Sunday, July 29, 2018

2018.07.29 Thank You Episcopal Church

At the 2018 General Convention of the Episcopal Church (TEC), the legislative houses passed a resolution about prayer book revision. It addresses language about God—my peeve and passion of years.  Here is the wording of the relevant resolutions:

New plan for liturgical and prayer book revision
Convention adopted a plan for liturgical and prayer book revision that sets the stage for the creation of new liturgical texts to respond to the needs of Episcopalians across the church while continuing to use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Resolution A068 originally called for the start of a process that would lead to a fully revised prayer book in 2030. The bishops instead adopted a plan for “liturgical and prayer book revision for the future of God’s mission through the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”

The bishops’ amended resolution calls for diocesan bishops to engage worshiping communities in experimentation and creation of alternative liturgical texts that they will submit to a new Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision to be appointed by the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies.

It also says that liturgical revision will utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity, and will incorporate understanding, appreciation and care of God’s creation.

Meanwhile, General Convention also adopted a resolution that allows all congregations in the Episcopal Church to use optional, expansive-language versions of three Rite II Eucharistic prayers in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Resolution D078 provides alternative language for Prayer A, Prayer B and Prayer D. The changes are available for trial use until the completion of the next comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer.

This project coordinates well with the mission strategy of the Episcopal  Diocese of Massachusetts: Embracing Brave Change.
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I found TEC over fifty years ago when I was in college, thanks to the college chaplain who discerned my longing for, well, worship with chutzpah, bold enough to invite my whole body to enter in—kneel, pray standing, cross myself, move to the altar, and call out: “And with thy spirit.” TEC (our shield below) was also talking about women being ordained priests—some distant day, but they were at least wondering whether women were also called by God.
Our Book of Common Prayer, the “bible” of our worship, has an astoundingly open-ended Preface for 1789. It authorizes the church to make adjustments, abridgments, and alterations to this book in accordance with its purpose: “the edification of its people,”  and according to the exigencies of the times. There have been many revisions over time. The point is that our common prayer reflects who we are and what we believe about God and about ourselves and the Creation in which we live.

TEC will not publish a whole new prayer book, which is wise considering that paper is slowly losing its dominance in the digital age. Ah, I grieve—and shred! Still, this year’s resolution is revolutionary, because it calls for changes in theological language, that is language about God, or the image of God. Traditionally, God has been clothed in words that portray God as dominantly transcendent, excessively almighty and exclusive masculine. The image of God has been stunted, incomplete, and yup, errant.

My memoir God Is Not a Boy’s Name. Becoming Woman Becoming Priest (2016, Wipf and Stock/Cascade Books) tells the story of my fight with the patriarchal Episcopal Church to be ordained priest and my ongoing conviction that God/divinity has no gender, let alone one gender only. I have lobbied and prayed with audacious chutzpah that the wholeness of the divine image be accurately reflected in our words. (Me and two of my books.)
There’s an expression in the Talmud called chutzpah kelapei Shemaya, calling for boldness. Chutzpah, btw, is not Yiddish but Aramaic and is from the Babylonian Talmud. Jesus knew this spirit well. It’s all over the Bible.

I feel accompanied by influential biblical characters who had such audacity, even confronting God on occasion: Moses scolded God for giving the people too much gold—if You hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have had enough to make the idolatrous calf you got so jealous of!  Wasn’t it Moses too who smashed those sacred tablets to smithereens?  And didn’t Jesus break into the Temple, recalling it to its mission of prayer? Mother Mary’s Magnificat praises God for pulling off some major social class reversals; the woman at the well challenges Jesus’s theology; the Syrophoenician woman challenges his Jewish exceptionalism. These may be symbolic stories but they shine the harsh light of judgment on “the ways we’ve always done it” and pack a wallop, forcing us to think again as we embrace brave change.

Language is our most potent creating symbol. It must live and it must have enough chutzpah to keep us alive and awake. Thank you Episcopal Church.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

2018.07.22 Mary Magdalene—Her Day/My Day

She never gets her day, officially July 22 on the liturgical calendar. Rarely does a parish Eucharist devote a sacred Sunday to this biblical woman of ill repute and holy stature—at once. This contemporary woman, myself, always lobbied for Mary to have her day on a Sunday, transferred if necessary. I persisted and sometimes I got it, for Magdalene and me.

