Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018.12.30 Jesus Christ The Apple Tree?

Most Christians are familiar with the Garden of Eden myth in the Bible. Likewise, most Christians cast aspersions on the snake, or Eve, or the fatal forbidden apple itself. You’d think Eve was Snow White plucking and eating a fatal apple out of which popped the head of an asp. 
Incidentally, the Bible calls the fruit of the tree a “fruit” not an apple. Still, the apple won the day as the fruit of choice for delight and trouble, and snakes still scare the bejeezus out of many women. Ah the stereotypes we create!

Christians simply do not associate the apple with Jesus Christ    .   .  .  or do we?
This apple core stands today outside the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem. I loved posing with it.

Dick and I listen to the Festival of Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve morning. It’s broadcast live on radio from Cambridge England. This year was its 100th anniversary. It is, oh, so traditional, and oh, so beautiful. This year for the first time I noticed something amazing about that old apple. One of the 15th century carols sings of Adam “ybounden”—tied in knots you might say, and all for the sake of an apple he took. The carol goes on to say, however, that had the apple not been taken, our lady would never have been a heavenly queen. And so we sing:

Blessed be the time
that apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen  (may sing)
Deo Gratias

Interpretations abound of course, but this medieval one caught me up as I realized how valuable the old apple turned out to be for Christians. I now see the supposed curse of Eden in a new light, call it Eve and Adam claiming their place in the salvation scheme, taking the first bite into the Incarnation, that spiritual action by which things divine are joined with things human—and all thanks to an “apple” from the Christ-tree.

There’s even a medieval English carol singing praises to both apple and tree.

Jesus Christ The Apple Tree
  tune by Elizabeth Poston

1. The tree of life my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit and always green:

The trees of nature fruitless be

 Compared with Christ the apple tree.

2. His beauty doth all things excel:

By faith I know, but ne'er can tell

The glory which I now can see

In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

3. For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:

I missed of all; but now I see

'Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

4. I'm weary with my former toil,

Here I will sit and rest awhile:

Under the shadow I will be,

Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

5. This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,

It keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be

With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

                                                                     Deo Gratias.  


The apple ne'er does fall far from the tree. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Advent IV—Wonder, Wonder, Wonder: How Can This Be?

Advent is the season of anticipatory joy, the season of wonder.  Children are good at wondering.

Advent is nearly over and I am late with this post. Still: I want to remember with you Mary’s first response, the one for which she is less famous. When the angelic vision informed her that she would become pregnant, though a virgin, and bear a son who would be, in today’s lingo a spiritual rockstar, she  said: How can this be? 

Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth, through angelic vision to her priest husband Zechariah, found herself suddenly pregnant in her old age.  Both asked the same thing, and variations thereof, that Mary asked: How can this be? This was her first wonderment.

How can this be? is a wondering question. It is an Advent question and a daily question— both in those days and in these days.

How do we find enough stamina and  courage to carry on when unexpected, startling, confusing and challenging things happen, whether good or not good, tragic or miraculous? We are rendered powerless, and we wonder: How can this be? Where is God? How will I cope? 

One brilliant way we cope is simply to tell a heroic story, personal or communal. Most such stories tell of a God of spectacular reversals. Such stories are remembered and told over and over and they keep us in hope. Everyone has a heroic story. The Bible is full of such stories. We wonder and still say together: How can this be?

Luke's gospel tells the whole story of the birth of Jesus Christ and its prequel. Here’s what Mary did after accepting the inevitable facts of her condition and before marriage or birth: she set out, presumably alone, or at least no escort is reported, to cross the barren hills to visit her cousin Elizabeth. How can this be? Both women believed God was involved somehow, and both were scared in their vulnerable circumstances. The biblical story is called The Visitation. Here is The Visitation icon written by Benedictine nun Sister Marie-Paul. She was born in Egypt of Palestinian origin and Italian descent. She now  lives in a small community of French-speaking sisters near the summit of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Mary and Elizabeth embraced and talked to each other. They shared all their thoughts and feelings, all of them. This is a common practice women have, often before acting. They get together and talk about the best and the worst. I call my women friends right away when I'm befuddledWhether we agree or not, we listen to each other, and more often than not derive no secure answers, except through the connections we make and the stories we tell, there comes necessary strength to carry on. How can this be? I have no idea.  I wonder.

Children are expert wonderers. Here is a recent and true story of one such child. I dedicate this true little story to a dear friend, a woman whom I have named the stealth evangelist. She is in California now visiting her son and daughter-in-law and their two sons. The oldest is a boy named Jack. He is just six and he loves it when his Grandma reads him stories, mostly because Grandma has  time to reflect with Jack, to have a conversation about the story they read. Many times Grandma has read  Jack a book by Eton Boritzer called What Is God?  The book illustrates in words and drawings the basics of many world religions. All of them have a special prophet/leader/founder. All religions conclude that God is Love. The Christian prophet/founder is Jesus Christ. Jack knows that he is a Christian, but has not been to church much. He wonders—a lot—about this Jesus.

This Christmas Grandma decided to tell Jack that Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Jesus was born at Christmas.  Jack’s eyes flew open. He looked at Grandma with an expression of wonder and incredulity and said: No!  (Jack’s version of how can this be?)

Jack is on wonder overload now, and Grandma is empowered. They are now reading the biblical story in Luke 2.  Jack wonders about everything, chiefly mangers and angels, and he says: “Read it again, Grandma. Read it again.”


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent III—What Then Should We do?

Biblical characters are frequently demanding and commanding in the name of God, even to the point of name-calling, like John the Baptist’s indictment of the crowds seeking baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Trees that do not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire and burned up. This is harsh. John the Baptist would never win any popularity contests. And yet he sheds glaring, revelatory light on human behavior. What you do matters to you, to your neighbors, and to God.

Does God judge? Yes. Does God condemn forever? No. Does God call for repentance and change? Yes. Does God love with zeal equal to the zeal with which God judges? Yes.

“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John. They, like us, wonder about this kind of God, and feel threatened, a little scared.  

The Baptist’s answers are inconvenient but quite clear: give away one of your several coats; do not extort money falsely; no usury or threats of violence; be content with your own wages. Someone more powerful than I am is coming.

Ah, good: our Jesus Christ is coming with the Holy Spirit in tow. Good news! Whew!

Not so fast. This Christ, whom we think is our Christmassy Jesus, has a winnowing fork and bears exactly the same message as the Baptist delivered. The harsh light of judgment exposes us all, inside and out. It hurts. Certainly no one would dare be silly and sentimental about the power of this Word, this Christ, this God who calls for right behavior.

What then should we do?

The first thing to do is to scrutinize your own greedy habits. The second thing to do is to realize you can’t blame the OLD testament for this one. It is in our NEW testament. Then resist the temptation to blame, even yourself. Historically and today, one of the first reactions when we feel afraid, challenged, insecure, and powerless is to defend self by blaming others, rather than taking into account our own behavior.

Just like the crowd the Baptist warned, we are in disarray, not centered, unclear about what to do, how to behave. Our values are askew, so we blame: Republicans, Democrats, climate-deniers, the media, the atheists, the theists, God godself, science, the White House, the northeast, the southwest, the midwest, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, the law, religion, the Bible, the police, car salesmen, LGBTQI  people, THE Institution—on and on. Add your favorite blamee—even shaming yourself neurotically counts. All of this gets us off the hook. Face it: we might just be a brood of vipers who need to get honest.

Throughout history, the preferred blamee has always been the Jews. NOTE: John the Baptist, Jesus, Mary, Paul, the gospel writers, all of our beloved biblical forebears, were Jews.

I worry about this die-hard and deadly habit of blaming the Jews. All -isms are on the rise in our confused world, and anti-semitism is too. It’s always the Jews, or the OT, which is to say the same thing in disguise. Why is that? Cynthia Ozick proffers an answer in her essay “Hep! Hep! Hep!”, published in A Sense of Wonder (2016).

H.E.P. was the call of the Christian Crusades in 1099. It stood for Hierosolyma est perdita (Jerusalem is destroyed.) Hep! Hep! Hep!—a raging marching song, a Christian cry, a Nazi cry, an anti-Zionist cry. It’s the cry of blamers and haters anywhere. If you listen carefully to your deep inner self you might hear the impulse to cry Hep! when you feel frustrated, angry, wanting to vilify another and declare yourself absolutely right. Toddlers do this well.

