Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017.12.31 Threats With Promises

Threats in world many. Each carries promise. Indulge year-end blogger rant in headlines. Bless you.

1. Drugs: far more abundant with cheap choices and more omnipresently aggressive in their demands for attention. It’s hard to say no.
     YET many do, and many heal from addictive disease through medication and therapy, and from love, faith and hope—three unconditional spiritual values. Yes, unconditional.

2. Venomous American political conversation: escalates to violence, government paralyzed, guns more available to more people than ever—and considered indispensable to some. To inject sanity and, godde forbid, love for all, into this environment risky as hell.
    YET good people, political and priestly, keep praying and working for good gun control legislation and an end to violence in speech and action. They are the blood donors, the organs our culture needs.

3. Sex, as in practice thereof and orientation therein: acceptance, no, expectation, that sexual behavior, yes, intercourse, is the normative even for teens, common—and competitive. When did you have your first lay—or get laid? When did you lose your virginity first? When did you have your first smoke, beer, snort—gun? Kiss feared old-fashioned. It may have lost its supremacy as a sign of young, tenderly-cautious, physical attraction-towards-love.
    YET older teens and twenties are engaging in less sex than past generations. No one knows why. Possibly choosing to explore getting-to-know-you love first? Psychological data: females depend on mutually supportive relationships for their well-being. So do men, GLBQIS. Dating around, sleeping around, hooking up, one-nighters can’t satisfy the deep longing for relationship; nor can erections and orgasms.

4. Marriage: uncertain and faraway goal for many. In olden days girls pushed and shoved into it by the fear, no terror, of getting pregnant. Currently, more choice. Birth control seen as  protective, except for STDs, but the safety it provides can hinder long-term relationship security aka marriage.
    YET emotional commitment, whatever one’s orientation, is, yes, still nourishes mind, heart, body, and soul—if nothing else to practice the sanctity of marriage should one choose it in the future.   

5. Technology: broad range of options, bordering on omniscience (Google) and omnipresence (i-phones actually text you to let you know your parents are tracking your whereabouts—true), and omnipotence (Amazon Prime.) These attributes used to belong to God (by whatever name) aka divine Mystery. They still do. Technology unable to provide flesh-and-blood love, unconditional beneficence, or shared audible visible embodied rich laughter. Easy to hide behind emojis.
    YET social media technology does give people a community of understanding, support, advice, accompaniment, and safety.

6. Religion: weak in the northeast; humanism, atheism, secularism viable options; religions fail at apologetics. What does this or that religion mean? Who or what really is God? Christ? Moses? Is there spirituality beyond morality and rules of conduct? Is it enough to be a good person?       
Researcher at Harvard Divinity School, Angie Thurston, calls millennial generation “religiously homeless” in opinion piece by Zachary Davis:“Has Secularism Gone Too Far?”  (Boston Globe, Ideas, 12/24/17) Response letters (12/31/17) unanimously—tellingly— defensive, angry.
    YET secularism thought too rational, pessimistic. Davis identified a mismatch between the job religion is supposed to do and society’s floundering search for that job to be done. The job? Not the preaching of morality, but the steady inspiration of hope, not just in afterlife but now: “. . . a hope that goes beyond reason—to give us the strength to pursue a world beyond reasonable expectations.”  Religion stretches the possible.  Granddaughter asks, with an edge: “Grammy, why do you pray?” “I pray because I love. And because my love is not enough.”

7. Public education: public schools forbidden to teach religion as a cultural phenomenon, as the spawn of great works of philosophy and literature, even some biblical literature and moral principles. Something missing. Separation of church and state necessary good. Still, young seekers in public settings unable to study every blooming thing they wonder about. “Wisdom begins in wonder.” Socrates.  But not in our public schools. Religion not even an elective. Religion condemned as proselytizing to fill its coffers. Good teaching never proselytizes.
    YET  . . . slowly religion and wonderments sneak in and silently infect and inform many curious hearts. The same granddaughter searches on line, not in school. Tries pantheism, atheism, agnostic theism, and many things. Trust God will find her and she will find the Love therein that she seeks.

8. Theology/God: how we think and speak about divinity, factor in sociological analysis. Religions consistently allow one image to dominate, a theological stereotype, a superpower deity who is almighty, transcendent, masculine, and interventionist. Image idolatrous. Limits divinity; limits human spirituality.
    YET traditional theology has always proclaimed God as equally immanent. God lives and moves deep within flesh, strengthening, encouraging and empowering love us to love—no matter what. In this God I trust. In this God possible to love, live, move and have being. For this Christians, this is God Jesus died for—to die and so to live.

8. Spirituality: name for what all humanity deeply craves and often does not find in society or church.
    YET Love discovered available in ditches and trenches, in pews and sewers, on streets and in mansions, in life and in death, and in one’s own lonely unlovely flesh. A woman, struggling for years to create/enhance her own self-esteem, suddenly hugs a friend and sobs:“I’ve just discovered that there is a little piece of God in all of us, and in me, too”
    YET God is Mystery—beyond our words—and small enough to adore them.

9. Personal: beloved husband and wife born on same day three years apart. Wife has seniority. Today both alive and well, bloated with gratitude—also fret, spat and grieve changes and terrors that seem to take away church and country. 
     YET  . . . they can still laugh and hug
    YET . . .  one day both will die and leave this beautiful place and all the people they love.
    YET . . .  there is something more Godde has in mind, they hope. Creation never stops.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017.12.24 The Under-Genius of All Things—At Christmas

There is no joy that is not mixed with muck and muddle and cynical commentary and genuine pique, even if you hide it, eject it, silence it, blame it on the weather.  And  yet . . .

This morning we listened, my dear spouse and I, to the annual Kings College, Cambridge England, service of Nine Lessons and Carols. It is nothing if not utterly traditional. I admit to feeling tired, once again, of gendered language for the Holy. And yet  . . .

My emotions, my love of creativity, Creator God, and Beauty itself took over. Later I contented myself with a small addition to the wondrous words of the text of English poet Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) for the final stanza of the Christmas Carol: “In the bleak mid-winter.” 

What can I gave him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
but since I am a woman, I would give my flesh;
yet what I can I give him:
     give my heart.

To abandon one’s very correct political correctness for the sake of God’s holiday—and ours—is what I think the late poet Brian Doyle means by having the courage to discern the “under-genius” of  it all at Christmas. 

Muttered Prayer in Thanks for the Under-Genius of Christmas

Putting up ye old fir tree last night, and pondering why again we slay a perfectly healthy tree ten years of age, not even a teenager yet, and prop up the body, and drape it with frippery, and then finally feed the brittle former vibrancy into a chipper, paying a grim Boy Scout five bucks for the privilege; I watched mine bride and children quietly for a while, from behind the tree where I was struggling with that haunted cursed string of lights, and I saw the under-genius of it all: I saw beneath the tinsel and nog, the snarl of commerce and the ocean of misspent money; I saw the quiet pleasure of ritual, the actual no-kidding, no-fooling urge to pause and think about other people and their joy, the anticipation of days spent laughing and shouldering in the kitchen, with no agenda and no press of duty. I saw the flash of peace and love under all the shrill selling and tinny theater; and I was thrilled and moved. And then I remembered too that the ostensible reason for it all was the Love being bold and brave enough to assume a form that would bleed and break and despair and die; and I was again moved, and abashed; and I finished untangling the epic knot of lights, shivering yet again with happiness that we were given such a sweet terrible knot of a world to untangle, as best we can, with bumbling love. And so: amen.
Do you risk having eyes and ears and nose for the under-genius of it all? 

As a child I was seized by my father’s absence from the tree project. Oh, he was present in body but he was preoccupied with his cocktail and didn’t join in. Perhaps he had suffered the epic tangle of lights. I don’t remember. I worried about him. I longed for him. I couldn’t understand why my mother and my sisters were jollily going along unheeding. There was something wrong with this picture, and I wept.

I could not yet see the under-genius of it all. If I had, I might have been able to join in and trim the tree without fear and inhibition. If I had, I might have called Daddy to come join us—just put one little bright ball on our tree. And he would have smiled, thanked me, and declined. If I had seen the under-genius of Christmas, I would have known that Daddy was there with us even if he couldn’t participate in the way I wanted. And that would’ve been enough. I also might have realized that my Daddy was not God— and maybe that there is a manger inside all of us. 

