Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016.03.27 Easter Is Gifts—The Double Rising of a Book

On Easter, 2015, I received a surprise gift, one I’d longed for and prayed for and worked my guts out for for some years.  I received an offer of publishing for my memoir: God Is Not A Boy’s Name: Becoming Woman, Becoming Priest, from Wipf and Stock, a small and sturdy publishing company in Eugene Oregon. I was thrilled. They publish mostly academic work, but they have an imprint called Cascade Books under which my book would run. Working with Wipf and Stock Publishers has been extremely efficient and cordial, every step of this way—the longest aisle I’ve ever walked.  

The book is about my lifelong relationship with God, the One in my soul and under my skin, whom I met as a child under a table along with three imaginary friends. The friends eventually faded but God hung in and we became fast friends—God more steady and loyal than I, but still, the deep friendship we shared from the beginning resurrected us over and over. We stayed together.

As my spirituality evolved and met my religion, I came to know that the image of God I got from the patriarchal church wasn’t the same as the divinity I’d experienced—not all male, not all mighty, not all transcendent. I also knew that I wanted to be a priest, even though there were no women priests in the Episcopal Church back in the 1970s. We women began to lobby the Church to ordain us priests.  We wore bright blue T-shirts emblazoned in white with one of our slogans: God Is Not A Boy’s Name. I still have my T-shirt. It’s a bit snug. And I continue to lobby for the degenderization of Godde, which is not the same as tenderizing.
Just before Easter, 2016, my memoir was released to the public. (I could have said "came out”, because it felt as if I’d revealed the inscape of my life in a couple hundred pages.) I received another cherished gift from a Vivian, a member of the small group of women memoir writers with whom I’ve met over ten years. We critique and eat, laugh and cry, applaud and laud ourselves and our work. 

Vivian asked if she could take my cover image home with her. “For inspiration,” she said. Vivian is a very fine writer and the statistician in our group. I’d come in with a short essay, thinking I might submit it for publication somewhere sometime. 
    Can you help me lop off 50 words?
    We go to work. They call out suggestions. We debate back and forth.
    Do you really need this word? How about . . .? But I like. . .
    Vivian keeps track and calls out: Ok, that’s two words down. We could take out this whole sentence because it’s interrupting the emotional flow of it. Ok, down twenty more words.
    And so it goeth…… until Vivian shouts: “OK, ladies, it’s exactly 750 words. It’s a Go! 

And I have my essay and a lot of love. I know I will go home and tweak a bit more because I simply can’t resist reinserting just one or two of my most darling phrases.

At Easter I got this image from Vivian. She had put my book cover onto the notebook she uses for her best writings and where she enters wisdom and notable quotes.
Honest to Godde, I felt as if my book had risen again.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

2016.03.20 Join The Parade!

I don't like the disorderliness of the Palm Sunday celebration in the Christian church. It resists all our attempts and to order it remains chaotic, all of us sliding back and forth in time and space, from life to death and back, trying to affect solemnity while crazily parading about waving palms and singing wild joy-bound Hosannas. I know God blesses messes, and I do remember the joy of parading with the children’s choir and waving as many palms as I could clutch in my small fist—to the glory of God and my parents's admiring eyes. Inside, though, I felt small, lost and uneasy.

Honestly, I prefer liturgy, because it's meant to provide enough structure  to allow for variations but within a dependable framework. It's safe. We process. We don't parade.

One can get lost in a parade. As a child I was grateful to ride on my dad’s shoulders to view the colorful disorder of city parades. The craziest, scariest was the St. Patrick’s Day parade, possibly because of all that green beer. Some 70 years later the St. Paddy’s Day parade could well boast the unworthy status of being the most litigated in American history—something about the right to keep people out of it.

Palm Sunday mimics a parade despite attempts to order it. It’s the reenactment of the biblical event called the Triumphal Entry of Jesus and his followers into Jerusalem. We vest the sanctuary and its clergy in red, the color of bloody martyrdom, a foreshadowing. But who counts foreshadowings? Palm Sunday is preemptive, anticipatory. If only we could stop with the dramatization of the jubilant entry alone.
Instead, we frontload this Sunday with the whole week of the last days of Jesus’ life, his Passion, including the famous scene, Dominus Flevit (The Lord weeps): Jesus in tears, looking out over the beloved Jerusalem.  There is a beautiful church on this site in Jerusalem. The dome of the church is shaped like a teardrop. That scene, though, is a mere pause before the story lurches onward into torture, unjust trial, cruel execution, humiliating death, and numbed silence. It's overwhelming to the average thumping heart to go so quickly from a mood of exuberance into despondence—once again too late to save, though our palms are still green and supple.