Such impasses happen everywhere and any time to any society and people, so why do Jews bear more of the brunt than other groups? Ozick suggests it has much to do with: “. . . the forceful powerful resistance to what Jewish civilization represents—the standard of ethical monotheism and its demands on personal and social conscience.”

We’re right back to the Baptist’s cry, to Jesus’s winnowing fork—calling us to high standards of morality. We plain don’t like it. Think Ten Commandments—foundational divine expectations, the manifesto of the Jews.

I think the worldwide symptom of this resistance is that we are stuck in fight mode—spewing toxic, hostile energy, and humor that falls short of being prophetic, into the midst, rather than enough respectful intelligence to open up relationships with and any and all putative blamees.
                                                     *  *  *  *

Still: are we less divided than we think we are, or than we are told we are? As long as we think we have to fight we will have to blame. The space between us will remain contaminated, and that space is where commonly held values live—gasping for air.

Think tug of war. If each of only two teams dropped the rope and abandoned the fighting spirit, the passion to win and to be right, the dust would settle. Could we then see clearly and hear each other clearly? Is this the baptism of the Holy Spirit and cleansing water? 

Is this then what we should do?

Sunday, December 9, 2018

2018.12.09 Advent II—Lions of God

In Advent we hear a cry of warning from the wilderness, the city, within our own souls. It's a call to change, to return to the ways of God, to seek goodness in God, self, and neighbor—ALL.

I initially wondered what a female version or image of John the Baptist would be?  All I envisioned was some variation of the cartoon cave-woman, Wilma Flintstone, going from cave to cave with the latest news and a baked goodie of some kind. I used to love the cartoon characters, the Flintstones, as did my children: Fred and Wilma Flintstone with Barney and Betty, their BFFs.  Here they are, Wilma at left.

But let’s be serious. John the Baptist is a biblical character, not a cartoon, and a key figure in the New Testament stories of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a fierce and deeply honest biblical prophet, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John was mostly associated with dire news: Change before it’s too late, you brood of vipers! Also, a bad wardrobe: clothing made of camel’s hair; and a lean and strange diet: locust and wild honey. His job description was stark: baptizer of frightened hordes in the Jordan River and preacher of a new reign. And his death, like Jesus’s, was brutal and violent—imprisoned for treason by Herod Antipas, ruler of Palestine (4 BCE-39CE) and beheaded at the whim of Salome, a young girl who danced for the king at a banquet and requested the head of John the Baptist in payment for entertaining the drunken Herod and his court.  (See Midrash , "The Vow" by Lyn G. Brakeman in her book The God Between Us: A Spirituality of Relationships).

Jesus’s day, like our own, was beset by unrest, fear, distrust, and persecution of anyone who resisted the tyrannical ways of oppressive authority. Classism was then, as it is today, a most terrifying sociocultural plague. John the Baptist and Jesus preached God’s reign of justice, peace and hope for the poor and oppressed. If ever there was a time to heed the Baptist’s cry of CHANGE! it is now. This eccentric figure frightens us with his warning to be alert in bad times while choosing the path of Good. His clarion call for repentance, although terrifying, also brings hope against hope.

All the images of John the Baptist I found were either too stylized/religious, or too bloody, or for sale only. I wanted an image that was fierce and noble, one that bespoke a story of terrorism and greatness all at once, good news and bad in one. Then I ran across C-Boy.
C-Boy was an African lion who lived a longer than average life (14 years) for an African lion.  According to “Elegy for a Lion”  in National Geographic Magazine, December, 2018, this lion was admired for his “tenacity and fierce spirit.” He would be my John the Baptist image. “He was everything an African lion should be: resourceful, cantankerous, patient, proud but pragmatic, seemingly indestructible, continually imperiled, and gorgeous to behold.”

No one knows how C-boy managed to survive in the wild and live as long as he did, breaking the mortality record. We do not know why he got a second chance at life after a battle with killer lions. The number one cause of death for lions in an undisturbed environment like the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, is other lions. Like John the Baptist, C-Boy gives us a story of mystery and hope that lives on. No one knows how John the Baptizer survived the wilderness and managed to risk provoking hostile authorities for as long as he did—long enough that Jesus sought him out, followed his teaching, and continued what John started. John and his follower, Jesus, live on in the memories and memoirs of the Biblical New Testament.

There are books, films, and animated versions of great Lions of God—Christ, Paul the apostle, and Judah of Israel. Now I have added John the Baptist to this regal leonine array. The Holy One is so vast as to require multiple images. Look in your mirror.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

2018.12.02 Advent I: Grief Almighty

Advent is a cry,
   a screeching O in the wilderness of time.

Advent is howling, hollering,
   hollowing, hallowing.

Advent is a baby in a womb,
    a woman at a tomb—suspended, unknowing, 


Advent is darkness unhinged,
    a fireless hearth.

Advent is the breath-sucking vacuum
    of divine longing:
“Come back to me with all your heart.
Don’t let fear keep us apart.
Long have I waited for your coming
Back to me and living
    deeply our new life.” *

Make no mistake, world.
 Your hype and cheer and glitter—all
    is the weather of idols.
The real climate surges untamed
    beneath—wailing, melting, shivering, begging:

O Come
    O Come ON!

*Gregory Norbert, OSB, “Come Back To Me” (Hosea 14:1)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

2018.11.25 Christ in Majesty. Us In High Hilarity

Here we are sitting on a wall under a huge tree at a monastery. Now how romantic is that? Not very—however, we are laughing.  Other than bad jokes or good jokes or church jokes, laughing for us is a way we make love and keep love alive. It's not derisive, just boldly out of line or unexpected. 

And we both know what is funny even when others don't see it. Jesus had a knack for that, which is probably why it is nowhere written that Jesus laughed. Once when reading the gospel portion in John, when the disciple were going nuts wondering how anyone could be born again, I inserted: Jesus laughed. Then he went on to elaborate a teaching. No one in the congregation laughed. Do people listen I wonder?

This photo was taken in the autumn of 1991. We were at Holy Cross Monastery on retreat. We were invited by the monastery p.r. monk to pose for this photo which was taken by a professional photographer.  They used it on the cover of a promotional brochure. We are laughing about suddenly being catapulted into fame as cover-couple contemplatives. I wish I could enlarge this cover more, but I guess you can discern that I am clearly making some big point to Dick who clearly appreciates my every word. This only happens on silent retreats.

Happy 32nd anniversary, my beloved marriage partner. We were married in 1986 on this Sunday when Christ is praised for rising triumphant above it all—sin, death, hate, politics. Together we have risen above lots of adversity and weathered lots of scorn, including a near-crucifixion for being "church criminals." (Seriously one man called us that when we got divorces and married, but he had a diagnosis.)  

I love your laughter, our laughter, and the humor we find in the most seriously righteous befuddlement. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

2018.11.22 Thanksgiving—a Short List

Today is Thanksgiving Day. In the face of so much to decry in this world and church, I am grateful for love, prayer, beauty, and children. Such things keep me alive and well. I am also grateful for hate and ugliness, because such things keep me humble.

     For love, because it is as basic to the viability and vigor of my soul as food and water are to my body. When I am not well enough fed I cannot feed others.

     For prayer, because it is what consistently connects me to my inner self and the truth of my  own feelings, desires and needs. This is my baseline. I address my prayers to God, say AMEN, then go on with my life to the best of my ability and grit. Self-knowing and God-knowing are correlative. I don't know what God does, but prayer keeps me alive and alert to signs and wonders all around me.

     For beauty, because it is all around us if we would but expect it, then notice it, then praise it. It's in human faces, tears, laughter, frown, fret, puzzlement, terror, anger, awe, and wonder—also spoof and surprise. It's in Nature—animals and plants, in every form and shape.

     For children, because I grew up with my own four beloved children, now adults, yes, but also because all young children exhibit uncontrollable impulses toward play, toward joining, delightedly and without prejudice, with other children in the romp of play, the best play being the disorganized  spontaneous play for its own sake. They make it happen together—in conversations with stuffed playmates, at tea parties, and on play grounds with lively playmates.

