Sunday, September 25, 2016

2016.09.25 Dear President

Imagine yourself face-to-face with the next president of these United States—whoever that may be—and in a few sentences write about what you hope to see addressed in the next four years.

This was the challenge posed to fifty American poets and writers by Poets and Writers Magazine, September/October, 2016.  It turns out that something great happens when you ask writers to convey without political grandstanding what is most important to them. Huge unmanageable issues suddenly come sharply into focus in such collective discourse.

When I read all of it without stopping I felt enlivened and hopeful. Not that I didn’t already have all these issues in my own mind but they were all in a jumble, darting about. This assignment helped. Try it yourself.

All the statements moved me and served too as verbal guideposts. It is worth noting that most of them were addressed to “Madame President . . .” Some even used  “President Clinton . . .” Wishes contain hope, and hope does not disappoint

I will only share a couple of reflections
“Madame President, thank you for sparing us your opponent’s dismal and clownish stupidity, his blind and blinding hate. I’m still scared though. I’m scared that you think beating him will be the hardest part of your job, and I’m scared of what is happening to the environment, to our schools, our water supply and our tolerance, scared of people being out of work, and people being hooked on painkillers and people not being allowed to use the rest room where they feel most comfortable. I don’t give a rip if you’re honest or transparent or running a thousand different email servers, but I need you to be compassionate and smart and clear-eyed, to be afraid with me—and with all of us—and despite our fears, not least yours, I need you to be brave and resilient, and well, hopeful.”   -Bret Anthony Johnston, American author/novelist, Remember Me Like This.

Dear Madame President: Transparency is at the top just now of our politically correct values list. It’s the desired way to be. I wonder.  Okay, so we’ve had too many secrets, secrets that hurt and cheat.  Secrets isolate. Still, total transparency is suicidal without the clear-hearted, level-minded practice of discernment. Discernment means reflection and choice: what and how much to reveal, to whom, and when?

Moderation and modesty are not lost values. I do not want a “naked” Commander in Chief. I want one who is wise and able to discern what is in the public’s best interest to reveal about government, about policies, and about personal health and habit. I also do not need to know everything!

As the author of a memoir I had to discern the meaning and placement of every word. I could be transparent about my own failings and sing but not those of others. I tried to do no harm just for the sake of honesty being best policy or transparency. Transparency is not an easy ethic and we throw the word about as if it were. And for you as a woman, it almost does not matter what you do, because there is a double standard of judgment, you not being a man.  You too have written memoirs and they are worth reading, though not many people who talk a lot about politics and purport to know a lot have read your words. Get elected and they will!!!
-Rev. Lyn G. Brakeman

 Climate change—stop dicking around. War—use only as ultimate last resort."
-Ben Fountain PEN/Hemingway award for Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

Ms. President I want you to know that the power of having our first woman as president doesn't escape me; I've been waiting for this my entire life. And I want you as the first woman president of the United States to place the liberation and justice of historically marginalized people at the center of your work—terrifying, hard, necessary work. We need this more than ever.
-Tanwi Nandini Islam, novelist

There was no voice of religion, or even a hint or a stab at the mention of anything "spiritual," in these impassioned letters. I regret this. One women writer wrote to our next president "God bless you." 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

2016.09.18 I'm With Her—HIllary R. Clinton, Politically and Spiritually

I feel as if we are living in quite a whirlwind in this chaotic American election season. Honestly I can’t wait for evening when we can gather, my beloved and I, to munch on popcorn or other delights and watch TV serial soap-opera-ish murder mysteries or medical melodrama. Why this activity is soothing, remains a mystery.

As to whirlwinds, the biblical Job, in the midst of the chaos and suffering of his life:  Where is God?   God spoke to Job finally out of the very whirlwind Job wanted resolved. So God must have been in the whirlwind proper, else how could God have been speaking out of it? Consider. 

“Whirlwinds in meterology are complex chaotic systems that suggest not pure chaos but rather the turbulent emergence of complexity at the edge of chaos.” (Catherine Keller) Job’s answer was/is blowin’ in the wind. I’m trying to trust the complexity emerging at the edge of chaos, the complexity where God just might be at work for the good.

I’m doing this by choosing life—not dying, shrinking in fear, or wasting energy on soul-starving negativity. I’m choosing to be “With Her,” as Hillary Clinton’s campaign signs invite. To be with her I’m seeking positive information about her. Positivity is hard to find. It does not sell newspapers, win Pulitzers for journalists, or popularize television news shows, but it’s in the whirlwind with everything else—including Godde.

Here are some earnest positive words (2015) about the young Hillary from the Rev. Dr. Paul Santmire, author/theologian and Lutheran pastor, retired professor of theology at Boston University:

A hundred years ago, I worked closely with a bright young Methodist student at Wellesley College, where I was serving as a teacher and Chaplain, one Hillary Rodham.  She was then, and, I believe, still is a person of deep moral passion, notwithstanding press caricatures of her that have appeared in recent years with predictable regularity.