When I stop and notice the under-genius of Christmas I can see that joy is not happiness or maple syrup. It is an inner feeling of hope, hope so huge and defiant it counters all reason. It's the under-genius, the under-joy.  So I give my heart. 

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

2017.12.21 A Death At Christmas

When someone dies near Christmas time people take it harder than at other times of year. Why is that? I suppose it creates an inner emotional conflict between joy and sorrow, between bright red and grey-blue. You know what I mean. We just have to feel both. God carries it all in one sacred heart, and good friends are friends or family who do not try to talk you in or out of your true feelings.

Christmas colors are bright red, gold, green. Christmas colors are also blue and black and gray. Simply so.

Today on the liturgical calendar is a day set aside to remember the apostle Thomas, one of Jesus’s disciples. He’s known for being a doubter, but that’s poppycock. All he asked for was the facts, please. And Jesus, with deep respect, honored Thomas’s request. Simply so. Death is like that.

On December 18th, a friend of many years died. Everyone called her Glo. Some of her grandchildren called her GoGo. Her full name was Gloria Masterson Richardson. She had more than her share of tragedy in her 90 years of earthly life, and yet she remained cussedly independent, no, obdurate, yet never lost her faith in Jesus Christ and herself, and kept her sense of humor, which was epic!  As she was going in and out of her dying she quipped to me over the phone which the good nurse held to her ear: “Better stick around for the damn carolers!” That was Glo. She was a poet, a mentor, a sister in faith, and my first official writing teacher, not to mention heavy duty cheerleader.   

Glo had three wishes she hoped would come true before she died:
    -that she would be able to attend her grandson’s wedding;
    - that she would live to see her dear friend Catherine admitted as a Companion to the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a “community of women, Christ's disciples, called by God to a life of prayer, transformation and reconciliation within ourselves, within our Companionship, within our faith communities, and within the whole creation” of which Glo was a member;   
    -that she would live to see her first book, a collection of her fine poetry, published.

All three happened—no miracle just the facts and lots of loving help . . .
    Glo attended the wedding in a beautiful blue dress, which Catherine helped her buy—a comic adventure that ended in beauty. (Where is the bathroom in a huge department store—ever?)
    Catherine McGeary was admitted as a Companion on September 16, 2016. 
    Glo’s book of poetry, Currents, was placed into her dying hands by Catherine less than 24 hours before she died. Did she know it? Dying or not, no one misses the feel of a first book.

Here is one of Glo’s poems—a prayer of wisdom and serenity and courage.
    by Gloria Masterson Richardson

Open my heart, Lord,
so that I can be strong enough,
brave enough to surrender
to your healing love.
When I cannot say the words,
speak for me;
cannot trust, hold me;
cannot cry, weep for me;
cannot help, reach out for me;
cannot see the path, light my way.

And here is a poem I wrote for her as she lay dying.

Helplessly Hopeful at 90
    by Lyn G. Brakeman

The old lady poet
—never a poetess—
is dying,
wasting away before my eyes
and ears,
her voice stiffens
her chuckle flutters
her cheeks sag and pouch
her faith mellows.
She is dimming—
only a poem brightens her day,
engages her mind
delights her soul—
a poem or heaven
the same to her.

“I’m just moving on through it,”
she tells me.
No not yet, I think, and cry.

If I were God I’d say to her:
Gloria, you are a poem


Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017.12.17 Little Things Can Be Big

Sometimes I say to myself: Lyn, bevel your edge!

What I mean is my critical edge. I can spoil the fun when I’m too serious for my own good or anyone else’s. Ask my sister. She is always excessively joyful and it bugs the bejesus out of me— sometimes, but not always. We joke and laugh about our edges and other things too fierce to mention. We have stopped saying: What’s wrong with you, or what what’s wrong with me? We are differently abled, as they love to say in the world of political correctness, but we have made a relationship of trust and mutuality that works. Not bad for intimate sibling enemies. It only took 75 years.

Still, I am naturally wired to look deep before I make any joy-leaps—wary. Christmas is the season of annoyingly excessive joy, and this Sunday is often but not always called Gaudete Sunday—designated for Joy. Some parishes signal Gaudete with a pink candle on the Advent wreath. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice. . .” (Philippians 4:4)

Joy is that anxious unsettling undefinable energy of anticipation. Something new will happen and it will be good—but not yet.  It’s very hard not to push the season.  Joy isn't happiness and no whoopee; rather it is deep within, nestled in the manger of every human heart. 

Recently I was in Harvard Square walking as I frequently do to get my hair cut for too much money, just because I so admire the owner who does hair and makes me look spiffy and massages my scalp with kind firm fingers.  

Because of a construction site walkers were diverted into a one-lane walkway. That’s when I encountered this beggar in his wheelchair. He wasn’t a new sight. I often give him a little money. He suffers from some crippling condition, possibly Cerebral Palsy. But on this day he, or someone of genius, has placed him directly in the path of the rush of oncoming pedestrians—a startling presence. 

He doesn’t walk or talk; he can only move one arm a bit. He is unattractive, overweight, unkempt, unshaven or badly shaven; his eyes seem a little crossed, but it’s hard to tell because his head stays drooped. He sits slumped in his chair in the same place along the sidewalk—omnipresent. He’s right in my path and I’m annoyed, in a hurry.

I open my wallet. He waits. I have forgotten to get change and have only two $20 bills. Damn!

“Well, look at that,” I say. “I don’t have any smaller bills so this is it for today.”  I retrieve a twenty and start to put it in his pouch. He spots the bill. He looks up. He grins from ear to ear, toothless as well. And then he speaks.

"Thank you, oh thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I say, or some such vapidity.  I want to move on. But no, he wants to talk.

“You know what I was just praying for?” I shake my head no. “I was just praying for snow” He laughs loudly. “Snow!”

To wish for snow would seem the least likely thing for an outdoor beggar to wish for, and yet the joke about wishing for snow is common. It’s a New England thing. The last thing we wants is SNOW, ever. He knows this and delights in his joke. I react with the horror that is expected. “Oh no, not snow!” 

He motions with his one good hand for me to bend towards him. I lean down. He motions me closer. I follow. He grabs onto my arm and pulls me even closer. I smell his stale breath. I recoil a little. Then he kisses my cheek. The kiss is wet, sloppy,  drooly, and wildly authentic—a tiny moment. As I leave him I tell him I say: “Stop praying for snow, Okay?”  I can still hear his chuckle.

As I walked on I wanted to wipe away the wet kiss using all the proper rationales. But I did not, could not, wipe away this kiss I neither deserved nor expected. I will never forget this little big thing.  

What I tell you happened just as I have said. I dare not say more. So: Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

2017.12.10 How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

"Sonnet 43: How do I love thee, let me count the ways" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Public domain.

“How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.”  This is an intimate marital joke. I invented it and it always makes us laugh. If we are in a snit about one thing or another, or even if only I am feeling impatient, largely because of something utterly inconsequential, such as he’s in my way as I traverse our small kitchen, I say: “How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.”

It’s impossible to laugh and snarl at the same time. The face won’t do it.

This is very far from romantic I know, but what is romance in 2017 in a world full of snark and public incivility even from the White House? Yet it is true that everyone has a love story—not always exotic but always authentic. 

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning fell in love, and poetry was their language. Browning wrote: ”I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett ... and I love you too." She wrote a long letter in return, thanking him and asking him for ways she might improve her writing. Barrett was an invalid, and was reliant on morphine, and it was some months before Browning convinced her to meet him face to face. Barrett's father didn't like Browning, and viewed him as a fortune hunter. Love and poetry prevailed and the couple eloped in 1846—off to Italy. Where else? Barrett never saw her father again.

Every love of any kind comes with its shadow. In spiritual terms, cross and cradle remain inseparable—not for doom but for truth. We all crave solution and resolution, and we sentimentalize love to rid it of fear. Every prophet in every religion fiercely cries out against falling in love with illusory glitter. Yet we do. So? God is still falling in love, still ready to elope, still ready to be born and to die. 

