Sunday, January 29, 2017

2017.01.29 Doucement Chérie

Doucement chérie is French for Slow down or Take it easy —more literally, Go sweetly. In Arabic, it has a lullaby lilt—phonetically, Shwaye, shwaye. In Spanish, cuidate or, tellingly, vaya con Dios. In English we might today say, Breathe!  None of this suggests falling asleep.  How can we remain alert and awake and still go doucement?

I have no friggin’ idea.

Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and quite intense himself, wrote recently in the New Yorker (Jan 23, 2017) about the nature of heroic intervention in medicine: “Tell Me Where It Hurts?” Heroics is the paradigm for surgeons. They set people free and send them home happy, glowing with health and new life—sometimes but not always.

Gawande became fascinated with the work of primary care medicine. How did it work—this unglamorous, long, hard, slow, attentive work of caring over time? Such physicians, it should be noted, are underpaid and overworked.

Interventionist miracle-medicine is excitingly dramatic, but Gawande discovered that the long slow steadiness of incremental treatment over time had better, if less immediate, results: greater longevity, faster healing, more willingness to trust doctors and seek treatment early, just plain happier. Why? Well, duh (an adverb meaning obviously:)!  It’s the relationship that warms and continues to fuel the well being of both physician and patient. They connect. They talk. They communicate. They are not afraid of each other. They get to know each other. Topics other than medicine are not taboo. Really?? Yes, really!!  This is relational medicine. 

There is theological resonance in Gawande’s wisdom. Theology is my own favorite discipline of thought and soul. I mean really who gets orgasmic over theology? I do! How God is and what God cares about matters to me. It’s my spiritual juice.

I remember a New Testament professor in seminary who once practically screamed at us students, “You want to know God’s agenda?”  (I held my pen poised and ready. Now at last I’d know God’s will.)  "It’s Micah 6:8.”  What? Not even Jesus? Not even New Testament?

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Slam bang, that’s it, O mortal. How does one do this and also maintain some kind of slow steady  doucement spirit to the process?  How do you do this and, at the same time, allow for incremental theology, aka primary care spirituality? Hint: you have to be a good juggler.

Here’s some wisdom I keep on my home altar from French Jesuit scientist/theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Please note the three factors that come into play over time— evenly and equally— while we try to live according to Micah 6:8: divine grace, your own good will, and circumstances. No single factor of influence is consistently dominant.

Patient Trust in Ourselves and The Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
     We are quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
    without delay.
     We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
     something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
And that it may take a Very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually—
      let them grow
let them shape themselves,
  without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting
on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

2017.01.22 Breakdown/Breakthrough?

Often a breakdown is a necessary precursor to a breakthrough.

We know this in personal experience, and we see it in the Biblical stories, in which there is a regular pattern of breakdown and breakthrough. Remember Peter, the putative “pope”?  He denied knowing Jesus, let alone following him. Jesus predicted this,  signaled by the old cock crow, cock-a-doodle-do times three. At the cock crowed Peter broke down. Peter was a disciple who thought he had solid faith and did not.

Judas Iscariot, on the other hand, thought he had no faith, abandoned the Jesus movement, and left.  After Jesus died and stories arose of his resurrection, Judas discovered faith. He was a disciple who thought he had no faith at all and did. In one account he took his own life in remorse. 

Both men had a breakdown to have a breakthrough. Both of their stories live on; both  characters live in each one of us; both are integral parts of a whole gospel proclamation of divine love ever-evolving toward cosmic wholeness. 

I am assured that the story of Jesus lives on, and that its message is still heard today by people who think they have faith and don’t AND by those who think they don’t have faith and do.

Peter’s breakthrough took time. He experienced visions, wept himself back to life, and joined with Paul to use his gifts to make sure that what Jesus had envisioned did not die. One could argue that the institutionalization of the gospel was not such a good thing. OR . . . one could grin and realize that that’s the way things are preserved—until the next breakdown and breakthrough.

Are we now living in breakdown/breakthrough times?  The irony is that what looks like breakdown to many feels to others like breakthrough into light.  In the time of discerning directions, I look to my Christian faith. I also look for small lights.  