There’s no need to go into a lot of history or theological reflection about Magdalene being the first witness to the Resurrection of Christ, and therefore the apostle to the apostles—beating the men to the punch. We’ve beaten her drum to death. Still, she intrigues me. She was the one Mary who loitered, sometimes in the shadows and sometimes brazenly up front, bent on following Jesus around like a pet lamb. Well, that’s not a very complimentary metaphor, but truthfully that’s how it looks in the biblical stories. That’s also how it looks in 2018—women loitering  in the background, visibly or not—shadow forms in photos of gathered groups of men who run the state, the church, the government, the corporation, the university, the cosmos!

But Mary hung out anyway. She reminds me of myself, not willing to leave in case there is something more to see or to learn or to know. I linger and loiter with steadfast irritation. So, like Mary, I’d peer into an empty tomb just in case the one I loved and followed and tried to imitate was still in there. And I'd keep watch for a long time.
In the biblical story Mary hovered, weeping in front of the empty tomb, but then she turned at the sound of her name. Hey, Mary, look over here. She thinks he’s the gardener at first. But he calls out: I’m here. It’s me. I’m in ghost-like form and you can’t hug me or touch me.

Unfair. But Mary gets to run quickly and tell the others she’s seen the “risen” Lord so they can discount her idle tale as they practically run over her racing toward the tomb to see for themselves.

Nope. I would’ve stayed at the tomb. I would have waited even longer. I would have persisted. I would not have gotten distracted by the wisp of a vision and an echo of a familiar voice in my imagination. I would have stayed staring into the emptiness until my tears dried waxen adhered to my cheeks, till I could finally see dark emptiness only, till I could finally say: okay, he is dead and gone and murdered and tortured and despised and without form and void—no longer mine.

Then I would go outside into the world where I live. There I walk and look carefully, scrutinizingly, suspiciously at every single minute slice of visible, tangible, audible, smellable, tasteable, breathable stuff—and yearn. That’s how I grieve. That’s how I keep going. That’s how I re-up for life. That’s why I need beauty—in sanctuaries: natural, religious, secular— every day. It’s a forever thing.

How is it for you?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

2018.07.15 Portraits of Resilience, Daniel Jackson—Rave Book Review

Sathya Silva, 2016 MIT graduate, doctorate in Aeronautics and Astronautics, human performance investigator,  NTSB

Silva is one of twenty-five portraits, interspersed with photos of campus sites, in this beautiful book by Daniel Jackson, photographer and Professor of Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The book was published in 2017 by MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is dedicated in part with words of a blessing prayer  from his own religious tradition. 

            Blessed be the One who makes darkness pass and brings light
                        (blessing prayer from the Sephardic liturgy)

“Depression may seem to be an unpromising topic for an uplifting book.” writes Jackson in his Introduction.
And yet . . . Jackson (above) wondered, marveled really, at the resilience he uncovered and brought to light. “I was encountering depression all around. Every term, ten or more students in my class were seeking advice as they found themselves falling behind—and not due to any lack of talent or commitment.” Jackson wrote. MIT had experienced a rash of suicides, however suicide is, of course, not unique to the MIT community. “I had an inkling that members of my community—the students, faculty and administrators of MIT—would have more to share than sad stories.”

Pursuing his “inkling”, Jackson created Portraits. I say “create” rather than authored, because Jackson needed the help, courage, and honesty of many many people to give shape and bring light to his idea: that people suffer in silence and shame because of the social stigma placed on depression, a powerful stigma that keeps people from healing, binds them in shame, and isolates them in darkness. Stigma, I believe, can also be a source of violence because it is rooted in fear, and fear annihilates, from within or without.

I first heard Jackson and two of his portrait subjects interviewed on WGBH’s "Greater Boston." Inspired, I bought the book, read it, located Jackson through the faculty email list, scheduled a time for a conversation, then made my way in high noon July heat to MIT. Miraculously, I did not get lost (my wont). I entered this world of Science—a foreign land to me. Honestly, every wall, not simply inside classrooms, was white board. Most were filled with scrawls of equations of what looked like ancient cuneiform. I gawked. And they think religion is gobbledegook!?

