Sunday, June 24, 2018

2018.06.24 On the Divine Beauty of Children

Children have been in the news a lot lately, mostly in horror stories of cruelty at our borders—cruelty that makes my heart quiver. Just this morning in the Boston Globe I read the story of a young teenage girl who jumped to her death from a Massachusetts Turnpike overpass bridge onto the busy highway below. Her young body lay in the breakdown lane last Monday as cars sped by. Her family tracked her cell phone GPS. The final sentence of the piece by Mark Arsenault iced my lifeblood: “And yes, it was early and it had been dark, but it hurt Dean (the father) that nobody had stopped for his baby.”

Lord, have mercy, I prayed—not reasoned but real, and full of fear for our own grandchildren. It took time, some conversation, and a morning in church where a million chants and hymns, holy words and music, lovely food, and tributes to a departing priest both absorbed and converted my fears to gratitude. I think of this odd experience as an answer to a very old prayer—the baby talk of early Christianity: Lord have mercy.  

With gratitude I write about some of our children of issue. Children of issue is a legal term for one’s kids. It means children or lineal descendants such as grandchildren or great-grandchildren, but only the direct bloodline. Associations to this “issue” term suggest legal battles over custody or inheritance—control or money. Who are the real bloody children of issue? But my associations are spiritual, not legal. It’s my wont to see divinity in everything, but just because it’s my wont doesn’t mean it’s errant.

Our “issues”  number 12, 6 boys, 6 girls, ranging from 22 to 4, and some pugs, Louie and Frankie and Olive. We count them as “issue” because their owner, my second daughter, Jill Brakeman, does. They go to work and help their Mama the lawyer, sort out many complicated issues.
Plenitude and potentiation are words that pop into my mind when I think of children. It’s June and many of our “issues” are blooming.

I believe children are born insistently human, vulnerable, and innocent—not sinful. God is present in every single conception and birth. Christian baptism is the sacramental affirmation of that graced condition. These are Christ’s children of issue.

Our “issues” don’t visit much because they are in the middle of their own “project life.” We don’t visit much, mostly for the same reason. But when there’s a visit there is joy. Facebook has no flesh, but it fills in when visits aren’t possible.

Dick’s youngest child, a daughter, Honor, was just here for a few days with her son Brianjohnson who is thirteen. They are vivacious and full of fun, and Brianjohnson has the biggest laptop I’ve ever seen. It’s keyboard is back-lit in red and there’s a small satanic insignia on the top—Alienware. “I can play games right on the computer. This computer can do that.”  He brims with joy, much deeper than any computer.

In other June news, Beverley Brakeman, the oldest of our 12, is now officially the new Director of Region 9A of the United Auto Workers, sworn in at their 37th Constitutional Convention. Bev will lead the Connecticut-based region forward in their ongoing advocacy for workers’ rights. Bev has always been a leader. Ask her siblings. Already facing big challenges to her program, she felt normal temptations to split, but she said. “I won’t because good leaders don’t do that.” We couldn’t be in Detroit to cheer Bev and hear her acceptance speech, but I know she received heartfelt and hearty salutations from her members and more than one standing ovation. Her boyfriend and her two daughters and her dad and stepmom all were there. Bev is bringing me a “Team Brakeman” tee shirt. Here she is giving her acceptance speech and with her brother Rob and with Chris Corcoran.
Another brimming-with-pride-and-joy “issue” is Thomas Joseph Simeone (middle) who just graduated from 5th grade. He’s 11 and a serious hockey and baseball player. When he was little he made sure to kiss all his many stuffed animals goodnight. This kid has soul. So does his sister, Lucia, (top) who recently suffered a severe break in her elbow and surgery but plans to strengthen herself so she can return to the sport she so loves. And then there is Harrison, 8, the youngest of these three—solemn and bright-eyed. He’s a kid who could actually run/skitter sideways just after he’d learned to walk.

Yesterday we went to a marathon dance recital in which one of our “issues” Eliza Brakeman, 14, danced. She moves with precision and is obviously delighted with this sport of beauty and energy—and community. Dancers, like singers, do not always have solos so they must cooperate in the movement together‚ as one. That is the spirituality of dance.
And here is one happy little boy out for his first ride on Daddy’s (John Brakeman, 47) motorbike. Dylan Brakeman is just four. When the bike started up and moved out, he hollered, “Hey, baby!”
Children of all ages brim over, not just the privileged ones. I’ve seen photos of kids brimming over and laughing even in the midst of squalor and poverty.
I know I exaggerate and am selective to make my point but I did see happy, poor Palestinian children in a refugee camp in Israel when we visited in 2015. Out of respect I didn’t take any photos. I’ve also seen children happy while terminally ill when I was a chaplain on the pediatric floor of a large city hospital.

All children are children of issue of the one God called Love. And their joyful beauty, against all reason, is contagious—I dare say divine.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

2018.06.17 Fathers, Rise Up!

Right now in Syria there is no law and order— and children are its victims.