"One afternoon your mother and I took you to visit a preschool. Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children, The children were running, jumping, and tumbling. You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum.      .  .  .  I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, 'We don't know these folks! Be cool!' I did not do this. I was growing, and if I could not name my anguish precisely I still knew there was nothing noble in it. But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing—that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children I m ashamed."

This passage is from a memoir, Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the form of a letter to his son. Coates has described the terror many black people feel for the precious children they love as much as white people love theirs. These parents love their children with such ferocity that they have to train them into fear rather than confidence, teach them how to protect their black bodies, to be "watchful prudent and shrewd" always, just because their skin is not white. The contrast with what white parents teach their children about how to walk in the world—confidence and boldness according to the respect they expect to get—is tragically stark. 

In this scene above, however, the high value of child's play for the spiritual well-being of a child supersedes racial profiling and all the lessons that go with it. Coates's son, he acknowledges, is naturally extroverted and uninhibited, but play is shaped by its toddler participants according to their personalities—not the color of their skins. When I read the anguish of this father who for a moment dropped his own fears to let his son play freely, my heart broke open.  I believe God's does too.

My God, my God, what have we done?  My God, my God what are we doing?

Scriptures tell us that a little child will lead us. Will we follow?


Sunday, November 18, 2018

2018.11.18 There Is a Time For Everything—Everything

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. That’s odd because it is many people’s least loved book. It’s in the Christian Old Testament and, according to apocryphal story, became the subject of great controversy and was nearly dropped from the Canon of Scripture.

When I was in seminary back in the 1980s, a humorous audiotape circulated among us about Ecclesiastes’s author, Qoheleth, the wise preacher. Many male voices argued vociferously, over-shouting one another, about its qualifications. Was it genuine? Was it holy enough to qualify for holiness? Did a book so cynical, even fatalistic in its approach, belong in a collection of authoritative sacred works? The din of their fervor made us all laugh, and also proved, to me at least, that this earthen wisdom was indeed sacred.

Wisdom and righteousness are elusively mysterious, yet both are essential for the embodied soul. There is a time to struggle against the way things are and a time to let go. Everything belongs. This message was so depressing that scriptural scribal editors added a very small Epilogue, almost apologizing for this nutty sage, assuring us that in the end God will make it all okay. Such dilution! Such lopsided heresy.

Here are Qoheleth’s well known biblical lines: dated between 450-350BCE—perhaps. There is no scholarly consensus about dating, possibly a sign of this book’s ultimate worth.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclus 3: 1-8)

You will also recognize Qoheleth’s ancient voice in the popular song written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s: “Turn, Turn Turn.”  Seeger wrote it as a plea for peace, adding a line at the end, “. . . a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

Members of an  an EfM seminar group recently listened to a reading from Ecclesiastes and pondered their own responses. As I listened I thought the struggle to have things be one way or the other way, in a kind of binary mentality, was very true to lived experience and a particularly tempting attitude just now. Many scary, even violent things are happening—massacres, bombs sent to political figures, abnormal weather events, and more. There is a time to hate, and a time to love; a time to fear and a time to trust. 

NOTE: Qoheleth does not say either/or; he says both/and. One woman wondered aloud: "How long does a “time” last? " Will this era pass soon?  What about the confusion of trying to land on righteousness—from whose point of view?

I don’t know.

Then I remembered one of Jesus’s parables, a favorite of mine: the parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together in a field. (Matt. 13:24-30) The slaves (slaves no less!) come nattering and nagging about how these weeds got into a pure wheat field. Should they rush in and rip out all the nasty weeds? An enemy is blamed; assumptions are made that the kingdom of heaven must be pure; and self-righteousness takes hold. Final answer to slaves?  No, let them grow together until the final harvest. A warning is issued that in pulling out weeds any human action might pull out wheat as well. Let go and let God.
There is a time for wheat and a time for weeds. Obviously, the parable tells us that we are NOT qualified to identify and separate good from evil individuals. This is not ours to do, not ours to judge, not ours to execute. This parable is only in Matthew, and Matthew has a heavy moral agenda, appropriate for his time, but perhaps not forever and ever amen.

This is a time in our nation when we are living with wheat and weeds and fighting about who is which, making assumptions about the true nature of each.

It is a time to let things grow together, because they will anyway. After all, both wheat and weed do grow and flourish in the same fertile field. God have mercy, this is hard wisdom!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

2018.11.11 Risky Grace: An Amazing Story of True-Grit Grace, Part II

The W.A.S.P. pedigree in the 1950s had served as almost a degree, or decree, of admittance into elite white Protestant society. It also became a required credential by which debutantes and their proposed escorts would be, in Scarsdale and many other cities and towns, screened for The Holly Ball for debutantes, inaugurated in 1953, the year George Kempsell was installed as rector of St. James the Less.

As I write this I remember with a shiver how my mother practically forced me to be a debutante. It was the worst kind of social snobbism imaginable. I was deeply embarrassed at eighteen and remain so. Nevertheless I was announced and escorted on my father’s arm—coming out into what? Society, but whose society? 

George Kempsell had ignited a simmering cauldron of wealth, white privilege, fear, and the age old habit of taking righteous shelter in privatism: the autonomy of a private club to make its own rules. Kempsell’s appeal to a higher authority held little sway against the  dominant social class ideology. Although some supported his position, a position about which he and the parish, ironically, received much public attention, even nationally, forces combined to create a “perfect storm” anyway: Kempsell had the power and the duty to excommunicate those who did not repent in response to his charge of bigotry, and they had the power to withdraw their money and leave the parish. The impasse was unresolvable, and the damage was done. The stigma of bigotry and prejudice associated with Scarsdale left scars, perhaps not entirely deserved, and Kempsell was forced out. The stormy scandal only stayed hot for a time, but it made its mark. Some few in the club today still harbor bitterness about the Kempsell scandal.

Kempsell went from giving celebrity-like speeches, sent by the Episcopal Diocese, to receiving death threats, being removed from his home by the FBI, and being silenced. He bought a guard dog. He was a broken man, though not defeated. He tendered his resignation in January, 1963, the month and year my oldest daughter was born and I received a Masters degree, both of which, slaked my thirst for pursuing a church career path of my own—for now.

The Scarsdale parish raised money to facilitate the Kempsell family’s move to Dallas, Texas, to a parish that proved inhospitable to his progressive ideas for different reasons. Finally, Kempsell went to a small rural church in Arvada, Colorado, where he stayed true to his prophetic ideals, provided pastoral care, and was beloved by many. I found no repentance stats for the accused. Here is the only small photo I found of Kempsell—baptizing an infant, I think in the Scarsdale parish.

Would I have repented? Probably not. I was a grudging grouchy debutante, yes, but I was surely glad no fiery preacher had blasted my parents’ country club and held my feet to the fire.  Risky grace would require too much of me—right now.

Dick Simeone also did not think women’s ordination as priests was right. Many male Episcopal priests feared the loss of their clerical collegiality and authority, or more precisely, the sharing of such a long-held patriarchal privilege. He valued his patriarchal status, even though he felt some discomfort. Things happen when one faces formative influences that don’t sync with one’s true character.  

Dick first met me when he interviewed for the position of rector at my home parish.  I was on the parish search committee, and was also a female aspirant to the priesthood. I asked him directly about his position on the matter. He gave a long, complicated, homiletic answer, amply justifying the theological and ecclesial rationale for women priests, then grinned: “I’m in favor of women priests.”  Good thing. I, by now more ready for risky grace, would have fiercely protested his election as our rector.  

Kempsell, possibly under the influence of Ruth, his beloved wife of over thirty years, had also admitted: “I was wrong about women's ordination.” Although thin and frail, he traveled to New York and stood for his niece at her ordination.

Kempsell died on August 31, 1980, on the thirteenth birthday of my oldest son, just one year and five months after the death of my youngest sister, two and a half weeks after my own forty-second birthday, in the midst of the painful time of separation before inevitable divorce, and eight months after Dick assumed the rectorship of my home parish. I’d clung feverishly to my desire to be a priest, even after I’d been turned down twice. Would I risk it again? When Dick came he brought his powerful confidence in me with him and told me Kempsell’s story. I knew, without knowing, that I would risk trying it again. If Kempsell could risk fighting for his vision in Scarsdale, I could risk fighting for mine in Connecticut.