When I left, after an hour and a half of one of the most exhilarating conversations I’d had in some time, I was invigorated. The heat didn’t seem so heavy as I made my way home, wondering, remembering.  

Depression and addiction run all through my family on all sides. Both were always unmentionable, disguised, as in “Wasn’t Uncle XXX affable tonight?” This uncle was drunk. This uncle was depressed. These two often go together. Two cousins, one from each side of my family, committed suicide. I think my dad was depressed and alcohol temporarily unlocked his mood. My own children and theirs are not immune. I get it. Things are better today with psychotherapy and medication, yet no therapy heals unless clients are willing and able to tell the truth about their deepest inner struggles. One reason I eventually trained to become a therapist is because I believe in the healing power of story—true story told to a compassionate other who listens. You can tweak behavior and cognition ten ways to Sunday, and it helps. Still, it’s surface mechanics.

Jackson found, as I have, that to break the barriers of secrecy, privacy, and anonymity we set up to protect ourselves from being ourselves, is no easy task. It takes tons of energy to keep yourself a secret—energy that is withheld from living your life fully. Secret-keeping diminishes your aliveness, mutes your identity. Jackson long ago gave up asking undergraduates to place name tags on their desks, because, although they would say their names when asked, there was a tacit commitment to anonymity.  “It seemed to me that anonymity was unwittingly stigmatizing depression even more.” The same is true of addictions, although I understand the need for anonymity in early recovery to build trust in Twelve Step support groups.

With a sparkle in his voice, Jackson told me: “The subversive message of this book is that not all of us are ‘normal’”—appearances to the contrary.  He set out to break the code of privacy, to celebrate these storytellers, put their names in the light as if to say: Here I am in my own words, and here's my face.
This beautiful creation should be omnipresent: on every library shelf and bookstore, in waiting rooms of every healing profession, in hospitals, classrooms, law offices, prisons, in all places where religious community gathers to pray and contemplate, in Yoga studios, spiritual direction offices, athletic clubs, boardrooms, and of course on every coffee table.  Why? It offers true wisdom for a world on the brink of a new moral movement. How do people manage to choose life over and over and over? In time I hope this large volume will be re-published in a smaller format, more accessible, portable, and available to those with limited resources.

I asked Jackson what the most exciting thing was for him about this project, beside the flood of responses he got to his invitation to “come out” with depression. He said: “Most exciting and unexpected to me was the fact that these people, while in the very midst of despair, asked the most profound life questions, and derived remarkable insights from their struggles."

Spirituality is about the depth dimension of experience, and Jackson’s book accesses that beautifully and without judgment. Spirituality also has a social dimension. Stunningly, most of these depressed people found that the consistent presence of friends—friends who showed up and kept showing up, never giving up on them—were a foundational factor in their ability over and over to choose life, their own life.

Religion too was a healing factor for many portrait subjects. Why? You’d think there would be more anger at feeling abandoned by God, empty promises, or not being rescued from the darkness. Religion provides structure, hope, prayer, community, ethical guidelines, and the simple assurance of a sacred Presence who cares about each person—no matter what.

Jackson thought that the role of chaplains at MIT was misunderstood. “Chaplains offer a perspective—of much value and different from that of science.” Having been a chaplain myself in several settings, I’d say there is little more powerful than praying with a frightened vulnerable person, touching with permission, anointing with healing oils, blessing, listening forever. I can’t say how but it lifted me, the patient, and perhaps the family, out of the drear of cold, hard reality—momentarily and always.

I was saddened to hear Jackson say that, although his colleagues were supportive, the adjective “religious” at MIT was generally used to discount or dismiss an idea or concept as fanciful.

One subject, Rosalind Picard, Professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and Faculty Chair of the MIT Mind-Hand Heart Initiative, challenged this attitude: “I grew up as an atheist, and I know religion is not a comfortable topic. And religious practice is not the only protective factor. But at MIT, we have to talk about all these pillars of well-being.”