Hillary came to Wellesley as an enthusiastic “Goldwater Girl.”  Hers was a dedicated voice of the Midwestern Right.  Then she took the (at that time) required sophomore Bible course, and it changed her life.  She was especially fond of Amos, texts such as 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters.”  And she did not just talk the talk.

One example.  As president of the student government, she and a group of young women like her (I was a kind of back-row advisor to all this), wanted to address the mostly lily-white complexion of the student body.  At that time there were, as I recall, 12 African-Americans in a student body of some 2000.  The College’s administration wanted nothing to do with all this.  Hillary took the lead with her group to raise money independently to pay for those African-American students to make recruiting trips to predominantly black high schools across the country.  Not only had those schools never been visited by Wellesley College recruiters before, they were unknown to the Admissions Office.  That project turned out to be a minor success.  But my point here is not minor successes, but Hillary’s impressive moral passion and her eagerness to act on that passion.

I have kept close tabs on her personal and political trajectories ever since.  Notwithstanding her being the object of sometimes vicious attacks (tell me that sexism is not alive and well in this country) and notwithstanding mistakes of her own along the way, I believe that the faith that she discovered in Amos and the moral passion she exemplified at Wellesley College have not left her.  If anything, given the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that faith and that moral passion have deepened and become the driving force of all she does.  I believe that she has added the wisdom of spiritual depth, too, which sometimes comes with maturity.  Did you notice that when asked, during one of the New Hampshire debates, about spiritual influences on her life she spoke at length and with some conviction about how much she has learned from that great Catholic spiritual teacher of our time, Henri Nouwen?

I, of course, am not an unbiased witness.  I affirm what I once saw, and I affirm what I now see.  I have walked the streets of New Hampshire in her behalf and I support her current campaign financially.

I write only with this hope, that, as you continue to reflect about the current campaign, you will take into account her moral passion and her spiritual depth.  She is much more than her popular detractors, even on the liberal side, make her out to be.  I also believe that she has even more to offer.  Her much vaunted “experience” is not something to shake a stick at, for example, not to speak of a certain wisdom she brings with her as a knowledgeable student of history. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

2016.09.11 Leap

Today I remember and honor all the lovely bodies and brave souls that perished fifteen years ago today when planes flew into the twin towers in New York City and burst into flames. My hometown.

A poem to say: terrorism is not the last word. A prayer to say: May the warm hand—always warmer than mine— of my husband hold mine as we leap into Life together.

    by Brian Doyle

A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped.
      Jennifer Brickhouse saw them falling, hand in hand.
       Many people jumped. Perhaps hundreds. No one knows. They struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air.
       The mayor reported the mist.
    A kindergarten    boy who saw people falling in flames told his teacher that the the birds were on fire. She ran with him on her shoulders out of the ashes.
    Tiffany Keeling saw fireballs falling that she later realized were people. Jennifer Griffin saw people falling and wept as she told the story. Niko Minstrel saw people free-falling backward with their hands out, like they we parachuting. Joe Duncan on his roof on Duane Street looked up and saw people jumping. Henry Weintraub saw people “leaping as they flew out.” John Carson saw six people fall, “falling over themselves, falling, they were somersaulting.” Steve Miller saw people jumping from a thousand feet in the air. Kirk Kjeldsen saw people flailing on the way down, people lining up and jumping. “too many people falling.” Jane Tedder saw people leaping and the sight haunts her at night. Steve Tamas counted fourteen people jumping and then he stopped counting. Stuart DeHann saw one woman’s dress billowing as she fell, and he saw a shirtless man falling end over end, and he too saw the couple leaping hand in hand. 
    Several pedestrians were killed by people falling from the sky. A fireman was killed by a body falling from the sky.
    But he reached for her hand and she reached for his hand and they leaped out the window holding hands.
    The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, wrote Peter, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that therein shall be burned up.
    I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers but I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.
    There is no fear in love, wrote John, but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment.
    Their hands reaching and joining is the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here.
     Their passing away was thought an affliction/ and their going forth from us, utter destruction, says the book of Wisdom. But they are in peace.  . . . They shall sing, /and shall dart about as sparks through stubble.
    No one knows who they were: husband and wife, lovers, dear friends, colleagues, strangers thrown together at the window there at the lip of hell. Maybe they didn’t even reach for each other consciously, maybe it was instinctive, a reflex, as they both decided at the same time to take two running sets and jump out the shattered window, but they did read for each other, and they held on tight, and leaped and fell endlessly into the smoking canyon, at two hundred miles an hour, falling so far and so fast that they would have blacked out before they hit the pavement near Liberty Street so hard that there was a pink mist in the air.
    I trust I shall shortly see thee, John wrote, and we shall speak face to face.
     Jennifer Brickhouse saw them holding hands, and Stuart DeHann saw them holding hands, and I hold on to that.