But we must do it, however lukewarmly, because Jesus had to. Imagine yourself as a follower going through this trauma? Do you feel grateful?—thank God, it's not me. Maybe resistant?—ho hum.  Sometimes I try to order it with my mind, understanding as my way to allay my own emotions. I wonder: Would Jesus have been so committed to a healing ministry if he had not known deep wounds? Would he have spoken so often and with such clarity against deep paralytic fear had he not known it himself?  And so must we. 

Most of us, like me,  do not let ourselves in on the kind of terror this Sunday evokes—such trauma all at once.  We simply say, often smugly, that we know the ending. But we do not know the ending—my ending, your ending. Not really.

Ironically, what helps me with the messy emotionality of Passion Sunday is to let it be God's parade—not mine, not the Church's liturgy, not the procession I prefer, nor the parade of exclusionary politics, not even the parade of biblical re-enactment. This parade is like no other. It's a parade of vision.

There is nothing “official” in this parade, no marching band, no dignitary enclosed in a car, no messiahs, except perhaps a leader who has given his donkey to a cripple and who walks among the people. Motley is too small a word for this parade: clowns and criminals, gypsies and gymnasts, betrayers and beloveds, drunkards and dreamers, rowdies, ruffians, peasants and patricians, poets, flutists, flaunters and flirts, children waving hockey sticks and pom poms, Roman soldiers, Temple priests, cripples and athletes, elderly on walkers, and the infirm in wheelchairs, animals to rival Noah’s—and angels.

All the paraders share one hope: let it be me. All yearnings are pinned on one hope. Like pin the tail on the donkey, no one sees the direction this parade is taking. No one sees the route, or even the supposed leader clearly.

Yet wildly we sing along and shout to glory laud and honor—while in my heart a secret prayer: Lord have mercy. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

2016.03.13 Music Is Sempiterne

We went to the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert on Friday afternoon. I would label it sempiternalicious. This obviously  is a word of my own making. Sempiterne is Latin for “everlasting”. The “-alicious”, well…..I got carried away.

I felt old and young all at once. The audience was, or shall I say looked, quite elderly—many canes, walkers, some wheelchairs, and lots of white hair. This is my age group now. But I still have dark brown hair—mostly. Sometimes age doesn’t matter at all.

The sustained bursts of energy that erupted from this faintly decrepit group was enough to lift the roof off the stately concert hall—honestly equivalent to that of hundreds of young fans cheering and stomping at a rock concert. The young don’t shout, Bravo! Brava!  They just scream and jump. The older ones, though slightly bent, raised themselves to their feet, tapped canes, and raised as much of a ruckus as teenagers. 

Such is the magic of music. It can lift the faint of heart and the palsied of limb to the heavens. And at the same time the same music can be so utterly fleshly, embodied—pumping hearts, dashing fingers, puffing cheeks and tapping toes. That’s what Divinity is like when it blows into human flesh—  immeasurable irresistible energy. Levitating! Christianity calls this incarnation. After biological death, we call it resurrection.  

Now remember, this was an all-Beethoven concert, and most of Beethoven’s music blows the roof off all by itself.

I chuckled at Jan Swafford’sprogram note: In 1809, however, about the time of the premier to the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, Beethoven’s stupendous level of production abruptly fell off. (He was a mere 39!) Though there was still extraordinary music to come, Beethoven never again composed with the kind of fury he possessed in the first decade of the century. What happened? Beethoven was increasingly ill and his bad hearing getting worse. However, given his ability to transcend physical misery, it is more likely that his decline in production came from expressive quandaries. He had begun to sense that the train of ideas that had sustained him through the previous decade was close to being played out. He had to find something new.”

“Expressive quandaries” is an interesting phrase. How do you keep on expressing your soul’s passion as you age and fade?  As I get older and experience life trying to pass me by in this age of enormous technological change, I realize that some of the “train of ideas” that has sustained me no longer attracts  younger generations. This is especially true in the church. Some of the best and most enlivened and enlivening theologians continue to churn out new ideas that still sustain me, yet they don’t draw great crowds. 

Well, if Beethoven’s  Seventh symphony, which we heard at this concert, was an example of Beethoven’s abrupt decline in production, it was hardly a slowdown in spirit. The pace was manic at times. The musicians actually grinned and wiped their brow after the sumptuous high-speed finale, and I heard one whisper, “Whew!”