Our new president in his inaugural address called America a wasteland of carnage —a harsh assessment. Is there anything good here? The speech was a set-up for Trump to step in and offer himself as the savior. What upset me the most however was that he guaranteed that God would protect America (that means North America, note…) ALWAYS—helped by the people and the military, just in case. America first and only as a sign of divine will is idolatrous, painfully exclusive, and a sign of patriotism run wild. Where is humility? Where is grace?

Still, this culture was on the way to such self-idolatry anyway with its consumerism and its win/win/me/win attitudes.

    I did see some bright spots in the inaugural events.
    -I noticed that Melania Trump quietly went over to Hillary Clinton and gave her a small box nicely gift wrapped. I could not help but see this as a woman-to-woman gesture.
    -And then good old W. Bush got Hillary laughing with a hug and a chuckle—a very compassionate in-house gesture.
    -At the luncheon Trump did invite the Clintons to stand, and they got a standing ovation. I just wished he could have said something in his campaign-ish speech.
    -The Rabbi who offered a closing benediction used a phrase that stood out: “Any nation is blessed by its values not its vaults.” Amen. I pray that our “vaults” of corporate wealth will be opened and shared.
    -The January 22 Women’s March was enacted all over the world in cities. It was a massive demonstration of solidarity in favor of equality for ALL. To me it felt like a return of second wave feminism —this time as a tidal wave with potential to sweep away patriarchal assumptions and rank-ordering systems of social organization that defy our constitutional principles. A breakthrough.

Do you remember the movie Awakening?  It was based on a book by Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), a physician who had a deeply traumatic childhood, predictive of many painful physical and emotional effects. The miracle is that there are always sound medical and psychological predictions and some come true, but there are no prescriptions for what the human soul will do. None.

Sacks made schmutz of his medical career as a lab researcher. They told him to get out. “Go see patients. They matter less.”  A breakdown!  He also bumbled at his writing, until the poet W.H Auden suggested to him that he be “metaphorical, mythical, whatever you need.” ( Not such a bad approach to holy scriptures.) Sacks began to see illness as metaphor and myth. It lead to his taking risks with catatonia and a new medication for Parkinson’s disease. The medication gave some life to the all-but-dead. A breakthrough.

Watching the movie, I was entranced at what happened when these zombie-like people awoke. It was resurrection. One scene sticks in my memory. Sacks was tossing a ball to catatonic patients, hoping that someone would wake up to its movement, when suddenly a woman lifted her arm and caught the ball. Sacks tried it over and over and each time the woman caught the ball in her right hand. “Mrs. XX you caught the ball!” Sacks began to dance about with joy. Eventually, so did Mrs. XX.  An apparent near-complete breakdown became the breakthrough for at least partial return to health—new life. For Sacks as well. Resurrection.

What was required was close and careful observation, listening to all the patients first, the ones deemed by the research labs to “matter less.” It took intense empathy,  devotion and creative imagination. It took a passionate awareness of what it was like to feel destitute, terrorized, alone. It took enormous faith, hope and love. And then, as Sacks wrote in 1973: “To use a biblical term, I would ‘bear witness’ to their condition.” Is that not holy scripture? 

All it took was daring to follow a new idea.

What are your own new ideas? Do you voice them or keep silent? Do you deceive yourself about your own worth? About God’s love? Do you give up as Sacks might easily and expectedly have? 
In times of breakdown where are your breakthroughs?  How do you bear witness?

I confess to a kind of catatonia in the face of the crisis of culture we are in and the denial about its depth. The death throes of patriarchy are painful and necessary. It hurts me to listen to a leader who styles himself as THE savior, the agent of breakthrough. Yet that too is necessary.

At a recent meeting of our deanery clergy I said something about needing a breakdown to breakthrough, and a colleague replied a bit cynically, “Yes, but sometimes there is a collapse.” Isn’t that what a true breakdown is?

Blaming and shaming keep me paralyzed and negative—catatonic. Holocaust memoirist Etty Hillesum wrote to God: “Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.”   (Essential Writings Maryknoll: Orbis Books 2009 p. 59)

Theology calls this perspective, this practice, deep incarnation—deep reaching into the soul. 

The only way this works for me is to get brutally honest with myself and with God. Like Etty did about God’s nature and her own. Sacks, too, didn’t kid himself about the state of his patients. Abraham didn’t kid himself about his advanced age, his sexual impotence, and Sarah’s. He said:  Well, let’s get food for these angels and listen to what they have to say. Sarah, bless her, laughed at the idea of a pregnancy. And Jesus didn’t play games with the conditions of his time. He knew the risks of bearing witness to limitless love without condition versus limitless power without condition.

