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?