Taking the prize of the day for heaven and earth bound up together was the conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, born in the United States to Swedish parents. This old man is 88! He was lithe and youthful—ageless, as he made his entrances and took his bows with slight tilt but swiftly. The orchestra was delighted with their leader, and there was no difference at all between young or old, just like in the music.

I now understand fully why one metaphor for God is Conductor of the Eternal Symphony.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

2016.03.06 A Woman Unseated But Undaunted

Renée Rabinowitz, a lawyer with a PhD in educational psychology, is the plaintiff in a discrimination suit against El Al Airlines. Her experience of discrimination provides a test case for liberal advocacy groups dealing with disputes about religion and gender in Israel’s public places—including the wild blue yonder. In December Dr. Rabinowitz suffered the unpleasant experience of being asked to move her seat on a plane because an ultra-Orthodox Jewish male passenger did not want to sit next to a woman—for religious reasons. (New York Times, “The Saturday Profile”by  Isabel Kershner, 2/27/2016)

“Despite all my accomplishments—and my age (81) is also an accomplishment—I felt minimized . . . For me this is not personal. It is intellectual, ideological and legal. I think to myself, here I am an older woman, educated. I’ve been around the world, and some guy can decide that I shouldn’t sit next to him. Why?” 

Is having escaped the Nazis in Europe  as a child not sufficient credential to entitle Dr. Rabinowitz to honor, divine and human, forevermore, gender or no gender? With feminists I believe that the personal is political.
When we were in Israel in 2012 we noticed the ultra-Orthodox Jews, also called Haredi or Hasidic. They lived in cloistered communities yet stood out, mostly because of their dress: black suits/coats/long skirts, head coverings for women, and black fedora hats and long dreadlocks for the men. Ultra-Orthodox men hung out in clusters in public places and walked hurriedly, scurried you might say. We were instructed not to bother them or make fun of them, a bad habit that helped to keep Jerusalem boiling. I was obedient, but did gawk a bit.

God, according to Isaiah 66:2, refers to the Haredi: “But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, the one who trembles at my word.” (Haredi in Hebrew.)

Now I would not mind being honored in such a way by my God. I would even tremble. These religious people are as sincere as I am in wishing to please God and live in reverent humility. However, their culture of separatism is easily confused with elitism and seems the very opposite of right-sized humility. I’d respect modest dress codes but wouldn’t expect to be invited by a flight attendant to change my seat because my female gender was offensive.  

Dr. Rabinowitz is not alone in questioning such exclusions. The advocacy group needed her case to show that El Al had internalized the commandment, ‘I cannot sit next to a woman’. When any biblical mandate is internalized it gets under your skin, becomes unconscious—toxic within and dangerous from without. I am quite sure that it is no sin to be born a woman, although I can find that in holy writ.

Reading about this case, I thought of Rosa Parks, another woman unseated but undaunted, arrested in 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. Parks spearheaded the civil rights movement in Montgomery Ala. against racism and segregation. Racism and sexism are closely linked and both are matters of public safety and health, not to mention religious spirituality.  When President Obama unveiled Parks’ statue to stand in the Capitol building, he said:  “In a single moment with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America and change the world.  . . . She takes her rightful place among those who shape the nations course.”

One day there may be a statue of Dr. Rabinowitz  in Jerusalem where she moved from the U.S. about ten years ago. She says she is not anti-Haredi and one of her grandchildren is of that persuasion. “The idea of having a Haredi population is wonderful, as long as they don’t tell me what to do.” There are prejudices she does not like in her beloved land. The El Al flight attendant engaged the Haredi man in a conversation about the seat/gender issue. “The flight attendant treated me as if I was stupid,” Dr. Rabinowitz said, “but that’s a common problem in Israel if you don’t speak Hebrew. They assume they can put one over on you.”

Under pressure from lawyers, the airline offered a $200 discount on Dr. Rabinowitz’s next El Al flight. They argued that the flight attendant had explained the whole thing and assigned the plaintiff a “better” seat. Oy!

With time to ponder these things in her heart, Dr. Rabinowitz agreed to litigation. “This whole idea that you cannot sit next to a woman is bogus.” She cited orthodox scholarship to support her point of view.  “When did modesty become the sum and end all of being a Jewish woman? Our heroes in history were not modest little women.” Dr. Rabinowitz cited the biblical warrior Deborah, the matriarch Sarah and Queen Esther to name a few. I would add the New Testament  Mary—faithful Jewish woman, mother of Jesus, mother of the Church, blessed and holy— to her list. She pondered Christ in her heart and questioned God—no modest little woman. 

Pondering things in one’s heart can be dangerous, liberating—or both.