Sunday, April 24, 2016

2016.04.24 The Ultimate Value of Memory

When an old shipwrecked memory emerges to shove its prow into my mind without warning, my heart leaps in recognition. A rush of thoughts and feelings follow.

I’ve wondered if this process was the same for biblical writers. The Bible is one of the most complex, diverse, and complicated memoirs I’ve ever read. All the authors of the New Testament must each have experienced strong and insistent memories—over and over— of being in Jesus’s presence. Then they had collective experiences that swept them off their feet. I’m sure they compared and debated and shared. It took them over 20 years of talking and remembering, and talking some more, selecting, and praying to get Jesus Christ written into gospel form.
My memoir over all took about that long to compile and write and revise and edit—over and over. The structuring process itself was transformative, especially deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, and why, or why not. Written or not written, the memories keep on coming.

Like today, I was sewing a button on my winter coat and my maternal grandmother surfaced. I saw her clearly, her mouth filled with straight pins clinging to her lips for dear life. (The sharp end faced in!) Both her hands were occupied fussing to smooth the fabric, readying it for her straight pins.When she had it plumb and flattened to her satisfaction, she held it down with one hand and with the other plucked a pin from between her lips and inserted it into the fabric to hold her seam in place. She repeated this action many times over—swiftly.

I watched in awe, fearful that one day she would surely swallow a pin. Mesmerized and held in the grip of this dangerous drama, I didn’t move a muscle, though I was itching to ask how she did this? Terrified to interrupt her for fear she would swallow a pin, or several pins, or all the pins, and then we’d have to rush off to the hospital. She might even die—and somehow it would be my foolish fault, or it might be so adjudged.

And how in the world did she manage always to have just the right number of pins in her mouth By the time she decided to use the Singer, invented in 1850 by Isaac Singer, and mass-produced by 1863 so it could be sold to housewives for $10. My grandmother was already an accomplished seamstress. The Singer was the first machine able to sew continuously and also around curves, revolutionizing the art of sewing—but not real stitching, my grandmother said. When she stitched by hand she looked to my young admiring eye to be faster than the machine.

This grandmother, whom I'd named Ga when I was a child, was very close to my mother, her youngest and fourth child, and our family. Ga grew up Marguerite Gordon Hall in Medford, Massachusetts. She eloped at eighteen with her beloved, Avon Franklin Adams, a Jewish impresario, whom she married in New York City in 1891. The Halls of Medford did not approve of this marriage. Nevertheless, the couple settled in Manhattan and had a family.

I can’t say I was fond of Ga, although I coveted her attention. When my younger sister Laurie was born Ga made it a project to make sure Laurie got enough attention, fearing that my mother would favor me. Result: Ga favored Laurie and I was the one who felt slighted. Ah, dynamics!

Ga gave me two miraculous gifts:
     1) She created an entire wardrobe for my doll Lucille, must of it meticulously hand-stitched, including a Queen of Hearts costume, just like the one she made for me to wear to a costume party. The costume exactly replicated the playing card. I was small and shy and far from queenly, but the costume pulled it off for me that day. I won first prize for the most original costume.
    2) Watching Ga, I learned to sew and conquer my fears of being pricked or crunching a fabric beyond recognition.  She was not patient with my mistakes, like sewing a zipper perfectly—into the hemline of a skirt. But I learned, and in time I had as many pins in my mouth as she did. I made the bridesmaids dresses for my sister Jeanie’s wedding.  They were white velvet. Believe me, velvet is a fabric that shows no mercy to a seamstress.

Writing memoir is like piecework, as Ga called intricate stitching and piecing odd patterns of fabric together. That’s how I imagine the Bible was put together. There is only one purpose: to faithfully and honestly reveal the relationship between God and Godde’s creation, including the annoyingly persistent relational pattern of connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting, particularly endemic to humanity.  Some people call it sin and redemption. I call it the work of the Holy Spirit, whose energy works the between spaces in relationships pulling for healing.

The Mystery of this process is the re-connection. And with Godde it never fails.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

2016.04.17 Oceanic Wisdom Of Islam in Easter

“The mercy of Allah is an ocean. Our sins are a lump of clay clenched between the beak of a pigeon. The pigeon is perched on the branch of a tree at the edge of that ocean. It only has to open its beak.”
        from Minaret, a novel by Leila Aboulela

I love this image of the Divine Being named Allah. It’s in the first small chapter of Aboulela’s novel about Najwa, a Muslim girl from an aristocratic family who has been displaced from Khartoum, Sudan, as was Aboulela, and exiled in the wake of a 1985 military coup. Najwa struggles to adjust to the bustling urbanity of London where she cleans the houses of people who live as she used to live. The minaret in a nearby mosque becomes a symbol of hope and the hijab Najwa had eschewed at home, a garb of pride—and protection.