Kempsell’s memorial service at the Episcopal Cathedral in Denver was packed, so full that people were standing in the aisles—testimony to this small dynamic man’s courage, his insistence that everyone be treated equally, regardless of race, creed, color, or gender. 

I was ordained priest in 1988 at the parish church where Dick was rector, my husband of two years, and the preacher for the day. The small church was full and adorned with roses—scents of a woman. The ordaining bishop had a serious head cold. Both roses and sneezes were fitting tributes to lots of determination and challenge on my part and the somewhat grudging willingness of an institution to comply. I pronounced the final blessing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—imbalanced gendered language, but for that day, okay.
                                                        * * * * * *
The Kempsell story happened in the 1960s when civil rights was heating up and racial fears steaming. Lurking beneath racism in America, even then, was classism, waiting in the wings to assert its dominance. Now, over fifty years after Scarsdale and the Civil Rights movement, classism is virulent enough to make sure that the elimination of other -isms, such as racism and sexism, remains unattainable. The election and ascendancy of our current president is not the cause but rather the result of this lingering prejudice—a move away from the values of our democracy, not to mention the values of Jesus the Christ or George Kempsell.

We, in Church and State, need more George Kempsells—people with courage or grit enough to stand up to excesses of populism, aka mob power, traditionalism, another -ism grown rigid, and recalcitrant defining classism.

Kempsell stood for equality. He was fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as a second-class Christian.”  True, and thank you, George Kempsell.

(Much of the detail for this post I got from a blog post by Thomas Quirk who grew up in Scarsdale from 1953-1961 and is now a high school teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts. I am grateful for his research and his caring.)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

2018.11.04 Risky Grace: An Amazing Story of True-Grit Grace, Part I

We in 2018 live in a precarious time—a time of moral failure and moral awakening together. We feel vulnerable and confused, yet such feelings always precede radical change for the good.

The threat of climate change is real, scientifically validated, and, uninterrupted, as implacable as persistent and increasing social injustice—collapse of the social fabric of human interaction. In biblical language, we face the end of the world—apocalypse. It’s ironic that so many Americans reverence science as if it were God, while at the same time ignoring the easily verifiable wisdom of Science itself AND rejecting the idea of God whose grace enhances human gifts. Confusing times are times when risking one’s life, spiritual or biological, and the lives of many others is more urgent than ever. The Civil Rights Era was one such time. So is now.
                                                *  *  *  *  *

That’s a long preface to a very old story, a story of costly grace, a story my husband Dick told me years ago that stuck with me, because it was so wildly out of sync with expected behavior in the church, and beyond. The story reminds me once again that radical change happens, but never without risk, risk greater than a few risky comments or pushing the envelope occasionally. True-grit risk is: Do something unheard of in the name of God, with God’s help. 

On Friday, January 13, 1961, on the front page of the New York Times, just below the fold, appeared a black-and-white photo of The Rev. George F. Kempsell, Jr., rector of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less, Scarsdale, New York, with the caption: “Scarsdale Parish Rector Limits Communion Due to Anti-Semitism.” The headline stated: “Youth Who Is Convert From Judaism Barred as Escort to Country Club Dance.”  The context was elitist and privileged. Kempsell’s action transcended the context—just like crucifixion being contextually run-of-the-mill in Jesus’s day, resurrection not so.

Kempsell had been upset that nineteen-year old Michael Cunningham Hernstadt, a young man whom he had baptized two years earlier, had been rejected as an unsuitable escort to the annual debutante Holly Ball at the Scarsdale Golf Club. On Sunday, January 8, Kempsell preached about the incident, explaining that a young woman in the parish withdrew from the Holly Ball when the dance’s subcommittee rejected her escort due to his “Jewish parentage.” Kempsell then asked his congregation to “face facts boldly,” to understand this: “If our Lord Jesus Christ had come back to earth in Scarsdale in time for the Holly Ball, he would not have been allowed to escort a young lady of this parish to that dance.” Then Kempsell rendered his judgment: “This is a sin against God and against a member of this congregation, and no one dares to come to the altar to receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ unless he repents himself of this sin, and is in love and charity with his neighbor, and intends to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking before him in his holy ways.”

So far the risk was in words. People could get fussed and curse their rector, maybe even leave the parish, grumbling as far as the parking lot—unless Kempsell followed through. Kempsell had publicly shamed many members of his congregation in an effort to call attention to a serious problem in the community: racial and religious bigotry. Would he excommunicate parishioners who were members of the Country Club where rules banned Jews? Would they repent? 

As Dick told me this story I hung on his every word. “Did he do it?  Did he actually excommunicate all those parishioners?”  (See the disciplinary rubrics regarding Excommunication in the Book of Common Prayer, p.409. It’s scary stuff, never taken lightly!)

“Damn right he did!” said Dick. “But not of course before he let his Bishop in on it.” Horace W.D. Donegan, Bishop of New York for ten years and himself a civil rights activist, had called for the church to recognize its “sins of segregation.” He supported Kempsell. A group of parishioners paid the bishop a visit requesting that he “call off” Kempsell. Donegan refused.

“When I was at General Seminary in New York,” Dick told me, “we were all given this story as a model of Christian behavior, and hoped to hell we’d never have to do such a thing.”

But I thought Dick was so lucky to have church heroes with true voice and courage—grit.

Kempsell was no fool. He knew the dangers. He knew the hell that this action could unloose. He knew that Scarsdale was one of the wealthiest towns in the world’s wealthiest nation. He knew that previous rectors had turned down the Scarsdale Golf Club’s honorary membership, because it was an open secret that the club discriminated against non-Protestants. He knew that he had himself enjoyed dinners at the club. He knew he might have to leave this parish that he and his family loved and where he’d been the rector since 1953.  He also knew his choices could alienate parishioners at a time when record levels of growth in church membership strengthened both vitality and viability of parishes. However, the choice to remain silent and ignore social injustices was an option Kempsell found intolerable.

George French Kempsell, Jr. grew up in Glen Cove, New York. He was a dynamic person who spoke several languages, played tennis, and was an accomplished musician on his way to becoming a concert pianist when he received his vocational calling in the Episcopal Church. His father was the son of English house servants and may very well have worn a “robin’s egg blue” chauffeur’s uniform, like the one Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. His mother headed up the household staff for the French family. Mrs French admired the Kempsells so much she built a cottage for them, and Mrs. Kempsell gave her son George a middle name of French.  George paid his way through Hamilton College and New York Theological Seminary by playing the organ at local churches. He married a piano teacher Ruth Archibald in 1946. They had six children: five sons, including a set of twins, and one daughter, during the 1950s.

I was growing up in Darien, Connecticut in the 1950s and still remember the jokes about railroad conductors who lowered their voices in mock deference when calling out the sacred stop of Scarsdale, saying: Sc-aaahz-dale. Darien itself, along with other shore towns, got a reputation for being one of the towns in which realtors, by “gentlemen’s agreement” tacitly refused to show homes to Jews. And the broadway show, “Auntie Mame,” had a reference in one of its songs, written by Jewish lyricist, Jerry Herman, about the “Aryan from Darien.” Even as a teen I’d shrink, and that was before I found out my mother’s father was Jewish. No wonder she didn’t tell us. 

Kempsell had failed to convert the son of Irving Moscovitz, board member of the Westchester Orchestral Society, but he did better with Michael Hernstadt. Kempsell perhaps had a slight overdose of Christian zeal, but it was the fifties after all. Hernstadt, nevertheless, had never been Jewish in the sense that he did not practice his religion. His father was Jewish and his mother Roman Catholic. They told Michael to choose his own religion. He became an Episcopalian and at seventeen was baptized by Kempsell. 

Apparently, according to Scarsdale’s Holly Ball Committee, Hernstadt’s Jewish pedigree had more weight than his W.A.S.P. pedigree—or his Episcopal one. I’d nominate Kempsell for sainthood, but then I have no voice in such matters. I can, however, remember Kempsell’s saintly grit nearly sixty years later, declare him a Saint on my soul’s calendar, and blog about him on All Saints Sunday.

Would privilege and power win the day against the Christian prophetic action of George Kempsell—and if so, what would happen to Kempsell?  See Part II of this story in next week’s blog post:11/11/2018.