We may have to maladjust, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to Trump’s  ME # 1/AMERICA FIRST/GOD-BLESSED ALWAYS vision. Exceptional in some areas we may be. Superior in all areas we are not. This vision goes beyond jobs, education, healthcare immigration reform. It wraps our souls up in a hubris that is disastrous—a spiritual breakdown.

Our new president could be kidding himself, and us too, but he can’t kid God, whose Love within us breaks through—no matter what.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

2017.01.15 Victor RCA

This is Victor RCA. He will always be a hero dog in our family. Victor saved the life of John Brakeman who in turn had saved Victor’s life. Victor died just before Christmas, 2016, at seventeen. 

Victor, a white Jack Russell with black patches over both eyes, a charmingly cocked-head pose, and a big barking mouth came into John’s life at the suggestion of his sister Jill the family animal lover. Victor was only a year old and living in a situation which was “plain no good.” He needed a loving home and good care.

John, just 30, was then living in a rented apartment, working as a teacher of fifth grade, and in the midst of managing a life-threatening medical situation that would end up requiring six surgeries, months of recovery, a frightening stint in the ICU, and all the grit John could muster. It was hardly the time to take on the responsibility of a pup, let alone one as noisy and needy as Victor. But the two fell in love instantly, and John took the dog into his home and named him Victor RCA.

During John’s hardest most painful times Victor was a constant companion, eagerly present to greet John when he came home and swift to cuddle up, lending his warmth and affection to John's every day and night. Victor loved to ride with John in the car often licking John’s neck and face from his perch between the front seats. And Victor would respond to John’s commands to, basically, shut up. He knew his master’s voice.

One of the “tests” of a good marriage partner for John was: could she manage to love Victor as well as John? Emily Hotchkiss Brakeman and Victor bonded quickly. The couple married and soon Victor occupied the space between them in bed. He was a dog who managed to worm and weasel his way into everything— even the love space.

Once Victor, who behaved most of the time as if he’d never been fed, managed to hop onto a counter and retrieve a box of chocolates, which he consumed with relish and then walked with his chocolate-covered paws all over a new beige sofa. Chocolate is supposedly toxic for dogs. Not so for Victor whose intestinal system was ironclad.

Victor got along with the more aloof standoffish cat and together they did food tricks. The cat cold execute the the far reaches of kitchen counters from which she would use her paws to bat food down off the counter to the eager Victor.

The family expanded to include a daughter Phoebe, now eight, and a son Dylan, two-and-a-half. Victor licked both children into the family with doggy kisses. John had been fearful that Victor might feel jealous, but not our Victor. His favorite perch soon became the infant seat.

Victor with Phoebe when she was his height.

Grampy Sim adored Victor. The attraction was mutual, including of course forbidden treats when possible.  Once on a visit we were going out and left Victor alone to guard the house. Believe me his incessant bark would scare off any break-in artist before he or she got in. We, however, had a new alarm system. It was as hypersensitive and hypervigilant  as Victor RCA. We set the new alarm and were walking to catch the red line subway for a day in Boston when the police called. Our alarm had sounded its harsh repetitive warning. John and I were puzzled, but Grampy Sim knew immediately what had happened. Victor was moving about, seeking the best bed after he’d given up hope that the door would open to reveal John, and set off the alarm which is movement-sensitive for the ground floor. Grampy sped home to rescue poor little Victor who was not only hoarse but aquiver with terror. It didn’t take long to silence the alarm but it took some time to quiet Victor. The two went for a leashed walk to the park and spent a man/dog day together.

The decision to put Victor down was heart-breaking. Compassion often is. Victor was not only quite old but had a condition that made it increasingly difficult to breath well. Veterinary care had been exhausted. John sent this text on December 21st to the whole family: “He was truly struggling. Last night we were scared for his life. I could almost tell by the way he was looking at me that he was saying, 'It’s time.' Em and I had to make the difficult decision to put him to sleep. It was the hardest thing I have even done because I love him so much. I’m hanging in there but am a wreck. Say a prayer for him. He will miss all of you.”

Victor’s death was sad and peaceful.  John held him and told me later amidst sobs: “I felt his little heart slow down and slow down and then it stopped and he was gone. He’ll never be back.”