I offer this wisdom at all costs and anyway: Tell the bold, bare, fierce truth about hate and sin and rage and outrage. Then keep going. Be John the Baptist. Be Jesus. Be both. Go where the love is and invest with courage. So what if it can’t last or be perfect? Go for it anyway. God does.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

2017.12.03 Advent of Sexual Harassment?—Always in Season

In the midst of this avalanche of allegations about sexual harassment, I asked my beloved priest spouse: Have you ever sexually harassed anyone?

Answer: Besides you?

What I keep on recalling, not as excuse but as cultural history, is that sexual harassment has been acceptable behavior for centuries. It was almost expected, and both men and women learned to live with it, their roles and rules clear: men pinch and comment; women demure, blush and dodge.  Feelings about it weren’t important.

So had I ever been sexually harassed in my work place, which was in the church? That includes volunteer work.

Once a priest commented on the movement of my body as I turned the drum of one of those old mimeograph machines. He liked to watch it, my butt not the machine. God forbid, I was flattered. I also felt uncomfortable. That was mostly because I worried that my behind was too fat or too flat, or whatever other idiotic body judgment I imposed on my body. Really? Yes.

What I experienced a lot was something I’d call attitudinal harassment. A bishop once towered over me and queried: “And WHO will take care of the children?” It wasn’t exactly harassment but it was shriveling and left little room for my perspective, let alone my answer. His assumption was that I couldn’t leave home. Mine was that my children would benefit from less not more parenting as they grew.  

My role in the church was limited to set up, clean up, ogle the altar, and in time, administer the chalice at the communion rail (a much trickier maneuver than passing out the bread/wafer), read from scripture on a Sunday, and serve on the vestry. I shoved my way along toward more and more leadership roles, ending up as Dean of our regional deanery, until finally the Church voted in 1976 that women could be ordained priests. Full acceptance of women in leadership is a work-in-progress.

Context is important—always. Some of this ongoing mess we’re in is a matter of interpretation, according to different times and different circumstances…and just plain evolution. My dad, for example, was a “mad man” in the 1950s. He had an affair with his secretary. Maybe more, though he was penitent and confessed his dalliance to my mother. What startled me most was that she told us daughters about it. Was that hostile? To whom?

In high school in a Connecticut shore town famous for gentlemen’s agreements (antisemitism in real estate, Christian/white elitism), I observed that lots of flirting went on amidst the cocktail party set. My mother wasn’t innocent. I learned from her that flirting was power—dangerous power. But my mother flirted with style. Is flirting sexual harassment of a sort?  What about flirting in the work place?

But these were the rules back then in the 1950s: men got handsy not just at parties but in work places. Women were supposed to overlook it or find clever ways to avoid office rape. It was a predator/prey culture, the assumption being that boys and men couldn’t help it—all that testosterone you know. Women had to work around it. These have been the rules over centuries, and they remained the rules.

Until 2017?  Well, we’ll see.

The point I want to make is that I still loved my dad and saw other good things in him. He never sexually harassed me with comments or looks. I felt proud when he retired early because advertising was becoming unethical, he thought ie. false advertising.

Plenty of great artists (Picasso for one, Woody Allen for another) have treated women in abusive exploitive ways. Does that discredit their art, their gifts?  How do we separate and sift all this while at the same time reshaping our collective mores/morality for the common good? Gawd, look at most all our presidents! Not to mention many saints and bishops!! Does their behavior toward women discredit their skills and accomplishment?

I’m a big-picture, person, for better or worse, so I see that it is increasingly incumbent on ALL of us to work together to end the abuses across the board born within a deeply entrenched, centuries-old patriarchal system of social organization. What was overlooked by everyone, men and women alike, really is now impossible to overlook. Or is it? American politics, religion, economics, morality across the boards, has been corrupted/contaminated by a silent consensus to ignore or deny unconscionable behaviors. Most painful to me is the fact that all this has as its underpinning the strong belief that women are not people, I mean not really people! 

To speak theologically, which I can’t resist: Sin is a condition that develops when anyone or ones become disconnected from the goodness in themselves, God, and their neighbors. And there you have it. Sin is always in our reach, which is why the system murdered Jesus for not recanting his politics and his image of God rich in compassion for the poor, the sick, the needful, the preyed upon, the underbelly of society—and women. Sin is endemic and inevitable, which is why all of us need to try to be Christ-like, to understand what that means, and to remember that every week in Eucharist we are re-Christified.

Will it be different now, or is it really going to be different now with all the latest revelations and fierce confessions?  I hope so. I pray so. You know my death throes of patriarchy theory. Godde knows!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

2017.11.26 Thanksgiving—A Love Sabbatical

On Thanksgiving day this year we celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary. That’s not such a big deal, but it’s not bad mileage for a second marriage, or for two Leos living under one roof roaring.

Today is Christ in Majesty (aka Christ the King, but that's too limiting) Sunday. We were married on this Sunday in our parish church during the Eucharistic liturgy, November 23, 1986.

We celebrate our anniversary and Thanksgiving every year in southern Maine. But isn’t that family time? Yes, and the gift we chose to give ourselves was some time just for us—time away from professional duties, home, and yes, from our very large extended blended exuberant family. 

Yes, we miss them, and yes we love them all. And yes, we always call them all. And yes we (I) have felt guilty. They in turn are relieved of having to manage the holiday to include one more family— besides their own, their in-laws’ and that of former spouses, not to mention any aunts, uncles or cousins— in the Thanksgiving rituals.

To ease my guilt about breaking tradition, being selfish or abandoning, or thusly accused, I told myself for years that it was good for our progeny that they didn’t have to worry about us—including us, or not, or where. Thanksgiving after all is only one day, not an easily moveable feast. That was my assumption, not necessarily their desire or convenience.

But this year I tell the truth without excuses. This love sabbatical from the beginning has been our choice, a mutual choice made, only in part to escape family chaos, but mostly for our own benefit. Oh, yes, we are retired now. And yes, we aren’t living geographically on top of most of our offspring. And yes, we are able to see some old friends living in Maine. And no, this isn’t where we honeymooned. And no, this sojourn is not a glamorous vacation or getaway. Our choice has little to do with these factors.

So why do we do this?

We do it because we like coastal Maine and wintry sea, and the little humble unglamorous Seaside Inn bed-and-breakfast with large rooms and teeny bathrooms, we have stayed at for years. We do it for quiet, to catch up on reading, to avoid the temptation of over-checking emails, texts, phone calls. We do it for memories. Mostly—truly, deeply, really— we do it for love. We do it so we can enjoy each other’s company—just the two of us. We do it so we can stay in love. I am grateful we have enough health and resources to nourish our love and marriage this way.

As always the poet best captures the value, both ultimate and temporal, of love.


That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived - Enough -
That I shall love alway -
I argue thee
That love is life -
And life hath Immortality -
This - dost thou doubt - Sweet -
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary -
        Emily Dickinson

Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017.11.19 The Music of Noble Grief Untold

Here's a small inside story, lean but robust. It’s about a saxophone player, the father of a little six year old girl named Ana. It’s about another father who has two daughters—and very long arms. The saxophonist is Jimmy Green. The man with long arms is President Barack Obama.

The public facts to this story most Americans know and remember with varying degrees of shiver and sorrow. On December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, twenty small children and six staff were murdered —mercilessly, without warning, and arbitrarily— mowed down by a gunman with a rifle.

When I heard about this massacre my first reaction was similar to my reaction when I first heard about the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York: “Come on!” I laughed, as if such things happened regularly—and never. I could access neither fact nor feeling—for days. After the Newtown tragedy, President Obama addressed the nation—with tears and grace— at a memorial gathering. Only then could I cry and, oddly, relax.

President Obama flew right away that same day to Newtown, to the school. This is the duty of a president, the letter of the law one could say. The spirit of that “law” revealed a man’s heart. President Obama is a man who is able to govern and to weep, to take authority and to let his heart break visibly, to wage war and to make peace. On occasion politicians can be heroes.