(I am indebted for some of this research to Thomas Quirk, who grew up in Scarsdale in 1953-1961, and now is a teacher of high school English in Lexington, Massachusetts.)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

2010.10.28 Bare Naked Love

We live in a world that sobs for love—not romantic, dutiful, or tough.

I mean sobbing, aching, sundering love—the kind that breaks hearts, even hearts most hardened by wealth or poverty.

“How much many more can we take?” A woman said in church today, her eyes flooding with tears. She was referring specifically to the mass shooting yesterday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Tree of Life? How ironic. That is the other tree in Eden, the one we rarely hear about, not the one we humans grab for, prefer, the one that gives them knowledge, both good and evil knowledge. That’s what we grab for.  

“Only eleven people were killed, but still . . .”  the woman went on. Only eleven—only?

How many holocausts must happen before we let go of all our pretenses, our masks, our fears, our reasonable explanations, our religious platitudes, the most clichéd being God is Love, and simply sob.

Most of us look for a leader, a teaching, a solution, a word of wisdom, a path, a hope, a savior, a limb to grab onto as a child grabs the nearest adult leg to hold. This morning’s news reported that President Donald Trump declared that this shooting had ‘little to do’ with gun laws and suggested that the Tree of Life synagogue should have had armed guards. More defensive politics. I wanted heart!

But then . . . he expressed horror at such incomprehensible malice—and during “a baby-naming ceremony at a sacred house of worship on the holy day of Sabbath.”  My heart jumped. Maybe he would drop everything, yes, even in campaign season, and go to Pittsburgh immediately? You know the best, most remembered leaders are the martyrs, the ones who die trying.

But then he said: “We don’t let evil change our life and change our schedule.” My heart broke. We don’t let evil change our life and change our schedule?

To let evil change your life and your schedule is the best definition of Christian behavior I’ve ever heard—or the behavior of any good and true human being. To be a christ you have to let down your guard and sob. You have to see the wound, tend the wound, sob and sob and sob. That’s love—alone or together—no props, no fixes, no doctrines, just naked grief. It’s precarious, delicate, the artistry of a funambulist, a tightrope walker. The Bible says this in every story. So does this poem.

The Highwire of Grief

It’s quite the feat
the funambulism of the newly bereaved.
What a treacherous act it is
to attempt freehand balance without a support point.
Weighed down, paralyzed,
but forced to move anyway.
And press forward
by placing another tentative step
after that last unsteady step
into the thin air
on a fine wire
of twisted memories
stretching from there to here—
and all the while squinting through a salty waterfall.

    by Rabbi Janet Madden
      currently the Rabbi of Providence Saint John’s Health Center
      Santa Monica, California

Sunday, October 21, 2018

2018.10.21 Vincent MIllay, Woman of Gift, Ill Repute,and Tragedy

Recently I spent a week enjoying the beauty of the Berkshires. There was no fall dress but still……..we got to visit the farm where I’d summered as a child, and the estate of the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who called herself Vincent. I’d read some of Millay’s work but was clueless about the woman behind the words—sharp, startling, awakening. Here’s one well-known quote I remember from a college poetry course, over 50 years ago when I too was young, yearning and burning many candles down to the nubbin.

“My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—it gives a lovely light.” 

I wanted it all—great literature, great love, wild drinking parties, freedom—and God. I was also scared witless of most all of such things burning within me, very unlike the care-free Millay, yet poised and ready to try. 

Millay was a flapper of my mother’s era, full of pulse and promise. Who ever heard of a flapper from rural Maine, let alone one of beauty—flaming red hair, lithe and petite (5’1”) stature, and a prodigious poet with a formidable intellect as ballast?
Millay was born in Rockland Maine in 1892, the oldest of three daughters. I was born 46 years later, the oldest of three daughters. Her middle name was derived from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York where her maternal uncle’s life had been saved just before her birth. My middle name is Hall, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. The Halls of Medford, Massachusetts were socially upscale. I live near Medford and can see the Halls of Medford’s large home, now condominiums. I imagine my grandmother’s antics, which by repute were many. Women in my family push against boundaries.

Millay was just twelve when her mother, Cora, divorced her father, Henry, for “financial irresponsibility.” My mother did not divorce my father but I bet she thought of it. He was responsible about money but not about booze. 

The young Millay girls grew up in rural poverty. I grew up in a big city called New York with the fear of poverty hovering over my parents' young lives, thanks to the Great Depression. (Why on earth do we capitalize that?  Dread I guess.) The Millay girls’ poverty was tempered by the joys of too much independence and the slew of classical literature which Cora hauled around in a trunk from place to place. The girls cavorted outside in summer and skated in their kitchen in winter when water from leaks froze solid. Edna, who by then called herself Vincent, was writing and publishing poems and having love trysts with women. I had the joys of a private girls’ school where I too was exposed to classics.

In 1912 Millay entered her poem “Renascence” in a poetry contest.  The poem is long, rhyming, plaintive and mystical, worth a read. Although it was considered the best submission, even by the winners who offered her some of their prize money, it was awarded fourth place—thus creating a scandal that catapulted her to fame and got the attention of a wealthy patron. Vincent got famous by NOT winning! Fame is exhilarating. Quick fame can be scary and scarring. Then again to be a prodigy in poetry requires scars on the heart. I have never been famous but did accumulate many scars on my heart.

At 21 Millay entered Vassar College. My paternal grandmother was graduated from Vassar in 1900 and insisted I apply. Vassar seemed austere to me, yet Millay’s eyes lit up, because Vassar  had people from China, France, Germany, and more. Nevertheless, she found Vassar’s rules binding: “Damn this pink and gray college. They trust us with everything but men. Man is forbidden as if he were an apple.” Smith College was my choice, embedded as it is among many men’s colleges.

Rules never stopped Millay. Often late to classes, she’d say: “I was in pain with a poem.” I was in pain over romance and exams, never missed a class, and was on time—mostly. When Millay committed the cardinal sin of spending the night out in a hotel, the college kicked her out. When I came back late to my dorm on father-daughter weekend, I’d been out drinking beer with my dad, and was not kicked out. I was, however, reprimanded and had to appear before some kind of student judiciary panel. It was humiliating and damn stupid.

In 1917 Millay’s classmates and faculty voted she could graduate, rules or no rules. She went to Greenwich Village, and lived a bohemian life, writing poems to support herself. They got published but the money didn’t keep up with her extravagance. She wrote Poetry Magazine: “I'm awfully broke. Will you mind paying more?” She was a tiny figure with a large voice so promiscuous she had many abortions, and so callous that one of her mourning lovers, possibly Edmund Wilson, suggested they form an alumni association—one model I suppose for unrequited bereavement. All I suffered was the terror of a pregnancy scare. Bouts of promiscuity came later.

Inside, Millay craved love, a void that all her rock star fame did not fill—not even the Pulitzer prize for poetry she won in 1923, nor the devotion of Eugen Boissevain, the man she married when she was 30—late. I married at age 24—also late for the eager sixties. Eugen adored her, and served her through moods, illnesses, and many betrayals. In 1925 the couple moved to Austerlitz, New York and onto 300-acres of what had been a blueberry farm.  Millay named the place Steepletop, after a shrub known as steeplebush, which grew on the property.
Steepletop is surprisingly humble, the mountain view beckoning, the terrain rough and woodsy. Here is the house, the outside bar next to the swimming pool, and the tiny writing cabin where Millay wrote.

After WWI, literary styles changed radically and the brilliance of Millay’s sonnets, the only form structured enough to contain the electric vigor of her passions, was deemed old-fashioned in Europe. Although a pacifist, she turned to war poetry in support of Allied war efforts. By the 1930s she suffered injuries from falls, developed an alcohol and morphine addiction, and was quite probably manic-depressive. Eugen tried to help by drinking and drugging himself. I too had my bout with alcoholism, contracted in part from trying to curb my first husband’s drinking by joining him. Superb logic, no?  It didn’t work and I eventually divorced, remarried, and grabbed sobriety.  

Sadly for Millay, Eugen got off the drugs and she could not. When Eugen died of lung cancer, Millay, recovered from morphine but not alcohol, mourned alone, and wrote poetry. She drank 1.5 bottles of wine a day. I gave up Scotch, drink four glasses of wine a week, channeled my perversity into a religious vocation, and wrote.