Right now in the United States there is an excess of law and order—and children are its victims.

How can such a grotesque irony be?  I’m not suggesting that children are the only victims but a child’s vulnerability plucks the heart strings of the world. Such music is mournfully plaintive.

In Syria the ruling powers of government are battling for control and the country is in the midst of a devastating civil war. We all have seen the soul-wrenching picture of the small child face down on a beach. His name was Aylan Kurdi, age 3, and he drowned along with his mother as the family tried to escape from  their war-torn country in September, 2015. They hoped to find sanctuary through family in Canada. Below is Aylan before and after. It’s a good idea to look back and remember, so we can, in this case, see and know how far we have not come.

Aylan’s father remained alive and spoke of his grieving heart. Many times he repeated how “tired” he was of war. Tired. Tired. Tired. It’s Fathers’ Day here. Mothers have united against drunk driving and marched to protest any number of violent things that hurt children. Is it time for fathers to unite to protest and to march? The Bible calls God "Father" and Christians pray: “Our Father. . .”

Fathers! Rise up—not to fight but to make non-violent protest against violence against children.

Jesus of Nazareth told parables. They were puzzling stories designed to challenge his listeners to see things from new perspectives, and then figure out what if anything to do about their new understanding. Parables consistently challenged the platitude: “We’ve always done it this way.”

Today’s gospel was the familiar mustard seed parable. Jesus compared this mustard shrub to the kingdom of God: from a tiny seed of a nondescript bush grows a kingdom of glory, grace and space for every living thing in all Creation. Pretty laughable, right? Suddenly, as often happens with scripture, I thought of a mustard seed being like a small child. From the smallest children—even the dead ones, yes,—will grow and flourish the life of Godde on earth as it is in heaven.

How many children have to die because our government won’t legislate gun control?  I believe that the well-being of the whole is the responsibility of every individual. Children have an edge—little children face down on beaches, teens hugging and wailing because their classmates are dead and they are alive, children wrenched from their parents to make a point about law and order, one more parent explaining to a child that school is safe, then praying to God it is.

We need to change—radically—how we see things. In this country I think we have made an idol of our Chief Executive. Seriously, we all, friend and foe, are mesmerized (including avoidance in this paralytic strategy) by his every tweet and executive order, mostly designed, let’s be honest, to undo the executive policies of his predecessor. It’s more like dueling executive orders, one black, one white, than honest partisan politics with compromise and conversation. I smell the sin of racism, not to mention idolatry.

Idols hold all the power; idols demand and receive worshipful attention, yes, even if some worship by approach and some by avoidance. The attachment holds. Idolatry leaves no room for   the one holy and living God of grace. Religious people know better—or should.

And for Christians, Christ insisted—insisted—to the point of death that hope defeats despair and life defeats death. What a tall tale! Whether you believe Jesus rose from the dead or not, or in a God who continues to creates life no matter what, this wild message, this story, has persisted, and persisted and persisted. And persisted.

Fathers, rise up and proclaim!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

2018.06.10 Funeral For a Chapel

This week we went to a Holy Eucharist and Secularization of St. John’s Memorial Chapel on the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) campus. I wondered anew about the distinction between secular and sacred—maybe not so binary. It was sad and somehow defiantly hopeful as the spire pierced the bright blue sky as if to say: I will always be here even when I’m not visible.

There are many better photos but here is the one I took the day of the memorial.
It seems odd to me that I had so much feeling. I was not alone. Memory sobbed in the air. This 1967 statue of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, sculpted by Walker Hancock in 1966 in memory of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, EDS student who would have been graduated from EDS in 1966 had he not been assassinated in Alabama while trying to shield young Ruby Sales, said it all: a beloved school is closed for reasons uncertain. Now the chapel will find another use. Christ grieves with us.
I am not a graduate of EDS, though I took a couple of courses there and visited when I was exploring seminary education back in the 1970s. I chose Yale Divinity School mostly because I could commute from my home, and too, because I preferred a non-denominational seminary. I missed my Anglicanization, but my beloved priest, later my spouse, taught me everything I needed to know and gave me Mass classes too.

Dick is a lifer—50 years as a priest in full-time parish ministry. He survived well in part because he didn’t need everyone to like him. Appalling! “You gotta be border-line hated to exert good leadership.” There’s wisdom in that statement. Dick was a cookie cutter Episcopalian from childhood. Openness to change is the secret of survival. Episcopalians evolve—some kicking and screaming, some joyfully, and some in the Resurrection.

The Chapel Eucharist was followed by the deconsecration of the chapel. Deconsecration isn’t the best word, because this space will never not be holy, although it will probably be used for other than religious purposes. Bishop Alan Gates suggested the word “decommissioning” as a way to understand the process. It was first commissioned as a place of worship in 1869.