We do not have much time to gladden the hearts and minds of those who travel the way with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind, and the blessing of the One who brings light into darkness be upon you and within you this day and always. AMEN.    (Amiel, paraphrase)   

Sunday, July 8, 2018

2018.07.08 The Real American Dream. Do Not Let It Die.

Most people think the “American dream” is that every American family will own their own home equipped with picket fence and other trimmings. Proprietorship is our dream and our downfall. Private property is our desire. Mine. Mine. Mine.

No, the American vision is far more extraordinary and far less selfish than a selfie. In a moving essay, “Mr. Lincoln,” published in a 2018 commemorative collection, Sweet Dreams, Story Catcher, the late Brian Doyle boldly proclaims: “He (Lincoln) gave his life for the extraordinary American idea. Do not let that idea die.”  
 That’s my prayer every day now. On July 4 it was my firecracker.

When I was in seventh grade a teacher asked us to identify someone we thought was the greatest human who ever lived—our hero. I immediately wrote Abraham Lincoln and felt quite sure of myself. I was thinking about ending slavery, winning a war for our side. Soon I was stricken with guilt because I had not identified Jesus as the greatest man. My guilt doubled when I realized that I’d never even thought of a woman—an unimaginable idea back in 1950. If I’d known enough I would have nominated Eleanor Roosevelt (below) even though my parents detested FDR.

Now I wonder: was I so wrong in seventh grade?  Lincoln, yes, had something to do with the Civil War, a war he grieved every day of his life, but his vision went far beyond my narrow idea. Lincoln, like Jesus and Eleanor, had a gospel, a vision of Union—American oneness. Beloved fools such as these often die for their ideas. Christ’s was not restricted to one country, or just to humanity, or even to one religion, but I wasn’t so far off when at twelve I nominated Abraham Lincoln—that we all may be one. Jesus (an artist's portrait below, left) was remembered for drumming this home—over and over. And Brian Doyle, a Jesus look-alike (below right) kept the vision going.

Doyle wrote of Lincoln:   “. . . he could not stand the idea of Americans not walking hand in hand toward the extraordinary country we could be, a country unlike any other that ever was, a country where all citizens are free to speak their hearts, and gather as they like, and worship whatever shape of holiness they perceive or imagine, and offer their love to whom they like. He would not allow his beloved country to fly apart because of greed and lies, and for that he was murdered by a man whose greatest wish was to tear America in half.”

Lincoln was a complicated man and had many quirks to say the least. A friend who knew him well once wrote of Lincoln: "He was the only man I ever knew the foundation of whose spirit was love." That’s crazy; that’s only for God, right?  Or is it?

“It is a foul and evil lie of the mind and the heart and the mouth and the soul to account someone less because of his or her color or religion or gender or preference in lovers. That is a squirming lie, no matter how often, and at what volume, it is repeated and God willing it will be quelled and squelched and forgotten in the years to come. It will be squelched not by laws and regulations, not by political or religious or judicial powers, but by shivers of dawning light in the hearts of men and women and children in this country who begin to dimly understand that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest of Americans not because he won a war, not because he gave his blood and his life for justice and freedom, but because the foundation of his spirit was love and he acted that way.”

Lincoln was devout but practiced no one religion. His speeches were concise and brought people to silence. His ideas and parabolic stories, without a lot of advice or legislative patter, riveted the attention of his colleagues and branded the American soul forever. To our peril we let this dream die. This isn’t about Mr. Trump or any party or governance, it is about WE the people standing for the freedom for which we stand. 

Doyle writes, dare I say prays, it best: “ . . . that we will, by the grace of the profligate gifts granted us as Americans, stand for and speak for and defend and protect freedom anywhere and everywhere it is savaged; that we will continue to, as we have for centuries, open our golden door for the tired and the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched of the world, and here let them breath free; and that difference in color and gender and religion and preference in love matter not at all when it comes to treating each other with respect and reverence. Those who fan and foment differences murder the revolutionary American idea, and ought to cower and gibber in shame in the vast shadow cast by Mr. Abraham Lincoln, Republican of Kentucky, who gave his life for that idea.”

I guess I wasn’t too far off in seventh grade. Do not let this idea die. Do not.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

2018.07.01 Inch by Courageous Inch—Book Review and Reviewers

I’ve been in a memoir writing group with writer Irene Applebaum Buchine for many years. Irene has just published her first book: Celia and the Little Boy. It's about childhood depression, written from the point of view of two children and dedicated: “For all the children who dwell in the darkness and those who can see them.”