In 1950 Edna St. Vincent Millay died, despite her vows to “control myself.” One night she went to bed leaving her half emptied bottle of wine behind. In the night she got up, fell down the stairs, and broke her neck. She was 58. The caretaker found her in the morning.

Tragedy requires a fatal flaw in one’s character. Millay’s might have been her charming emotional immaturity. It takes maturity to house the creative vicissitudes of genius while longing for eternality.

I feel sisterhood with Millay. Although I am not a tragic figure, and no genius, I derive great spiritual zest from writing and the boost of getting published. There was in Millay’s work and life an ache, a profound soul-stretching yearning for something beyond. I recognize that ache in myself. Tears came to my eyes when as part of the tour we were able to hear her own voice reading her poetry. It was deep, resonant, like a slow roll of thunder brewing within a storm of passion. Not sad but simply tragic.

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

    “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Elegant Soul in LIfe and Death: James Keegan, S.J.

The Rev. James Keegan, S. J. (1940-2018), a man of wit and wisdom who brought life to others through his ready grin, bold heart, and sharp mind—always ready to leap the bounds of traditional religious rigidities, died this week into the great mercies of God.
I say this, not because Jim complained or was fed up with life. Not at all. Jim gave life every ounce of everything he had for 78 years. He was born in Franklin New Hampshire, grew up attending Roman Catholic schools and Boston College where he majored in English. He taught high school English and theology in Portland Maine and then was assigned to Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There he met William Barry under whose tutelage he learned to pray, fell in love with Jesus in his own flesh and prayer, and was ordained a priest in 1971—a late vocation you could say. Still, his early experience formed him to be, to use an old-fashioned sort of word, well rounded: all life mattered. Jim Keegan's mantra was: seize life!

In his last years Jim struggled with the diminishments of Parkinson’s disease for many years. He had lost mobility, speech, and most recently, bore up under a case of shingles as a “bonus". Yet Jim retained a sharp sense of the divine voice and energy, so much so that he received visits from people who sought him out for spiritual guidance and direction until just a week before his death.

[NOTE: Despite what you might have heard anywhere from anyone, God doesn’t cause any of this. It just happens. Still, some people seem to have more suffering to bear than others—again, by nature’s design, not divine design, or desire. The sacred holy heart weeps with us who weep, and wept, for Jim.]

The Rev. Jim Weiss, Episcopal priest and Professor of Theology at Boston College, as well as one of Keegan’s directees, shared his own reflections: “The last time I saw Jim for direction I told him I had nothing much to say, that I’d been busy and hadn’t even prayed as I would like. Jim, whose head drooped low and whose speech was generally unintelligible, suddenly lifted his head, his eyes bright and focused, and said clearly: ‘That’s just what you think. There’s a lot more going on.’”

Weiss also revealed that two things about Jim Keegan had stayed predictable and constant right up to the end: his sweet tooth and his penchant for puns. He loved chocolate chip cookies [I can identify!] and wherever he was, in his long career as a Jesuit priest, spiritual guide, teacher and friend, his family sent him tins of cookies. When the cookies arrived his colleagues hung out and hovered, like children ready to pilfer from the cookie jar. Jim would tell them: “There’s a toll for the Toll House Cookies, you know.”

The sermon, delivered by Jim’s friend of many years, Richard W. Bollman, S.J. of Milton, Ohio, was quite splendid—faithful to the person and wealth of character of his buddy as well as to the gospel message of hope in the midst of inevitable aging and death. In John 21, the risen Christ grills Simon Peter about the fortitude of his love. Christ is remembered in John’s gospel as saying to Peter: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands. Someone else will dress you. Someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.”

Will Peter carry out the vision of love and service in the best and worst of times?  Will we?

Bollman spoke about his visits to Keegan. The phrase he used about pushing his dear friend about in a wheelchair was: “It softened my competence.” Most of us can admit with honesty that when we are helping someone who is disabled, we secretly think about how good it is that we are just fine and able. I know that’s my first thought. Bollmann told us, however, that giving companionship to his suffering friend over time “fractured my poise.” He was plunged into his own vulnerability and rage at Parkinson’s. “Like Simon Peter in the gospel story, I was led somewhere I did not want to go,” he said.  

Jim Keegan’s poems are equal to his presence in the flesh. Words and feelings, raw and real, all move as one. One day in the midst of the dawning of awareness about his condition, he examined his own hands with dismay. As he did, he received a strong vision—newborn hands. It inspired him to write this poem, called “Hands.” The title of Keegan’s collection of poems is These Hands.

When did these hands become foreign to me?
Skewed like a lobster’s claws: about ten degrees
off at the wrist—and bony? Puffy blue rivers
of blood run north-northwest up their back side.

And when did these hands make enemies of
buttonholes, zippers, clasps, snaps, fasteners of
all sorts, screws, safety pins, paper clips or
any kind of knot? Did it happen in my sleep?

My sleep has been visited in recent weeks by a
newborn boy in a crowd. He looks at me and laughs,
stretches out to me ten perfect fingers and
holds my scarred flesh in his divine

Bollman had agreed to come and preach for one reason only: “Because he asked me.” Now here standing in front of the casket he asked his beloved friend: What do you want them to know?  The answer he received was: Tell them that it all belongs.

It all belongs.  Thank you Jim, and goodbye.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

2018.10.07 A Visit To The Farm: Sweet Memories Build Spiritual Resilience

Grabbing a short four days to head north to Ancramdale, New York sounds like a traditional leaf-peeping autumnal trip. It wasn’t.

First, there were no leaves of color on the green summer trees, even in upstate New York. There was torrential rain and bleak landscape covered mostly with fog. This should have dampened our spirits if that was what we’d hoped for. It didn’t.

We were looking for bright memories not bright colors—heading for Ancramdale to visit the farm where I’d spent summers as a child. Along the way I kept looking for Route 22, the one my parents had traveled from the big city Manhattan, leaving the minute school got out for the summer. I would get so excited as we drove up Route 22, I thought it would take forever. I felt the same way as Dick and I drove along, and I chattered to him about the Ancramdale chapter of my life. Route 22 finally appeared—still there. 

I’d regretted my parents’ decision to summer in Westhampton, L.I. when I was ten or so. I guess it was the upwardly mobile thing for a “Mad Man” and his young family to do back in the 1940s. But I missed the farm, my pony, the old swimming hole, my best friend Bella, and the big red barn with its hayloft from which we’d swing on a rope like monkeys. I loved being around animals I’d only seen in picture books: cows, horses, even grunty pigs. I did not miss the big fat beady-eyed rats or the fiercest loudest scariest mountain thunder storms, the likes of which I’d not known in the city. Even now as we snaked up 22, I conjured the dungy milky sneezy pungent hay smells of my barn.

Here is that dear old barn today, still standing but silent—no longer a working farm.
We found the things I remembered most and learned more about the Ancramdale backstory. My young parents weren’t dreaming of a rural getaway in February, 1942, but a business associate of Dad’s thought they’d love a free two-week vacation in the farmhouse he rented. I was three years old by then and my maternal grandmother would stay with me. My parents hopped on it. There was only one stipulation to this offer: that they not bother the Sommerhoff family, owners of the property who lived a short few blocks away at their place, The Sommer Hof, German for summer court or small enclosure. They kept their promise not to bother the Sommerhoffs, but the Sommerhoffs had made no such promise in reverse—and thank God for that.

The weather was unusually frigid, well below freezing and with strong winds. The little cottage had no heat and so many holes that the wind whistled through it. There was a fireplace around which my parents huddled and shivered. They moved their bedding to sleep there. My mother reported that her Coke froze solid. Probably Dad’s gin didn’t freeze.  The Sommerhoffs, Kurt and Ba, worried and debated. Compassion won out and they called my parents just to ask if they’d like to come for a hot meal and a hot shower. Salvation! Thus began a solid friendship of 26 years. 

My father wrote a poem about this amazing friendship—all printed out and framed. Though not signed, this poem and neat printing is Dad’s voice and heart. I’d know it anywhere.
The Visit That Lasted Twenty-six Years

In the middle of February
    in ‘Forty-two,
The winds were like sixty,
    the temperature two.
An unheated farmhouse
    was the scene
Of  Peggy and Don’s
    vacation dream.

In warmth and comfort
     a mile away,
The Sommerhoffs worried
    most of the day.
But after the sun set—
    wouldn’t you know?
The Temperature dropped
    to fifteen below.