Brian Doyle edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, Oregon, called “the best spiritual magazine in the country” by Annie Dillard. Doyle is also the author of 13 books of essays and fiction and poetry; among the honors for his work are the Christopher Medal and a Catholic Press Association Book Award. He lives with his family in Portland.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

2016.09.04 Choose LIfe!

I visited a dying woman today in a hospice facility. Although it was a final goodbye and sad, I became suddenly and intensely aware, as I’d never been before, of the near-ultimate importance of setting. I mean if you’re going to die, it’s such a gift to die surrounded, yes, by family and friends and love, but also by beauty—inside and out.

Writers are always instructed to pay attention to the place or the setting of a book or poem. Actions and inner reflections and dialogue and other things are important, but where it all takes place provides both stability and ambience. Setting enhances or diminishes whatever is taking place

This hospice is clean, sweet-smelling (not artificially so), and set in a woody space with well- groomed bright gardens. The furniture is attractive, comfortable and not heavy— not Motel 6. And of course the professional and volunteer staff mirror the setting, just as cheerful and just as gracious. Also, you can order anything you want to eat. My friend ordered a strawberry frappe for her lunch—that’s all. There is nothing institutional about this place. It’s peace itself.

Today in church I spoke about the passage in Deuteronomy 30, the one in which God invites the people to choose life. God declares:

See! I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . .life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live in the land I swore to you and your ancestors to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  I would add: and to Jesus, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, Hagar, Mary—you and me.

First, a word about Land values. Not real estate. According to Amy-Jill Levine, author and professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, the land is in the drinking water for Jews. Whether religious or not, Jews are imbued with the value of the land. Land meant God’s faithfulness and gift. God never forgets God’s people. It is not necessarily literal, as some may think, but symbolic of God’s love and of the covenant. It’s the relationship in God that gives life—not the dirt.

I believe that Jesus Christ is to Christians what land is to Jews—a place in the divine soul forever.  Such a setting!  In this context God invites us to CHOOSE LIFE. If you obey and follow you’re okay, and if not you’re outside the covenant.

Christians pale at this. Love is too conditional. We want grace, grace and free grace.

Still, I ask: are these the facts of life or a threat?  I think we are so afraid of divine punitive action that we perceive threat not choice. And we impose threat into the text and into our understanding of God.

I love the Old Testament for its crispness, stating it like it is, and God always offering a recipe and a choice. We all know that if we choose X YX will probably happen, or if we choose another way, something else will happen. Not rocket science. The most powerful phrase in this Deuteronomy text, however, is God’s passionate plea, issued twice: CHOOSE LIFE!  It would not say choose if it did not mean just that.

Choice of course is complex, loaded—rarely as simple as it looks. For example, for many of us we can choose to have a glass of wine or not with our meal. For an addict that choice is neither free nor easy. OR… a choice to skip church and have a brunch with my family. OK for some, even for off-duty clergy. But for someone who has been strictly conditioned in religious obligation, believing it God’s will, there is deep threat, and that choice is emotionally fraught.

We should never judge, mock or stigmatize anyone’s choices, including our own.

A Choose Life ethic requires lots of wisdom, reflection, and compassion for yourself and others. It also requires remembering: when and how in the past have you been able to choose life? We choose it, and we remember that Jesus did, every time we receive the Sacrament of Eucharist.

About 15 years ago  a friend and parishioner in Connecticut was dying of cancer. I’d loved this woman, and I didn’t even know she was dying, because we had moved. One day she emailed me and briefly told me her circumstances: she had cancer, she’d left the church, she was still in touch with God and praying, and she remembered the Education for Ministry (EfM) group I’d mentored where she’d learned so much about the bible. Then she asked a question: What is that passage in scripture you loved and always used to blat on about you—you know the one that says Choose life. Where is it in the bible? I know you know. Email me right away. I’m dying and I still want to choose life.”   I did. Before she died she wrote again to thank me, to ask me to preach at her funeral, and to tell me:
                           “I’m dying and I’m choosing life.”

You’re wondering about grace?
    God’s grace is in the invitation to freely choose, well apprised of the facts, and even when you face the unknown.  
    God’s grace is in the oft-repeated invitation to choose life.
    Grace too is in the openness of this covenant. It’s never closed, no matter how many different times and ways you choose life—over and over and over.  So drop the closed-door fantasy!

What today does choose life mean to you? What in your past gives you courage? What does it mean for the Church, for Christianity, for all religion to choose life?

                                             CHOOSE LIFE.