Minaret is a book about the power of religious symbols and traditional practices to be sturdy steadying anchors—assurances of divine compassion in any storm.

I can identify. When nothing makes sense and I have no sight, I perch, like the pigeon, in a pew, or before my home altar, on the edge of my bed or on a park bench, open my beak, and howl. Aboulela (left) is more quietly passionate.

Some days I feel like the ocean itself—vast and open and also glutted and sated with my own and everyone else’s shipwrecks stored up in my depths. Some days I’m like the pigeon staring into the ocean from a safe perch. I want to call out, assert my presence, but my "beak" is stuck in  mushy lumpiness. That’s what I feel like when I am mired in my own sin: the fear of being too exposed, too intimate, too transparent. The fear disconnects me from trusting goodness—in God, myself and others.

Aboulela’s image of sin as clay reminds me of the gray clay we used in kindergarten—all wet and squishy like mud. Our small fingers plunged deeply into the tough clay. It was like a jihad, which in Islam is the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin. I worked strenuously on my lump of clay to mold it into something that looked like something appealing that I could then put in the kiln to dry and take home to present to my parents. All of my great sculptures looked like turtles with longish legs. My mother adored every one, with a little too much adulation. My father stupidly asked what it was. It was a horse, of course! Whatever its identity, my offering fell graciously into the ocean of mercy.

My primary care physician, a Sufi Muslim named Noor, recommended Aboulela’s novel to me. In between listening to my chest for wheezes, taking my vitals, and recording my list of symptoms, she tells me where to go to enjoy the food she loves and recommends things to read. I return the favor. Noor is as sure of herself medically as she is about ethnic foods, spiritual books, and her absolute trust in Allah. Her trust in the unfailing compassion of Divinity is one-way and absolute. Mine is more two-way, favoring a co-creative process between humanity and divinity. Her husband, she says, would agree with me.

Noor, like Najwa in Aboulela's book, draws strength from her infallible faith in the oceanic Allah. Her trust is unswerving and never breaks, no matter the hardships of life on earth. My faith strengthens me, too, as the mercy of God, my Allah, participates with me, to mold my “clay"—even unto death. 

Either way, we both end up in the ocean where nothing is ever lost. Everything is nicely salted and preserved—forever. That is the most merciful outcome I can imagine.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

2016.04.10 Dear Atheist

Dear Atheist,

Some years ago I gave a talk to some Episcopalians about God, or some such mysterious topic. I announced I was an atheist. I explained that I was an a-theist, not because I did not believe in a Divinity named God, but because I did not believe in God’s linguistic wardrobe we proclaim in Christian churches as if it were divinity itself. 

After the gasps settled down, I went on to speak of the God I did believe in, though I’m pretty sure many ears were slammed shut to whatever wisdom I thought I was going to impart. I was young and foolish then, you see. BUT now I am old and foolish, and I still do not subscribe to the traditional, and still dominant, imagery and language attached to Divinity: Father, Son, He/His/Him/Himself, King, Almighty, Lord, Prince—masculine images transferred like decals onto Jesus, the post-Easter resurrected one whom we call Christ, the One who has, so far as I know, transcended any gender.

So if you tell me you do not relate, intellectually or emotionally, to a deity that sounds so domineering, patriarchal, and male-gendered, I’m with you.

It’s not as if I want to castrate divinity. I never recall feeling penis envy myself; in fact, it seemed like it could be rather an anatomical nuisance, albeit quite necessary for procreation and pleasure. 
For me the telling biblical wisdom about the nature of God is in Genesis in which the Creator-God of the cosmos (not just our own earth, sun, moon and stars but multiple universes) made  life happen in many forms—suns, moons, stars, seas and all lands, vegetation, nature and human nature (male and female, and every combination thereof.) 

Do  you think divine creativity stopped with our galaxy? Do you think God meant to create rigid rank-ordering of biological life? Or did God, simply and deeply, potentiate evolution? Later, Darwin, a faithful man himself, would verify this process and prove that the test for survival was not fitness but adaptability. We are now adapting to an enormously wider and deeper view of BIO-LIFE and of GODDE.  Have we forgotten to look at the stars?

In 2016, Americans elect a new president who will put his or her hand on the Holy Bible and swear in God’s name. To what? The American dream or God’s dream?

Republican presidential contender, Donald Trump, waves his Bible around – though he is apparently unable to name a single verse from it when asked – and talks a lot about making America great again and the threat from Islam. The other Republican front runner, Ted Cruz,  knows his Bible well—well enough to apply it rigidly to reinforce his conservative social agenda. And that speaks volumes about what sort of faith it is that most Republican believers actually believe in. Little wonder, as Professor of Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas, commented, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.

America would never nominate or elect a president with no religious faith, preferably Protestant. America itself has long been its own civil religion. Often I wonder if we worship America first, God second, or not at all.