Joshua Dubois (b.1982) head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Executive Office of the President of the United States from 2009 to 2013, wrote about that day in “The President’s Devotional: ‘What Obama Did In Secret In Newtown.”  The staff coordinated details, but the president did the difficult pastoral work. The families gathered in classrooms. The president, briefed on names, moved unhurriedly from room to room. He gave each person a hug and asked “Tell me about your son, or daughter.” He looked at and held photos of every dead child. He listened to descriptions of favorite foods, television shows, the sound of the child’s laughter. Younger siblings were tossed in the air, laughing, and then received a box of White House M&Ms. Who knew there was such a thing?

“In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break,” Dubois wrote. Some small measure of love was given to every single bereaved family member: “The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.”  Over and over, for hours.
How can one sustain such authentic tenderness over an extended time—knowing that no amount of comfort or prayer, even from a president, even from God, could be adequate consolation?

According to Dubois, President Obama never spoke about these meetings. “He was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself—never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.”

What is not so public is that Obama went to Newtown a second time, just months after the tragedy, to visit the families in their own homes. I am privileged to know some of one of those visits: the one made to Jimmy Green the professional saxophonist and his wife. 

Think of a saxophone and its sound. Is it not the most lugubrious? Although usually associated with jazz, the saxophone can wail out the mourning night—a long sound, the sound of grieving parents, the eternal sound of God’s grief.

Jimmy Green was in Rockport, Massachusetts last summer as a visiting artist for the Rockport Music Association’s Jazz Camp, an educational jazz program for children.
                                     (Green with his saxophone.) 
A good friend of mine hosted Green and asked him, naturally, about his children. She was taken aback first  to hear that he was the father of a six year old girl named Ana who was murdered in Newtown. Ana, he said, loved music and dance, and she loved to love. Here she dances with her daddy.
About Obama, Green said,  “I knew the guy was tall, but I didn’t realize he had such long arms. He just sat with us (Green and his wife) on the couch and held us both together.”

Grief requires a long reach, a reach only heroes can summon. Heroes are people who do good anytime anyhow.  It is particularly hard for very public people—people who have to be constantly conscious of themselves…like being on camera 24/7— to be heroes of this kind. That takes courage, not just feelings, and not simply military action. Heroes touch the heart of God. Heroes keep us alive and wanting to live.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

2017.11.12 Green Eggs and Ham

Dear Doctor Seuss,

Today I craved eggs for some odd reason. There was no time to make them before breakfast or after church either, but I could eat them anywhere.

Our parish had a church harvest fair. There we sold a Cook Book, among other items. I had stolen recipes about your green eggs and ham from all over and one got into the cookbook. It's nothing compared to the marvelous recipes therein and all for the love of God—as is your prose poetry. Thanks.

I would eat this in a plane, I would eat this in the rain. I would eat this here or there, I would eat this anywhere. I do so like green eggs and ham I do so like it Sam I am!


2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 thin ham steaks, quartered
10 large eggs
3 tablespoons whole milk
1/4 cup store-bought pesto
1 cup fresh cut asparagus
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese


    1.    Set a large non-stick skillet over medium heat with 1 tablespoon butter. Once melted, add the ham pieces and cook until browned on each side, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
    2.    In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and most of the pesto (leave about 2 tablespoons out). Set aside. Wipe out the skillet and add the remaining butter. Once melted throw in the asparagus. Cook until the asparagus is soft and tender, about 4 minutes.
    3.    Add the whisked pesto eggs to the hot skillet and cook until soft scrambled. Add the cheese and cook until the eggs are somewhat firm and the cheese has melted. Serve by placing a few slices of ham on each plate and then adding a few spoonfuls of egg on top. Garnish with a bit of the reserved pesto on each. Cook 25 minutes.

If I were you here’s what I’d do. I’d sneak in green is what I’d do. I love the eggs but only green.
I add green dye behind cook’s eye. I do so like my green eggs green with ham—like Sam I am.

Submitted in praise of Dr. Seuss, the late Theodore Geisel (1904-1981) by Priest Associate—
irreverent Rev. Lyn who so likes green eggs and tells secrets for Seuss who pronounces it Zoice—       a remarkable voice.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

2017.11.05 Paschal Symbol

What does this magnificent and majestic tall red sculpture look like to you?

It looks like a massive candle holder without a candle. It stands well over six feet tall and is rubber—not very romantic. [Colorful polymer cast rubber molded from stacked architectural elements, balusters, finials and monumental urns.] I was mesmerized.

The Boston-based sculptor Niho Kozuru, born in 1968 in Fukuoka, Japan, calls this piece Rising Column. I first saw it and photographed it at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusett
As I contemplated this vibrant work of art near a window I saw light shining through it. I thought it was reflecting the sunlight, but read that the rubber substance is, in fact, translucent, and was chosen by the artist for that quality.  

Of course I projected Resurrection onto the rising column—the simple yet mysterious idea that God is unconditional Love that lives forever. We see resurrection when it shines through us. I don’t believe this just because I was taught to, or because it makes sense, because it doesn’t make sense.

I see resurrection when it shines through something common—nature’s bloom, new ideas, extraneous acts of kindness, children at play, transcendent music, art, and words of poetry and prose. For something to signal resurrection to me it must lift my soul in surprise recognition of Life even where it might not belong—like in death, dying, sin, suffering or evil.

On All Saint’s Day (November 1) Christians let resurrection light shine through the dead we no longer see but sense and through the embodied living we do see, touch, hear and applaud, mostly through infants whom we baptize into the life and death of Christ. Nonsensically, we do this all in one breath. On this day, other feast days, and through the fifty days of Easter we light a paschal (Easter) candle—a resurrection light.
Most paschal candles would be dwarfed by Kozuru’s Rising Column. Wouldn’t it be splendid to have a huge symbol of resurrection in our midst all the time?  We’d never forget resurrection life. We can’t afford such grandeur, of course, but we can’t afford to forget resurrection either.

It is my intuition that the Christian church has devoted some fifty years of energy making sure the Eucharist returns to the center of our Sunday liturgy. The altar and the lectern are the upfront focuses, well dressed and lit. Everyone looks to these. Less so the font. I'd like to visually beef up baptism and the font? 

Eucharist and Baptism are the two sacraments Jesus ordained when he was alive, according to New Testament  recollections. Baptism ushers one into the faith of Christ, and Eucharist provides regular nourishment and strength for being a Christian: practicing the faith OF Jesus—not at all the same as belief IN Jesus. When you practice the faith OF Jesus, light shines through you.

Wouldn’t it be fine to have a paschal candle stand more prominent—one so big and central you couldn’t miss it, lit or unlit?  So big you can’t forget you are Christian—sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever— and what a huge gift that is.

I wish many things all the time, and pray for at least half of them half the time. Some come true. 

When I saw this enormous sculpture my heart leapt and said, YES. Its towering red magnificence announced to me the presence of God. Just the sight of it knocked my socks off, jarred me into remembering my baptismal promises and how I will keep them—every day as my baptismal day. 

I need jarring. Therefore, my humble photo will now live on my home altar. It gives me hope.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

2017.10.29 Extraneously Deliberate Kindness Transforms Hearts

Who is a hero?

One hot day in the South African township of Sophiatown, a little boy about nine years old accompanied his mother, a domestic worker at an institution for blind black people, to work.
The boy played as his mother worked. He looked up as a very tall white man in a long black cassock and white clerical collar passed by. The man smiled, nodded, and tipped his hat toward the boy’s mother as he passed by. The boy never forgot this small simple gesture of  respect, courtesy—and kindness— from an important white man toward his black mother in a country ruled by a policy of apartheid. It changed him—inside and out.

His name was Desmond Tutu. Tutu grew up nurturing this memory in his heart. Today, Tutu, retired Anglican Archbishop of Capetown in South Africa, and facilitator of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with hearing the stories of victims and perpetrators of apartheid. Truth is never free unless it is accompanied by reconciliation; reconciliation is never accomplished without truth on all sides. The process took courage.
“It was really quite odd,” Tutu said in an interview, “this white man lifting his hat to my mother, a black woman domestic uneducated. There's no telling what things do for one’s self esteem, but this man’s influence on me and others was quite phenomenal.”  Later Tutu developed tuberculosis and this same man visited him in the hospital where he was for twenty months. “He visited me, a township urchin.”