The Sommerhoffs seriously
    pondered intrusion;
Their kindness prevailed
    as they reached a conclusion.
They offered a bath
    and a hot dinner, too;
The Gillespie’s accepted
    without much ado.

The bath and the dinner,
    the company were
So great that the G’s
    not a muscle would stir
To return to that Hell
    which is supposed to be hot
But in this very case
    it most surely was not.

The Gillespies they sponged
    for a solid two weeks,
While the Sommerhoff food
    they stuffed in their beaks.
There’s a very good chance that
    they might still be there
If their meager finances could
    have stood wear and tear.

The friendship that started
    with this chilly tale
Has grown to a strength
    that never can fail.
Here’s a toast to the memories
    this friendship has known;
The Gillespies won’t trade them
    for the most precious stone.

We Gillespies never stopped going to Ancramdale to visit the Sommerhoffs even when we no longer spent summers there. I remember my father’s cursing heartily at the chains we put on our car against the winter ice and snow. They would snap and break off as we snaked up 22.  He pulled over, jumped out, swore at my mother, and repaired the chain link. It was Ancramdale or bust. Even if I moaned  that I might throw up, he motored on. Mom supplied a bag in case.

Emilie Sommerhoff, daughter of Chris Sommerhoff and granddaughter of Kurt and Ba, and her husband, Job Yacubian, still live in the original Sommerhoff home, the one we called the big house, the house of hospitality. They were charming and we felt at home.
Ancramdale felt the same to me some 70 years later. Emilie gave me a tour of the house and lovely conversation. The amazing thing is that it is not very changed from my childhood memories, although it is not a mansion as I’d remembered. The small windows just under the roof are still there, the large playroom upstairs, and the rope bannister going down to the hearth room where we all spent much time by the fire singing and laughing and partying. The thick lambswool rug is gone now. That rug used to scare me. I was sure mice were nesting in its depths. Emilie grinned and said: “You were probably right.” I think she loves the humble place as much as I do.
Before we left I had to find the farmhouse where my parents had originally stayed and where we spent so many delightful summers. Chris Sommerhoff and my old friend Bella helped me with an address. Here it is, now all spiffed up, painted red and obviously expanded. But I see it still it as the little white farmhouse with the vast cornfield next door.
The vast cornfield where I used to run and play—hide from discovery—still stands. I’d run through its neat rows, completely hidden from view, and share all my secret wonderings with God and myself. Cornfields whisper back. Did you know that?

And sweet memories provide resilience and hope in days when anxiety lurks and slinks around the edges of both the personal and the national. I feel grateful Thank you Emilie for inviting us to come again.



Sunday, September 30, 2018

2018.009.30 A Shot In The Soul

Yesterday I went into Boston to the installation of our cathedral’s new dean the Rev. Amy Ebeling McCreath. She’s now “very” reverend, but she looks to be the same solid, sane, and sensible self she has always looked to be.

I went because I know Amy and like her lots. I went because I’m thrilled that our cathedral has its first female dean. I went because our diocesan bishop usually delivers a homily filled both with wisdom AND good humor. I went also for a shot in the arm, my metaphor for what high-spirited liturgy can do for me. It lifts my soul and pulls me beyond my fears and woes. There is nothing as exhilarating for me as to be in the midst of hundreds of people all committed to the same faith and cause, all singing and responding as if they believed every single word of every single hymn and every single prayer. Good liturgy has more than a pinch of God in it. It has a dollop for me.

When lives are strained but hearts are full is one way to describe the effect of excellent liturgy.

I’d been immersed in crafting a sermon, finding a way to talk about the current situation in our politic scene and describe the culture of rape we live in, a culture that wounds everyone. The Church is not exempt from its own politics of power and rape.  Rape is obviously physical assault, but broadly defined, rape can rape you of your dignity, your worth, your esteem, your opportunities, your faith, your God, and yes, your very soul—the deepest part of your being where you connect with the grace and affirming presence of Being itself. 

The politics of church and world make me feel raped sometimes. I needed to be healed, made whole—not escape but be raised up and out. Great words, music and enlivening spirit do that. 

Here is a photo of Dean Amy. I wish her great grit and great grace as she enters into this new leadership ministry in our diocese. Here she is pre-dean and very rev. anyway.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

2018.09.23 A Crisis of Formation In the Episcopal Church?

Does anyone imagine that the core values of the Christianity—like social justice, prayer, outreach, compassion, liturgy, ministry, care for all Creation—flourish without a solid rootedness in faith formation? 

Yesterday Dick and I were presenters at a day-long Ministry Network Showcase, sponsored by the diocese. There were thirteen presenters sharing specific ministries focused on Reimagining Our Congregations, Building Our Relationships, and Engaging Our World. We spoke as the Coordinators of Education for Ministry (EfM) in the diocese. Here’s Dick at our resource table. So cute, isn’t he?
Obviously all presentations, strictly timed (with only a couple of cheats) at 18 minutes each, overlapped in energy and intent: being in relationship to work together as ministers to bring about justice, compassion, and peace. All these works can happen without religious faith of course, but the fuel for their implanting and ongoing verve is spiritual—the love of God in our flesh. It’s shareable!   Ministry is present in whatever we do. Think of it this way: everyone we meet and everything that happens presents us with an opportunity to enhance or impede the flow of divine love.

To avoid dryness, Dick and I invited the audience to listen in on a conversation between two lay Episcopalians about The Episcopal Church (TEC). We opened with “Houston, we have a problem! We can’t get down!”

What’s that got to do with the Church?

Despite being lost in wonder, love and praise over our liturgy and music, we haven’t done well landing in ongoing faith formation for adults—ADULTS!

Some facts—not fake news, taken from an article by Missy Morain, lifelong Christian formation advocate in the Diocese of Los Angeles, entitled “A Crisis of Formation.” 

“Christian Faith Formation in TEC is lifelong growth in the knowledge, service and love of God as followers of Christ and is informed by Scripture, Tradition and Reason.” That, dear friend, is TEC’s General Convention (GC) resolution passed in 2009.

Are we doing it?

Not so much.
    -At our 2018 GC there was NO talk about formation and discipleship.
    -Over the past nine years GC made significant changes to structure and governance of TEC.  They chose in 2012, just three years after that noble resolution, to END the work of the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Formation, to CUT its budget by $2 million, AND to reduce its full-time staff from 9 people to 4. FOUR!
    -There is only enough staff and funding to work on formation for ages 13-30. Do the math. Is that lifelong?

It IS a crisis. What now?

EfM of course. It’s offered by the Beecken Center of the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennesee and has been around since 1975. It is defined as a distance learning program of adult formation—a curriculum covering both biblical testaments, church history and theology over four years. EfM meets in small weekly seminar groups guided by certified and re-certified mentors. EfM happens all over TEC and the Anglican Communion AND it’s ecumenical, open to all denominations. 

Too big a commitment!

Sign up one year at a time.

My Rector’s too busy to take on another parish program.

EfM is not a parish program. It comes at no cost and with nothing to do. Maybe offer space.

Oh, the vestry will love that! 

EfM thrives on TR. That’s theological reflection, a process that helps us connect the wisdom of our faith tradition to our lived experience. TR is spiritual: EfM’s heart and soul. Insights are electric!

Come on! Really?

Yup. Here are a couple of true examples.

I’m a parent serving on our local school board. I was recently stunned when one of our kindergarten teachers came before the board. She spoke about EfM, said it made her a theologian and a minister. She asked us if she could apply the 18 CEUS she got yearly for her EfM training to fulfill her continuing education requirement as a teacher.  She told us she saw her students with new eyes. I was so impressed.

Did the board grant her request?

You bet we did—unanimously.

Another EfM’er, a businessman, raved about his EfM group, told me he never thought of himself as a minister. “Imagine me a minister!” He laughed, then told me he saw his staff and clients differently. “Maybe I try to see them as God sees them.”

Hey, Houston, EfM is a way for TEC to land and to honor its own resolution.

Besides brochures we made book marks with contact information and EfM’s purpose and mission:



EfM Coordinators:
    Lyn Brakeman:lyngbrakeman@gmailcom, 978-314-7763
    Dick Simeone:, 978-314-7762

Sunday, September 16, 2018

2018.09.16 A Rant

Since this is a rant I begin with asking forgiveness from anyone who may be hurt by its excesses.