Giles Fraser, writing in The Guardian (3/30/16) wrote: “When the Pilgrim Fathers got in their little boats and sailed to the new world, they took with them a narrative that had begun to build in England, that the protestant English were actually the chosen people. America, then, was to be the new Israel. The pilgrims had landed safe on Canaan’s side, the promised land.

“In other words, America became its own church and eventually its own god. Which is why the only real atheism in America is to call into question the American dream – a dream often indistinguishable from capitalism and the celebration of winners.”

I am, by this definition, an a-theist again, this time of the American dream deified. I do think America has become its own church, its own god. Maybe that’s why fewer people attend traditional church—even when the American flag hangs in most Christian churches. Is that patriotism or blasphemy? Do we worship the God of ultimate unconditional compassion we see in Jesus the Christ? Do we worship the God-made-masculine-only? Or do we worship the God of our own national idolatry? Some selfie addicts, I imagine, worship their own divinity. There are many brands of atheism.

Which deity is worthy of your atheism?

It doesn’t matter to me what you choose, really, because I know that you have lived and loved well; you have kept faith in yourself through many shattered expectations and crushing disappointments. Some atheists wonder how Jesus, a mere human being, could be so divine, so worthy of deification. Maybe Jesus is not the only christ?  Here’s a poem written into someone’s soul. It reminds me of you, dear atheist friend.

I don’t tell you how much it matters to me that you are my friend.
I’ll never tell you, bluntly and face to face. I can’t summon words
That way. They only come to my fingers occasionally if I’m silent
And just quit thinking. Our fingers are a lot smarter than we know.
Like today when my fingers want to say something like: your gifts
To me have been ears and humor. We speak some strange language
That few other people speak. I don’t know why that’s so. It’s surely
An accident. It’s not like we set out to find each other in the tumult
Of this sweet wilderness. But we did somehow. You can put names
On the finding if you want. The names all mean the same thing. An
Old name is Providence, which is another way to say God, which is
A way to say We Have No Idea How, But We Are Aware of Grace.
There are more names for God than we’ll ever know, and one is you.

                   Brian Doyle, A Shimmer of Something, published with permission

Sunday, April 3, 2016

2016.04.03 Playing To Play

We went to a grandson’s hockey game recently. At first we both groaned at rushing off on a Saturday a.m. to sit in the cold clime of a hockey arena to watch enthusiastic 6-8 year olds skate with grace and fury, and push a puck around with equal zeal.

Ours was #137, the only way to identify him behind the gear. He is the smaller of our two grandsons who play ice hockey. 

Ice hockey rankings for kids are by age group and metaphorical size. This lad, Thomas, is in the youngest age group and is a mite at age 8. Next year he will be a squirt, then graduate to peewee then bantam. God knows what could follow that?  Here he is with the smallest (in size) and youngest (6) player on his team.

Another grandson, Will, started hockey when he was about Thomas’s age. Will is now 13 in pee wee status. He chose this sport over others, because he is a fast and lithe skater (smart), and because this sport has the most protective gear (also smart)!!—also, the most expensive gear, his dad notes.

When we went to one of Will’s squirt games, I winced and ducked and feared for his precious young life. Hockey has a reputation for violence—part of hockey DNA. I found out later that there are well enforced rules about blocking tactics called checking. There are eleven different ways, some illegal, to check your opponent’s movements—none of them verbal. How fierce is that? But I’m pretty sure this boy will not aspire to the Boston Bruins. Here he is #3 (nice spiritual number) playing a championship game.
When we went to Thomas’s game, I noticed some girls playing. Oh well, we wanted equality, didn't we?  The team playing against Thomas’s was an all-girls team. The players were from many different towns in Massachusetts. I was impressed. These girls were aggressive, and some of them looked to be well over mite size. I knew they were legally sized, though. 

These mites, boys and girls all played their souls out. The girl goalie had perfected the art form of splaying her hips to simply sit on the puck as it came her way. Legal or not, it worked. I knew women had broad hips for a reason! The boys usually beat this plucky all-girls’ team, but this day the girls won at the very last minute by 2 points The boys’ team had even “left an empty net” so they could release another skater, the goalie, to make that one more goal for a tie or a win. But the girls prevailed and a whoop went up.

I felt conflicted. I'd rooted for Thomas’s team of course. Yet I also felt happy to see an all-female team win.

Our boy was a bit pouty, but they all shook mitts as they exited the ice rink.  “It’s only a game” doesn’t console a child whose team has lost the game. Neither does: “You played your best.”

Suddenly I realized, in a raw moment of truth, how small my own gender agenda really was. All these children were good skaters, earnest and honest players, full of joy at winning and deflation at losing. They’d all be back next week, eager to play again, renewed and refreshed and full of the exact same quotient of energy to contribute to the game and this team as they had this week.

I knew this to be true for each individual player, as well as for the human spirit in general, when Thomas said to his dad, “When’s the next practice?”  That’s a win.