Ironically I suppose, Tutu grew up to be more famous than the man who tipped his hat. Tutu was inspired to take his Christian faith into prophetic action from a position of leadership. He accomplished what the man who tipped his hat had worked hard for all his life. 

That man was Anglican Archbishop Trevor Huddleston (1913-1988). He was born in Bedford England and joined the Anglican religious order, the Community of the Resurrection in 1939, taking final vows in 1941.

Huddleston went to serve a mission station in Sophiatown, Johannesburg in 1940. He stayed for thirteen years. He was a beloved priest, lover of children, and anti-apartheid activist. The Africans nicknamed him Makhalipile which means “the dauntless one.” Huddleston preached and fought tirelessly against the enslaving policies of apartheid and became president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1981.
Tutu has said of Huddleston: “He was an enormous thorn in the side of the apartheid regime. He did more to keep apartheid on the world’s agenda than anyone.” Huddleston and Tutu rejoice, below.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) first president of the united nation of South Africa has said of Huddleston: “No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston.” Mandela and Huddleston join hands, below.
Who is a hero?  Anyone who speaks and acts with courage. Courage comes from the Latin word for heart, cor. 

Most of us think of courage as fighting against enemies for a cause, like war heroes. We have an overblown idea of what is heroic, based on our own grandiose ego projections. We envision bloody martyrs and lots of praise, maybe a medal. Maybe, but not always. Think of Huddleston’s hat.

In addition, real war heroes who listen to their hearts, let their hearts become their “weapons." Real heroes may shoot guns like mad, pumped by fear, but the heart-heroes risk their lives not for a cause or to win, or kill, but for one friend who is wounded and needs to be dragged away to safety.

Heroes are instinctively, deliberately, courageously, even extraneously kind. “Battlefields” can be city streets, town halls, voting booths, altars, pulpits, prison cells, crucifixion crosses, church basements, hospitals, monastic cells—a single humble soul. Heroes love with heart.

Huddleston’s prayer for Africa. 
    God bless Africa.
    Guard her people.
    Guide her leaders.
    And give her peace. 

Use this prayer with heart and courage wherever it's needed, with God's help.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

2017.10.22 Battle of the Sexes

Dick and I just saw the film, “The Battle of the Sexes” about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, 29, played by Emma Stone, and Bobbie Riggs, 55, played by Steve Carell. Besides good tennis, the film captured the essence of male/female issues back then—and sadly unresolved today.  Here are Stone and Carell facing off. These actors look amazingly like King and Riggs.
We sat alone—one woman and one man in the darkened theater munching our popcorn—the only two people breathing except the onscreen actors. I was rapt, thrilled. I loved and played tennis—with enough zeal once to cheat: my racket ticked the net which was illegal, and I didn’t tell, a sin of shame worthy of much confession later, but right then, I was too exhausted not to win that match. 

Watching the film, I relived both my old tennis joy and my excitement about the 1970s feminist explosion. In 1973 I too was dreaming of changing the world, or at least the church. Priests were white, male, and in charge of altars and pulpits. Women were in charge of the kitchen and the sacristy.

When Billie Jean King was twelve she had an epiphany: everything in tennis was white—socks, clothes, balls, and players. For King this meant that if she were good enough at her sport she could help change the world, not just her sport. She did both, playing with all her strength to win against a single opponent—and against sexism, racism, ableism, and heterosexism.

Epiphanies open our eyes and hearts and catapult us beyond our narrow little worlds.

When I was twelve I too had an epiphany: my new suburban public junior high school was overrun with boys who seemed to multiply on demand—loud teasing, testing their testosterone  prowess. I’d come from an all-girls’ school and I suddenly felt pathologically shy, short, dumb, boobless, and female. School had been my “sport,” but I couldn’t get good enough at it to change the world, because school had become a boy’s kingdom. Soon I switched “sports” to play for God’s putative kingdom, the earthly version of which was also a “boy’s” kingdom. I thought, nevertheless, that I had a better chance of changing that kingdom because of its divine imprimatur, not to mention the biblical idea that God created everyone in God’s own image, not just boys. 

My grim epiphany in school and church wasn’t far from what King ran into as an adult. She excelled in her sport and tried to change the tennis world—a kingdom for men. Women played in their own tournaments, but they were not paid as much as men in money or recognition.  So King and other women started a “league of their own” lobbying for equal pay for equal work on the courts. King and her women arranged boycotts, hired a fashion designer to create their own tennis outfits, promoted their cause, and made a public scene. King lost her membership in the professional lawn tennis association, and earned the scorn not only of  her male counterparts— players, managers and commentators—but of a whole patriarchal world. She also gained the respect of many women in waiting. She modeled fierce determination.
The publicity awakened the ego of tennis champion Bobbie Riggs, retired from tennis but not from his ego needs or his gambling addiction. Riggs, filled with delusional grandiosity, taunted King and challenged her to a three set match with outrageously high stakes.
Philip Morris paid big bucks to sponsor a tour for the non-smoking women and their cause—a touch of risky irony.

The emotional drama this film portrays is what happened inside these two flawed and gifted individuals, battered by unjust American societal expectations imposed from without on both sexes—both.

The grace of this movie is that it has the courage to portray the truth in good taste. Both players were transformed—not by winning or losing one match—but by inner courage for King and inner humility for Riggs.
Today, King, now in her early 70s, in an interview in the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine, 9/17/17, said that she believes that a lot of advances have been made in social acceptance of the GLBT community. “We still have a long way to go, and I think we’re starting to go backward a bit, especially with the ban on trans people in the armed forces. We have to keep pushing. We have to have equality in every way. Everyone deserves to belong.”

That is what she did for tennis, for me, and I’d say for the earthly kingdom of God as well—maybe even the heavenly one too.  She still wears her signature glasses. She is a champion of justice for all of us in bright red, pink, or blue glasses.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

2017.10.15 Generational Threats and Immanent Hope

Every generation’s endangerments are equally threatening and of equal concern. I am suggesting that the way each generation manages threats has much to do with human ingenuity AND with that generation’s spirituality: how do they understand God/Godde/Higher Power/Allah/YHWH and themselves in relation to God?

I am positing that errant ideas about divine power contribute to disabling despair in the face of many threats.

There has been a significant spike in anxiety disorders (anxiety that is omnipresent, irrational, and paralyzing) in American teenagers since 2011. There have always been anxious kids. Why the uptick? It is not only about cultural performance pressure or national politics, and not simply about parental dysfunction, even over-parenting anxious parents. The two factors cited as most responsible for this anxiety are Facebook and Instagram. (See NY Times Sunday Magazine, 10/15/17 “The Kids Who Can’t’” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis)  Fear of cyber-bullying and public exposure is chronic.

There are few things as contagious as anxiety gone viral. And if there is anything an adolescent needs it is safe space—both socially and within oneself.

Is my school safe? What about the building where my parents work? Can I go to a movie without being shot or bombed? Is my neighbor secretly insane? Even a church isn’t always safe, and besides they’re locked! Can I trust that there is a God who cares and saves as I learned, or who even exists? Jesus didn’t do that hot.

Not feeling safe in your own skin is crippling. There are many good treatments and schools are getting on board. My focus is spiritual. What has happened to the immanence of God?  Has it been hijacked by overemphasis on a transcendent deity?

I believe that self-knowledge and God-knowledge are correlative, and that if there is divine power by whatever name, then God works from deep within the soul of all living matter—like a deep tissue massage—to bring forth life—even in death. The process seems to me to be akin to the way the biblical Genesis describes the creation process in which every living thing is intimately connected within the image and likeness of God by whatever name. One-time Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881-1944) wrote about this interweave, calling it the immanence of the transcendent.

Studies show that millennials and young adults long for quiet contemplative spaces in which they can, yes, escape the frantic pace of the culture, but also experience a non-threatening embracing Immanence. This could happen in designated religious spaces or not. Writer Pico Iyer seeks out chapels. “Chapels are where you can hear something beating below your heart.” This kind of spiritual experience happens mostly in solitude when one is free to be in touch with deep personal truth within the Presence of Loving/Listening Immanence.