Thank you for your life Victor RCA. In the spring we will have a proper burial with shared memories, blessings and prayers as we bury your ashes. Right now they are in a special container with your name and dates on it— and your paw print. You will never be forgotten, beloved dog.

P.S. Let no one in my presence dare say that there is no resurrection for animals—not just pets!!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

2017.01.08 Wish Upon A Star—Always

We in the northeast are in the middle of our first big snow storm. It’s no time to venture out—unless you’re a Magus in search of something more.

I stare at this beautiful and whimsically visionary image created by my sister and her late husband  many years ago.

The image is symbolic. It honors the three Magi of biblical story. They are out at night on a dangerous mission. All three together sit astride a single camel, with three humps, one for each of them.  All three wear crowns. The flirtatious camel winks. The image stands for hope in a new kind of world in which all people and their leaders are on the same page (or camel) truly committed to equality, justice, and compassion for all living things. 

It’s hard to see the three faces in this photo, but one is black, one oriental, and the third, riding high in the middle, is obviously a woman. It’s comical. It’s prophetic, and it’s a work of art that articulates a powerful biblical message of universal wholeness fueled by Hope—against hope. Here's a close-up.

These three storied Magi in the New Testament set out in the deep darkness of night on three camels to follow a star and a promise they sense is of God—the impossible possibility of a new kind of "king" for the world as symbolized by a newborn child lying in the hay in an improbable stable in Bethlehem.

As the story goes, they went at night for fear of the Judaean acting king (37-4 BCE) King Herod's  jealous rage. They returned home by a different route to deceive Herod who had uttered a sycophant-ish request about the whereabouts of this infant—that he too might go there to worship this new monarch. The Magi were political figures of some wealth. They wanted change and had followed a star that looked exceptionally bright to them. There are such stars of course, especially when your heart is expanded by hope beyond hope and things appear brighter than they are. That’s the power of mystical inspiration— sight and insight. It is what empowers us to keep on keeping on—no matter what. It’s why we keep telling the same story. It’s why we call such impulses spiritual—godly.

Hope has been the driving vision of the Obama administration (2008-2016) in the United States. President Barack Obama wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope. We have seen what many thought was an impossible hope: a black president and the hope of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity with safety and freedom he and his family represent.  (It isn’t about policy or party politics, it’s image.)

In her recent farewell speech to a group of school counselors, First Lady Michelle Obama articulated this “star”:  “The infusion of new ideas, and cultures and talents is what makes this country great. . . . Our glorious diversity is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are.” She invited all young people to take this star into the future, to get a good education, to think critically and creatively, to believe in the power of hope, and then work for the vision. I wept.

Will we follow? Will we be like those Magi, risking deep desert darkness and hostile powers, filled with hope, spiritual and political, bringing their wealth to invest in something new. Godde knows we all have followed the wrong star from time to time and invested in empty errant causes. But we don't lose hope or stop trusting God. Nor do we stop envisioning new possibilities—always wishing upon a star. 

Three courageous outlaws pushed on through the cold desert night. Their apparent insanity, it turned out, was remembered and recorded in the Christian gospel of Matthew as well as other Roman writers, all proclaiming a new message to the ancient first-century world darkened by oppression, inequality, and desperate fear. This is why some Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6, el Día de los Tres Reyes, Three Kings day. It is why Christians honor a whole season called Epiphany, the season of light, a season to follow stars that look bright with hope. 

The Magi were wise adults, and their pilgrimage of hope inspires us forward as powerfully as that babe in the manger. As Michael Hudson writes in his Meditation on the Journey of the Magi:

God gave the child to love the world
that noticed neither child not light;
but love grew up, a brighter star,
to guide a pilgrim through the night.

May we follow their Hope and make it our own.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2017.01.01 Who Will Inherit the Earth?

May Sarton in her lovely poem “New Year Poem” calls us to see, to look around, to pay attention. It’s all there, she writes. I don’t make resolutions, I just suggest a few small things to my beloved spouse, like try to get the dental floss to land in the trash basket next to the sink.

Sarton’s closing line, however, this year rings of resolve the whole wide earth might make together, being more aware and profoundly conscientious about the gift we squander to our peril.

Unless the gentle inherit the earth
There will be no earth.

I resolve to inherit the earth with gentle gratitude and affection.