Allah is with us.” Surely Allah is, along with all of Allah's other divine names and images, is with us. It is we who are "surly" and we who "heave"— and we, too, who can turn lives around.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

2016.01.31 Certain? Yes, I see it. Are you Sure?

I saw two trees where I saw God. I'm sure of it.

Are you sure? Really? How do you know? I saw it! I believe it!

I have a highly intuitive way of knowing things spiritual. What I know is annoyingly unprovable, though I have trusted it all my life.  You see, it’s hard to talk about God using intuition alone to substantiate my knowing. Even a divinely-inspired hunch, is still a subjective hunch, empowering though it may be.  

As I get older I find that, more and more, my senses show me God in direct and immediate ways—ways so blazingly brilliant I dare to call them proof of the existence of the divine surround.

Just yesterday I saw this snow-covered tree at sunset. It was golden!  How could it not be divine, this tree transfigured—all lit up, haloed you could say, like Christ in glory on the mountain of which Christians sing? God for sure, I’m sure.

That same day I'd seen another snow-laden tree that stopped me in my tracks. Small elegant beauty, every branch puffed up in whiteness —another transfiguration. I touched the branch puffy with snow, even clinging on the underside of each branch. Even to my touch the snowy cover didn’t warm or disappear. Real! Our Lady of the Snow Tree, I thought, using religious/biblical language because it’s just the best to express this kind of objective spirituality.

As delighted as I am with my newfound sensory spirituality, I know that what I see, hear, touch, taste and smell, is only divine because I perceive it so. Someone else would say, “What a beautiful tree.”

Martin Smith, author, theologian, Episcopal priest and former monastic, once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certitude.” He was quite sure of what he said and so was everyone listening. All of us nodded like bobble-heads. I agree with his wisdom, yet even now as I say it aloud, I protest: But…… I place such faith in those trees. I know they are there. I touch and see them, and in the wind I hear them swish and moan. I’m sure they are true, certain that before my very eyes I have seen God-in-a-tree.

My faith and my certitude have coincided—and neither has lost its acuity.  

One of my favorite hymns (1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church, #423, a Welsh hymn with text by Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908)  It begins: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes….”  As the verses swell and the theology evolves it’s clear that the hymn writer begins to understand divine glory to be more accessible, less hidden, less silent, clouded perhaps, yet a source of true life. As the hymn text puts it: “. . .  in all life thou livest, the true life of all . . .”  And in the end, a prayer: “O help us to see ’tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.”

 So now I know that I believe because I see— and I see because I believe. Pretty sure.