Too much silence and solitude however can enable anxiety. Anxious teens often make bed their “chapel.”  That’s just isolation. But what if kids felt less alone because God was there—everywhere?

Why can’t we go public with this theology? Why don’t religions teach it more? To do so we’d have to change our ways—our public worship and language. Religions would have to talk, pray, sing, and ritualize Immanence more consciously and conscientiously.

Would more people attend public worship if the theology of immanence were proclaimed?  Though changes have happened in thought and language, and individual writers and speakers have made superb efforts to re-imagine the image of God with gender-neutral language, God in our liturgies remains trapped in transcendence, aka masculine omnipotence. Trickle-down theology apparently doesn’t work any better than trickle-down economics did.

When I pray with people in need I pray that God will be a spirit of strength, healing, courage, peace within them. This kind of inner divinity, believe me, is as “almighty” as the one we address most often in public prayers as “Almighty God . . .”

I don’t want to rob people of reverence and awe. I do wonder, however, if it is possible sometimes to feel those stunning feelings when the proverbial “sunrise” is not the object of your gaze, but instead your own inner power is.

I once felt a power surge of Immanence when I confronted a bishop to argue my case for ordination to the priesthood, which he was not disposed so to do for many reasons. I wanted to run but spoke out over my anxiety anyway. This was a very strong experience. I felt it was  me and God inside me together. Most of the time one feels this power more gently but just as firmly. It’s not magic it’s just God within.

A common theological god-idea is exemplified in this quote from a Boston Globe article (8.9.16) about a novel cancer treatment from Cuba. A U.S. patient discovered the drug, sought it out at great cost, and bought himself some time. His doctors here were flabbergasted and are now at work to test the new medication.  A U.S. oncologist said: “Outside of divine intervention this guy shouldn’t be living right now. If you believe in God it’s God. If you believe in science it’s CimaVax [the cancer drug in question].”

It’s not either/or. This healing could be God Immanent at work from within science, medicine, and the ailing patient himself.

Anxious teens learn strategies to combat their fears with good psychological support. Along with therapy and medication, a balanced theology of immanence helps overcome despair with hope, anxiety with action—one dash at a time. We just have to let it be known.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

2017.10.08 Clarity of Voice and Action

When news of extreme violence such as the recent massacre in Las Vegas goes viral we all cringe and crouch and feel horrified—and if we’re religious we pray. 

Christians try to do what we see in the life of Jesus the Christ as remembered by the writers of scripture. There is a time to let go and move on, to wipe the dust from our feet, a time to grieve, as in Gethsemane, a time for strong action like asserting God’s agenda in the Temple, and a time for prayer—all the time without ceasing.

What response is called for at this time?

May we suggest that now is not the time to flee or fear or freak, or even to let go and let God. There is reason to fear but no reason to hide. This is no time to indulge the greatest temptation of all: to huddle together inside the precincts of our own prized safety and wrap up in the warmth of community. Parish churches are often guilty of this behavior. Even the disciples ran for cover when their leader was violently executed, their world collapsed, and they were frightened. Such a response to violence is understandable, and for them it was in their “back yard”.

And today? Spiritual responsiveness knows no geography. We pray for all these things. Do we have the right to pray for what we are not willing to work for?

The Church too regularly falls into the sin of self-idolatry. It is hubris in this age to ignore global reality and needs. It is irrational to believe that all we have to do for God is be warm and friendly and take care of the gifts God has given us with responsible stewardship. In a word, there is imbalance between community outreach and community in-reach.

Are we called to correct this imbalance?

In-reach is spiritual consolation and nurture, yes. Outreach is noisy and unsettling.  It involves clarity of voice and action like Jesus took in the Temple, which had abdicated its role as a house of prayer, a place revealing the justice and compassion of God. Jesus acted on behalf of God and the people exploited by unjust social, political, economic, and religious practices. Such practices do as much violence to the will of God as does a hurricane or a deranged individual with an assault weapon he owned by right.  

We are a House of Prayer just like the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. What action do we create?

What about a Revolution of Compassion for the sake of God and our common humanity exercised by our clarity of voice?

A few suggestions:
    - Write and call your Senators and members of Congress, beseeching them to relinquish their own “warfare” and miserable inaction for God’s sake if not for our common humanity.
    - Lobby for legislation toward regulating gun violence.
    - Give money or volunteer for any cause that works to end political, economic, and social inequality. It’s the gospel! 
    - Educate yourself as a way to eliminate the pervasive ignorance about mental illness, addictions, and other causal factors behind eruptions of violence.
    - Remove the cliché “thoughts and prayers” from your vocabulary. It has become empty of meaning—a justification for inaction. Members of Congress Seth Moulton and the recently injured Steve Scalise criticized the traditional  “moments of silence”.
    - Exaggerate kindness and smiling, even to strangers on the street. Such energy raises hope and it spreads.
    - Give money to beggars. You don’t know why they are out there, so make no assumptions or judgments and risk generosity with a smile. You notice they usually bless you. Bless them back.Today we gave away $20 in fives just in Harvard Square. It is passive violence not to help when you can and where there is need.
    - Pray out loud in church. We offer Prayers of the People every Sunday and everyone is silent, lost in a sea of words. God hears your silent prayers, but the community does not. Speak up. You don’t have to shout. A prayer is not an announcement. Here’s one way to practice clarity of voice.
    - Love the earth. Never throw anything away that can be recycled.
    - Get to know your personal image of God. A religious sister recently said: “We are killing God faster than we are killing each other.” Think about it.
    - Disturb the peace peacefully.
    - Pray daily for your personal needs and equally for the world beyond yourself.
    - Vote for a candidate not a party.

From Sister Stanislaus Kennedy of the Irish Sisters of Charity in her book of daily meditations Gardening the Soul:

“Many of us are taught about God rather than encouraged to know God. We are like children who have been separated from their parents at a very young age and whose only knowledge of them has come from photo albums and stories. Our alienation from God is a deeply felt deprivation, but often it is a misunderstood deprivation—deprived people do not know what they are deprived of, because they have never known or been helped to know God, who is the Divine in them.”   (October 3rd entry)

Dear friends in Christ, Jesus asked and prayed for the people of his day to help him spread the Embodiment of Love he called God, the Divine in us all. The Risen Christ asks and prays the same for us today. We too pray and ask the same.  May we be the prayers we pray.

© 2017 The Rev’d Lyn G. Brakeman and the Rev’d Richard J. Simeone
Priest Associates, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Charlestown, Massachusetts

Sunday, October 1, 2017

2017.10.01 A Turnaround—A "Baby" Found

I’m recently home from Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY where Dick and I led a retreat on my pet passion and peeve: the inadequacy of theological language as we use it to define—confine—the image of God.

Attendance was dismally small (6) and the participants were all superbly introverted. No one disagreed with the language inadequacy issue though. So what’s not to like? Nothing!  

After the second day we felt discouraged however, because the solution that presented itself as the most attractive to resolve disgruntlement with a sexist institution was to jump ship ie. leave the church. Negativity was up and tolerance was weak. Most felt conflicted.

We had provided some resources and some explanations. It was clear that everyone had come to this retreat seeking hope. No one wanted to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The question loomed large: What is the “baby” you do not want to throw out?

The morning of the final day of retreat and our last group meeting, I woke up, turned to Dick and announced: “It’s a bomb!”  He replied: “Let me wake up first, for god’s sake.” 

Just like the biblical Jacob, lying on his stone pillow dreaming of hope, restless, and later engaging in a wrestling match in the dark with the invisible “man-angel” in whom he recognized God, our retreatants wrestled through the night.  Each one lost sleep. Each one seriously contended with her or his doubts and sought right words.
Isn’t this how it happened for the early Christ-followers?  

A whole lot of wrestling with theological concepts and finding the best words to make them intelligible to the average faith-seeker, was the rule of the day for the early Church as it struggled to get established, even institutionalized. Even people on the street and in markets were wondering and gossiping about the nature of Christ. Imagine!! Everyone felt desire. Everyone groped for clarity. Is it really so different today?

Faith happens in the dark.