A professional reviewer would use the author’s last name when writing a book review, in this case “Buchine." This is a sensitive issue for women who often get named by their first names, while men get addressed by their surnames.  BUT . . . Irene is my friend so I’m dropping the professionalism for this review.

Our group listened, cheered, critiqued, and waited with Irene as she told her story over and over, wrestling with how best to put it into words with both truth and dignity. She finally came up with the idea of a children’s book about two children struggling with something neither of them understood, but which threatened both of them. The result is Celia and The Little Boy, a book dominantly colored in greens, its shape more horizontal than the traditional vertical, illustrated by the author herself, and conveying the powerful spiritual gift of hope against hope.

The first most exciting thing for me as a writer is having my own books published, especially my memoir. My books are nowhere near as precious as my children, yet they are like my babies, coming from the flesh of my own experience.

The second most exciting thing for me it to see a friend’s memoir come to fruition in print. What makes it so thrilling is that I’ve have been part of the laboring process of its conception and birth—like a memoir midwife. And now it has its own life and I can watch it grow. 

Celia is for readers 8-98. Childhood depression is a common phenomenon often misunderstood and discounted with clumsy platitudes and judgments. This simple book is a valuable educational resource for librarians, teachers, tutors, parents, counselors, clergy, also for students, some of whom will identify with depression and seek healing because of this book. Hope intervenes through friends who do not give up and keep showing up. Also, through a tiny mysterious force of nature and the god-given eyes to notice and to follow—inch by inch into the light. This book will bring you into the light. Order it now at:  This book changes lives.
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The third most exciting thing for me is that I happen to have two grandchildren who want to be a writers and actually have heft for the writing art.

Phoebe, the oldest daughter of John, my son, and Emily Brakeman, is ten and keeps a journal of her writings. Phoebe is taken with poetry and is an avid reader. The poor kid may be like me—a book- worm. But I’m so proud. Reading is how one learns to write well.

Here is Phoebe, the writer,  reading. She told me “You’re  my idol.”  I corrected that inflation, while I secretly loved it.

We took a walk through Harvard Yard even though she insisted that she would be going to Yale like me. Here she is on the steps of Harvard’s Widener Library with little brother Dylan, 4 (right) making sure he’s just a few steps above. Do you love kids?
And here is Phoebe’s review of Celia:  “I believe that the book, Celia and the Little Boy, teaches readers that it's OK to be afraid. You can see that it teaches this because the little boy in the story was afraid of the world and showing his true colors. He was not thinking about what he could do to make himself feel better or try to forget his mistakes. The boy was too sad for words and couldn’t fight back. The author really showed the boy’s emotions so you could see that he was upset and frightened. If the author had told the story differently, it would be hard to tell what the boy was feeling. The author allows me to understand that, as tough as sadness can be, one can still come out of the dark with the help of a caring soul.”  -Phoebe Brakeman

The other granddaughter-writer is Izzy Colbath, 18, the second daughter of my oldest daughter, Bev.

Izzy also wrote a review of Irene’s book. Here is a quote from her review:  “. . . no matter how comfortable you become in the isolation you’ve created, there is always someone that wants to help. Someone that loves you, or someone that just wants to see you smile, that help is always there, and accepting it is one step out of the isolation and negative thinking.
    A book for all ages, this story reminds us that no matter how alone we feel, we never truly are alone. Buchine tells a simplistic story of struggle and pain that can resonate in all of us.
    “Celia and the Little Boy” is a book that I hope one day to read to my future children, whenever they need a reminder that they are never, ever alone.”
    - Isabella Colbath

Irene said of Izzy’s review: “I reread Izzy’s incredible review of my book and was truly awestruck by her understanding and deep connection, and her ability to see the many nuances and metaphors. Her piece was so beautifully written. Please tell her how much her time, effort and words meant to me, the author! I thank her from the bottom of my heart. She’s an astute and sensitive young writer!”

This Grammy is swollen with pride. We all love to be loved, but isn’t it wondrous when some of them want to follow you? Yes, it is.

Bless you Irene, Phoebe and Izzy.