We began with shared reflections and remembered stories. One of my favorites was one the bishop told. He was an EDS student when one of the more august and wry professors took him into the chapel and pointed to the stained glass window in the apse. “Do you see that?” he asked. “Yes,” Gates said. “The panel with our Lord” the professor said.  Gates pointed to the one he thought the professor meant. “No, I mean that one of our Lord in the middle.”  “Oh yes.”  “What color is that robe?” “Red.” "Yes, and what is our Lord saying?"  Gates was stumped, fearing there might be some obvious liturgical answer he should know. “ Our Lord is saying, ‘Hey How do you like my new red dress?’”

There was humor and reverent irreverence, the spirit of EDS.  The liturgy soared. There was perhaps an over-abundance of music—just the right amount of too many Magnificats. Still, it was a time for singing, weeping, and remembering. I particularly liked the way the Prayers of the People were sung—a cantor offering biddings, followed by voices from the congregation with particular concerns, the refrainic antiphon, all of it underscored by soft humming of choir and congregation. For once words didn’t dominate and collective prayers did rise and surround us like incense.

The Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher, the first woman of American Indian (Cherokee) heritage consecrated bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2001, and EDS graduate 1989, gave the homily. It was humorous and full of memories of worship in this chapel.

Bp. Gallagher reminded us: “Any place we make too sacred can destroy us. Move on.” It hurt to hear and it is the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Move on. She closed her homily singing a hymn “It is well with my soul.” We joined in. Gifts we have received here do not die; they change the world.

The memorial chapel of St. John’s was erected by Robert Means Mason for the school in 1895. One of its closest neighbors was the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who sang its praises.

I stand beneath the tree, whose branches shade
    Thy western window, Chapel of St. John!
    And hear its leaves repeat their benison
On him, whose hand thy stones memorial laid;
    Then I remember one of whom was said
In the world’s darkest hour, “Behold my son!”
     And see him living still, and wandering on
     And waiting for the advent long delayed.
     Not only tongues of the apostles teach
Lessons of love and light, but these expanding
And sheltering boughs with all their leaves implore,
      And say in language clear as human speech,
“The peace of God, that passeth understanding,
      Be and abide with you forevermore!”

Benison means blessing. Not every blessing must be sung except in the heart, and not every blessing must be spoken by human tongue. No blessing ever fades away.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

2018.06.03 The Go-Cart, Its Designer, and His Sister

’Tis the season of go-carts. You don’t see many of those around any more, especially homemade ones. One of our grandsons, Luke Matthew Simeone, is a go-cart aspirant. Luke is a high school junior who aspires to study engineering in college. But first he’s trying to master the art of go-carting.
Here is last year’s failed attempt, awaiting this year’s remodeling. It crashed. No injuries except to the ego.
And here he is at the wheel with his older sister Ali assisting from the rear. This is the repaired model.  Will he try it again this year?
One of life’s loveliest experiences for me is to meet a grandchild who has grown up and has aspirations, conversation, formed personality. When we don’t see them, except perhaps once or twice a year, we miss a lot. When we see them only as small children or teens in their family context or at an event like graduation, we miss a lot. When we see them on their own, gently poised on the brink of maturity when they are living away from home, we get to know them out of context for the first time. It brings joy.

We visited Ali Simeone at Lehigh University as she started her freshman year. She is studying engineering and will major in civil engineering. We had the pleasure of taking Ali to lunch and actually getting to know her as a young adult in her college context. She is exceptionally intelligent, and besides that, her personality shines—funny, talkative, bright. In other words, I’d want to be her friend—if I weren’t 60 years her senior and her step-grandmother. Is there such a category?
Here is Ali in her prom dress.  (I cringe remembering my own first prom dress—pink organza and strapless—myself a late bloomer sadly lacking in cleavage. )

Luke is also superbly intelligent, gifted in math, and plans to study engineering. He’s not as extroverted as his sister though he has a quiet sense of humor that keeps his family laughing. My favorite memory of Luke is from the time we were in New Jersey visiting and they had just gotten their new wii—with strict parental limitations on its use. Luke was already a developing wii whiz and wanted to play it 24/7. He knew how to lobby—again quietly and with humor. At each place where an adult would be sitting at the dinner table he placed small handwritten signs: “Think wii!”

Two engineers in one family, you need a little levity. Here are two Luke jokes:

Q What do you call a non-professional pig?
A  A hamateur! 

Q  What do you call quarters falling down out of the sky? 
A   Climate change. 

Ali is a gifted soccer player. Luke is a gifted golfer—already able to outplay his father. There’s grace in his swing.
At his junior prom Luke and his date, both in formal prom attire, posed swinging golf clubs—refreshing compared to the usual posed pose showing awkward teenagers, usually dying to shed the formality and any leftover social fears. 

To know young people not simply through the lens of either their social problems or their grades  is a  uniquely grandparental privilege. Parents worry about school and social adjustments. Grandparents can simply enjoy the blossoming for its own sake. It’s better than gardening, because you didn’t labor over these “plants” yet you behold their beauty.

We have a commitment we hope to keep for all twelve of our grandchildren: to visit each of them at their college, their job, or their first apartment when they move from home. We might make it.