In the morning our group met for our last time. One member had to leave to be with her sick husband. I was prepared to throw more consoling crap around. Instead we listened—and probably threw out a few prayers like yikes and help.

Someone arose early and wrote—in purple— on our newsprint:
       “The glory of God is the human person fully alive!!” 

Irenaeus of Lyons, a bishop of the church, had said this. A trip to the library revealed that Irenaeus said this in the second century, not the 13th, as this person supposed. “That long ago he summed up what we are saying in this retreat.”

Someone else snuck down to the fruit baskets in the night to get a banana for nourishment before sitting down to wrestle with the Nicene Creed. By morning a personal creed had been written. “At least I know exactly what I believe!”  This kind of activity gives one a strong spiritual anchor to overcome temptations to obsess about things one does not believe any more.

Another retreatant went to the official Episcopal Church website and discovered, with amazement, that the institution she found so offensively sexist was actually wrestling with the same issues as we were. "The institution cares about what I care about."
And one remembered words a cursillo friend once said: “Look into my eyes so I can see Christ in yours.” These unforgettable words came from someone whose Christian language system was so utterly different it threatened to interfere with the relationship. “Our language is so different, yet I knew he really cared about me.”

There were no clichés, no blue ribbon packaged solutions, no perfect clarity, just openings. Wow!

The Spirit came through and gave birth to some “babies” for these night wrestlers. It made us both very happy. See?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017.09.24 I'M THE FAVORITE!

With the innocent arrogance of a small child chatting away to God under a table I imagined myself to be God’s favorite, then spent much of my life trying to undo my shameful fantasy.

According to everything I heard in church about Jesus Christ being, not only the single favorite but the most beloved favorite of God, my inflated spirituality was errant, impious—and worse misgendered. I was proud, sinful, and a girl!!

Over time of course I’ve forgiven myself, know God forgives me, and have fallen in love with this Christ. Still, the melody of my original “sin” lingers on.

However, today in tiny Christ Episcopal Church, Bethel, Vermont, I heard this Word in a sermon delivered by my cousin, the Rev’d David Gillespie who boomed:

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

This message was, for me, the punch line in the sermon on one of Jesus’s most difficult and contrary parables—the laborers in the vineyard. The owner of the vineyard, meant to be an image of God, paid ALL the laborers the exact same wage. Fine and fair, right? Here’s the hitch, as there usually is in Jesus’s parables: some laborers worked the whole darn day and some only labored for the last half hour of the day—ALL for the same wage. So much for the equal pay for equal work ethic I so love, given my feminism. God in this story, however, is unjust and appears to play favorites.

But  Lo! I recognized the God I’d met as a child, the God who’d let me know I mattered. Me, a girl!  I felt as if I were right back under that table as God’s favorite. But this time I wasn’t
God’s one and only favorite. I had to share that status with everyone, just as Jesus did. This was not my idea, but God’s.

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

David opened with distress at all the crises of human suffering affecting our nation, some caused by humans. “It shocks me that we humans adapt to dangerous environments, both natural and political. This has us accepting hateful standards for living. The slow creep of hate is enveloping us. We are lulled into complacency.”

Then, with great skill David unpacked all the usual protestations about the world’s ills and sufferings being God’s fault or idea or desire. He left all these platitudes empty of their force. God does not desire, cause, or prevent the world’s sufferings. God only responds to them with compassion. This was my experience as a child and continues to be my faith, as I am able.

Yet today this message meant more to me, because it was delivered by my first cousin David Gillespie—not just any old preacher, but my very own cousin, only once removed. The personal connection made the gospel message intimate—not more true but more intimate.

Thanks to the ministrations of a good friend with a home in Vermont, I connected  years ago with David  and his beautifully feminist wife Jo. David is dear because he is my dad’s first cousin, but just being a relative isn’t enough. David is a Gillespie. I too am a Gillespie. Not all of us are extroverts like David—myself and his wife Jo, for example. But we share the family charism—vainglory charged by big-heartedness. And we marry in kind. 

This photo is David and Jo with my extroverted spouse Dick Simeone and me behind, all of us in front of the Restrooms sign. No messages at all in that!

                                 WE ALL ARE GOD’S FAVORITES!!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

2017.09.17 Holy Cross Monastery Retreat

A lot of funny stuff can happen under the sign of the Cross.

We, Dick and I, have just spent six days on retreat—and on the seventh day we do not rest, but drive home, chatting and full of unquiet zeal. 

The rhythm of retreat is sturdy and steady: eat, pray, sleep, pray, love, pray, laugh, pray, eat some more. There were three groups meeting with different focuses. Ours was on theological language, my pet peeve and passion. We all, monks and guests alike, are our prayer to God.

 Communal prayer is so regular it heals spiritual atrial fibrillation and provides rhythm—a beat to match each heart’s, no matter how erratic, unsteady, or broken. It’s astounding how the regular marking of time makes time seem shorter. I always plan to catch up on my reading, yet— mysteriously— there’s so much time there’s not enough time.

Prayers in the chapel are not compulsory for guests. No one has to go to prayer or pray. It is, however, a bit hard to abstain, because the chapel bell gongs—more than once— ten minutes before each prayer time: Matins, 7 am, Eucharist, 9 am, Diurnum, noon, Vespers, 5pm, Compline, 8.  The bell tones are beautiful and dutiful. The bell tolls for me and thee. So I go.

You’d think that, being drenched in so much piety, these brothers would be stern and boring and stiff. You’d think that so many aging voices would be off key or cracked. You’d think you’d fall asleep to the lull of so much chanting. But these monks are alive, happy monks—ready and able to grin, crack jokes, laugh, and sing with gusto for deep joy, even in silence—even in prayer. 

Everything here, including the majestic strip of the Hudson River at the foot of the long green hill on which the monastery is perched, is an invitation to love God more deeply— and yourself in God.

Here’s how they let you know there’s no smoking:

Then there’s always plenty of another substance available on tap as advertised:

These signs are calligraphed by the Rev. Roy Parker, OHC. Each is framed and hung on the wall heading toward the chapel. They are funny. My heart can’t help but be lifted, my cup filled to the brim, my soul drenched in the generous faithfulness of God.

As we prepared to leave we felt a gentle sadness. While waiting for the vintage monastery elevator, really a single person lift, we chatted with a black woman here for a visit with a group from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  She said: “I'm always a bit sad when I leave. I love this place. I’ve told the brothers that I want to be one of them. That’s been my prayer for years. So far though, they haven't figured it out, and I’m running out of time.”  

A retreatant in our group summed up the charism of this community, using ancient words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, second-century bishop in the early Church. “Long ago someone, even a bishop or other, was saying just what we are doing today."

The oft forgotten second half of Irenaeus's famous quote is: "and the glory of the person is the contemplation of God."

In cas you think that being drenched in holy prayer is easy, it is. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

2017.09.10 On Change—A Wee Parable

In between aimless transportations of soul— letting myself get lost in the vast expanse of sea, sky, and white sparkling sand of summer— I ground myself in reading. I’ve been reading Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. It is structured in short chapters organized to present, one by one, the story of all the world's religions in historical order. How little I knew. My favorite chapter is our Anglican one of course, “The Middle Way”—how England’s church reorganized itself after the Reformation.

Holloway, former primus of the Church of Scotland now retired and admittedly disillusioned with religion, offers some wisdom, gleaned as a young student from a church history lecturer who began his course with a parable. 

“You have a wee son and he’s been out playing with his pals. When he comes home at bedtime his face is filthy, covered in mud from the fields he’s seen playing in all day. When you see the state he’s in, what should you do? You have three options. You can send him to bed as he is and lay his dirty wee head down on your clean pillow case. You can chop off his head. This would get rid of the mud certainly, but you’d kill him in the process and no longer have a son. Or you could give him a bath and clean him up before tucking him in for the night.”

These three choices signal: continuity with no change; change with no continuity; or continuity with some change. The16th century English church chose option three— not to get rid of the established Church altogether, but simply to wash its face, clean up the grime, and go forward with a new Book of Common Prayer and a broader view of authority i.e. no Pope.