I’m not shocked at the omnipresence of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Nor am I shocked by the ongoing widespread coverup. I am, however, incredulous that so many men whose vocations and careers have taken them to the top echelons of an institution which calls itself religious have become so immersed in pathological denial that they are “eating their young.”

Why doesn’t someone notice the disconnect? Institutionalized moral rules for good give rise to moral ills. It’s ironic to me that this institution funds and advocates for social justice while simultaneously being a source of social injustice.

There is no verifiably direct causality but there is uncanny correlation between required celibacy for clergy and sexual abuse of the innocent; between prohibition against ordaining woman clergy and isolation with increased vulnerability of male clergy, both heterosexual and homosexual; between prohibitions against divorce, birth control, abortion, and remarriage in the church and painful offshoots like poverty, poor health, hunger, unemployment, domestic misery, homelessness, suicide, prostitution, infant mortality, crimes of violence, and the biggest stressor of all on human and natural resources: overpopulation. Overpopulation!!

The largest Christian denomination in the world is not exempt from the part its policies play in the brokenness of those it seeks to love and serve, including its clergy.

I know. I know. I know  . . .
    -Debate on these issues at all levels of the institutional church is in process and is very complex—historically, politically and theologically. Debate is better than stonewalling. Maybe the clergy crimes are generational, but the wounds and healing processes of the victims know no generation, no statute of limitation.
    -Truly, some of my dearest friends are Roman Catholic.
    -I have never been abused by a Roman Catholic priest but have counseled many clients who have, including a former Roman Catholic priest who had been deposed for pedophilia. He had lost his entire pension and a large chunk of his soul.
    -I have experienced excellent spiritual direction from Roman Catholic priests.
    - I am an Associate of the Religious Sisters of Mercy; many sisters feel as pained as I do.
    -The majority of Roman Catholic clergy are faithfully carrying out their vocations and share my distress. Institutionalized abuse is not unique to this church. Its epidemic proportions are. 
    -Attracted to the sacrament of the Mass and the embodied way of prayer, I once took instructions to become Roman Catholic. I could not become Roman Catholic, because the only woman up front on the altar scene was a statue—sweet, silent, and immobile.
What does this twisted torturous “morality” do to faithful people inside and outside the institution? What does it do to the wrenching disconnect between preaching and practice? What does it do to the God who has infinite love for the infinitesimal?  What does it do to the Way of Love Jesus Christ proclaimed? It raises all hell, that’s what it does.

Is this assessment fair? NO
Is it complete? NO
Is it angry? YES
Is it truthful? YES
Is it hopeless? NO
Is it a prayer?  YES
Is it a holy NO? YES

Is there a rave in my rant? YES—for those Roman Catholic clergy and lay people who excise beauty, hope, and community from exquisite liturgy—the consistent, repetitive simplicity of ancient word, ancient meal, and love-longing prayers. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

2018.09.09 Moments To Ponder In Poetry

The poet Jane Kenyon wrote: “A Poet’s job is to find a name for everything: to be a fearless finder of the names of things.” For this you have to notice what is and distill it for good reason.


They came
they saw
they did not conquer
but laid to rest.

I watched
I waited
I did not pray
but vigil kept.

My vigil began at seven when the nagging bleat of the buzzsaw
brought me awake with a shudder.

Another tree
—alive and well and old like me—
with a diagnosis I did not understand:
no disease, no deterioration, no blight

The operation took four hours and five men
in electric green shirts and orange helmets
They worked with care, efficiency
    no step overlooked, little talk—hints of tenderness
Surgery is like that: assess and cut twig, branch, limb, trunk, stump—one by one. Or is that

No battle, no guns, no bombs, no fall—just an
enormously majestic oak of great worth
    of great dignity
        of elegant beauty
            of saintly service
a steadfast presence shading and shielding tender underlings for years—
The pronouncement? Death by landscaping.
The why? Development: more condos like mine.
Yes, but . . . in the end the landscape suffers—like mine when
my parents— one by one—became memories on the landscape of my mind
                by Lyn Gillespie Brakeman, 2018


The evening is lovely
light blue, mild with
cloud puffs so
light they don’t interfere
with sun’s light.
We have it all tonight
the air unconditioned, and Lo!
a doe light-stepping the green expanse
of lawn, her speckled fawn at play.
I cough.
Her ears stand at attention, her nose
combs the air, head pivots as the
little one scampers, frolics—completely free to experiment
with life while
her mama stands sentinel, and buck-daddy lurks nearby in the woods,
ready to charge at a moment’s notice.
He is unafraid for the sake of love,
not budging even for the huge noisy rider mower

I worry the fawn will dart out into the road, get run

A chill moves the air. I turn to reach for
my sweatshirt and when I turn
back, they are gone
vanished—so close and yet so far—like Godde

Oh, stay in the woods, small one—grow and
Soon enough you will have to be watchful—not yet

Pink streaks over the blue
sun going and going.

It’s twinight—so pretty in peace.

Everyone in the world everywhere has
                               Lyn Gillespie Brakeman, 2014

Sunday, September 2, 2018

2018.09.02 Eighty Is Eighty

This is how my 80th birthday celebration went.  I’ve written about this in many ways in different sites, but I’m not done celebrating. 

I was born August 7, 1938. My husband Dick was born also on August 7 but in 1941. His brain is three years younger than mine. That’s helpful at my age! (Photo November, 2017)
We decided in 2018 to celebrate our one day twice—one dinner out for my day and one for his. The first dinner was at a new Indian restaurant, Nirvana in Cambridge. We love Indian food and had scheduled our reservation early, 5:30—the hour of dining for oldies and what I’d sworn I’d never do. We expected nirvana. When we arrived we were greeted by the noisy, messy chaos of a birthday party for a group of eleven-year-old boys, complete with birthday cake and a food fight. So we talked about memories of being wildly pre-pubescent ourselves and memories of being parents of seven children and a few grandchildren in the same state of explosive life.

Our second chosen restaurant is a favorite neighborhood restaurant—Italian, Dick’s heritage. We are friendly with the staff. I have learned a few Italian words and some of the wait staff speak Spanish. It’s the restaurant we went to nearly every night when we first moved to Cambridge eight years ago and were waiting for our appliances to be installed. We were sure we’d be feted and treated like the regulars we are, and especially with a high profile birthday. However, both managers were on vacation, the place was hopping with people who had spilled out and into the restaurant from an event in nearby Danehy Park, and they were understaffed and rushing around, even had the bartender waiting tables. They hardly noticed us. We talked about the spirituality of patience, finally agreeing that it was for the saints, or at least the birds.  Spoiled, privileged, entitled, yes, but not guilty. Prego.

We got off to our two weeks' vacation in Nantucket the next day. Even the ferry food tasted good, and the sun shone brightly as the sea breeze unruffled our feathers. We were almost afraid to try again at our favorite island restaurant, 56 Union. We waited till Monday, a low night we hoped, and we went at 7 p.m. As we came in the hostess asked us if we’d like to be seated in “the quiet room.”  Ah!  Aging is good.

At the end of our birthday month after we were back home, my four children, all from Connecticut, came to take me out for lunch on Sunday August 26. They had asked what I wanted and I told them I wanted to be together with them—just them, no spouses or grandchildren. They thought we could meet somewhere equidistant, but I said I wanted them to come here. One daughter had never seen where I live in retirement. And so it was. Our lunch at Artistry on the Green in Lexington, was elegant, quiet, and relaxed. No agendas, no need for deep confessions, no leftover family kvetches, no pressurized joy. It was perfect, which doesn’t mean there was no chaos in each life. That was put aside for the day. It was a ritual as holy as Sunday church or my birth day, Sunday. They gave me a funny card, a multi-colored piñata signed with little love notes from each one of them, and a gift card for the Seaside Motel in Maine where we for years have spent Thanksgiving week and celebrated our wedding anniversary, November 23.  And they paid the tab.
(Robert William, 51,III, Jill Barlow, 54, Lynda Gillespie, 80, John Thomas, 47, Beverley Ann, 55—all Brakeman)

Eighty for me is not the new 60, or 40. Eighty is quiet of soul—glory, gratitude, humor, love, and good looks thrown in.