In the wake of a successful effort to raise capital in our local parish, there is money, and with money comes opportunity and many decisions—all meaning change. Change could mean change in attitude, change in priorities, change in traditional ways of making decisions, both personal and communal, change in personnel as needed, change of heart, and God forbid, a change in theology, the way we understand God, including words we use to speak about God.  Shivers!

No wonder most of us fear change. Today many of us fear continuity about as much as change.

I have chosen to be an Episcopalian, choosing the "middle way" as much as I can and embracing brave change with some continuity. It’s always messy and always a blessing at once. But this kind of change, ironically, grounds me more deeply in continuity.

Raimundo Panikar ( 1918-2010) Spanish Roman Catholic priest, scholar of comparative religion, and proponent of inter-religious dialogue, puts it the way:  “I left Europe for India as a Christian, and I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Psalm 23, Beloved Prayer Song Re-potentiated

A word is dead when it is said
Some say
I say it just begins to live
That day

        Emily Dickinson, 1924

Hear an old favorite psalm with just a few fresh words that change its complexion. 

Psalm 23 translation, Pamela Greenberg The Complete Psalms

God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
You lay me down in lush meadows.

You guide me toward tranquil waters,
reviving my soul.

You lead me down paths of righteousness,
for that is your way.

And when I walk through the valley, overshadowed by death,
I will fear no harm, for you are with me

Your rod and your staff—they comfort me,
You spread a table before me
in face of my greatest fears.

You drench my head with oil;
my cup overflows the brim.

Surely goodness and kindness
will accompany me all the days of my life

and I will dwell in the house of the Holy
for the length of my days.

The psalms are prayers—startlingly honest emotionally. No feelings are absent from these prayers, even violent ones, the ones that let us know where and how we are hurt and want to hurt back. Yet psalms are also poetry and we chant them. Pamela Greenberg has translated the psalms in creative new ways without allowing them to lose their poetic power and spirituality.

I love familiar words that lull me; I love fresh words to awaken me even more. These latter force me to pay attention, to tune in. That’s how I grow. Even in discomfort, there is soul. Besides, who says scripture must always comfort or edify?  Poetic words soothe and disturb in equal proportion, and psalms are poetry.
                                         *  *  * *

The Rev. Dr. Judith Fentress Williams, Old Testament professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the Massachusetts clergy recently about the Old Testament—its value and its power, its connectedness with the fullness of earthly expression and experience. “Don’t be afraid of it. Preach from it,” she said.
I’ve always loved Old Testament. It was required in seminary, and the very first course I took at Yale Divinity School. The instructor began in solemn tones; “In the beginning, God potentiated……….. 

I wrote that down and tried to still my heart. Potentiated felt more powerful than created. It signaled the spiritual power behind/within everything that lives breathes and has being. It spoke to me of God’s agenda: ongoing potentiation. Whenever you are potentiated, by anything at all, you awaken. You feel suddenly lifted….in a word, resurrected. It’s a scary and a wonderful feeling.

The Spirit of God potentiates Life in the beginning, at the end, and in every second in between.
                                               *  * *  *

What do you notice in Greenberg’s translation of Psalm 23 that is different from what your ears are used to hearing? Say it aloud.

This translation is familiar —and brand new. The first thing I notice is: “God is my shepherd”— not the Lord. God is a name not a noun. God is free of royal role and all its accoutrements.

Then I notice is “there is nothing I lack.” It sounds different from: “I shall not want” or “I shall not be in want.”  “Nothing I lack” means I have everything I need. Do I? Even as I age and feel lacking in many joints, every sag of skin, every short-term memory lapse: what did I have for breakfast today? But with God I lack nothing.

This 23rd psalm hums along, and all of a sudden your mind is jarred. You expect: “You lead me in green pastures” And you hear: “You lead me in lush meadows.” The words mean the same and yet have different tonality, sensuality. Lush!

“You spread a table before me in the face of my (fill in the blank)—enemies, we all say. But we hear: “my greatest fears.”  What is potentiated by these new words? Are your fears like enemies? Do they not make you skulk, cringe, cower and hide? Are they at war with your aspirations? Do they help you sin against goodness? Is this translation as accurate as the idea of having real enfleshed enemies out to get you?

And “I will dwell in the house of (fill in the blank)…the Lord, we shout?  We hear instead: “the Holy.” Lord implies ruler; Holy suggests a quality of Being, a Presence within and without. This Holy Presence  “drenches” our heads with the oil of healing. “Drench” is more literal and stronger than “anoints.”

What do these new words potentiate in you? Maybe contempt or distaste? For me, it’s the knowledge that great words I love do not die when they are altered, but they do acquire a different flavor; they inspire me to think—again and again. As the poet says, these newly spoken and heard words live.

What am I saying? What am I thinking? What am I meaning? What words do I use?

Lastly, the image of the shepherd is softened by these new words. Real shepherds are rough and tumble, not so gentle with sheep. The divine shepherd accompanies yet neither drives not coddles. This shepherd is just be a little more, well, divine.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2017.07.27 At Play With God

When I am on vacation on this island called Nantucket, I swear my mind goes fallow, or at least I feel plowed and unsown waiting to be seeded as I sit on the beach and stare blankly into the vastness of god-ness spread out before me with no end: the sea, the sky, the stretch of beach and sparkling white sand—even the tang of salt on my sun-dried legs. When I was young I swam in the ocean. Now I wade in it.

I listen to the sounds of silence punctuated by the surf’s splash and the occasional shouts of delight from children who dash toward the breaking waves and, suddenly frightened, race back—over and over and over. This is how I behave sometimes with God—boldly approaching with my words, my prayers, my theological assertions, and then, with no warning, I feel too big and too small at once, and retreat. I feel playful. Such a Mystery where mess and blessing collide.

I’m just back home in the city and still hearing, smelling, and feeling the island landscape and its lazy mood. I would not want to live there all the time—too isolated. Even an introvert like me could get claustrophobic here in winter, though I’m not sure about that. Nantucket is 30 miles out from mainland Cape Cod, a small scoop of land in the Atlantic Ocean. Every year the beaches recede almost imperceptibly. Climate change fears jump into my mind and jump out again—fast.  Not today. Today, I give my imagination full play.

I would be sad if we couldn’t return summer after summer for our two weeks in our small cottage at the west end of the island. It is quiet there. There's little ground light, so we sit outside and look up and see what looks like every single star in the cosmos and the milky way—better than any movie or television show we could watch. We actually ate by candlelight a couple of evenings, talked, and even cried a little—not sad just, dare I say, age appropriately age- aware, stoked by the power of 40 years of memories. These surge in and out of our minds and our conversation like the waves, bearing echoes of our children’s and grandchildren’s voices. And we said I love you more that we usually do. This is as close as we get to romantic. Godde, how strikingly irresponsible. Playing.

An island, such as Nantucket, is limited space thriving within limitless sky, sand, water, and air—a very playful image of God, I’d say.

Oh yes, I know there’s plenty of garish affluence among the stereotypical  “beautiful island people” who wander from store to store in Nantucket town and never stop spending. I do that, too sometimes, and this year nearly spent $200 (Ok reduced to $189.99) on a pair of fashion jeans that actually fit my skinny legs—nearly. I’m too old, not wise just old. And too, there’s plenty of loud partying among the young. I used to do that too. They are having fun, playing. 

How little we play in this present worried culture and gravely serious church. How little we let ourselves go and revel in godness wherever we sense it—be it idyllic natural scapes or on the sooty curbs of city streets where beggars gather to chat, compare the day’s wage, tell jokes. I’ve seen them play and seem them quarrel. But seriously, beggars in Boston smile, laugh, and say God bless you more than any other passerby caught in the rush.

In all this I imagine the face of a Creator-God exploding with delight watching Creation unfold, day by day, like a child inventing a new game. In Proverbs, Wisdom is portrayed as being God’s playmate:  “ . .  . beside God like a little child, I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Proverbs 9)

God at play, playing like children play, and adults play when they are free enough, exploding with delight at almost anything that bounces onto the cosmic scene. It is this image I seek, it is this image I play with—not to ignore sorrow or suffering or evil or decay, but to recognize and acknowledge what deeply matters, what gives the world and its creatures energy abundant.

Well of course! It would take unimaginable—beyond nucleic— energy to pull off a Big Bang.