Sunday, April 21, 2019

2019.04.21 Prayer On Easter Morning

Yes, my mind knows that this is clearly riffing on
ancient rebirth rituals to honor life returning from
what was seemingly forever dead and icy and
lifeless ground; and yes, my mind savors the genius
of Christianity happily surfing on prehistoric human
ceremonies, how deft we are in our appropriations,
taking only the best; and my mind knows full well
that Jesus very probably arose from the dead on a
Tuesday afternoon at happy hour, rather than a
Sunday morning; yet my heart leaps and my soul
is delighted and my mouth is filled with joy, for
Easter is undeniably the coolest of our annual high
holy days, the day when that which we believe
unbelievably to be true is shouted from churches
and chapels around the world, in every language,
by people of every age from small children capering
in their annual finery to the ancients who sit and grin
at the swirl and song of it all, and then shuffle to
the banquet table. This is the day when we admit,
smiling, that the essence of our faith doesn’t make
sense and isn’t physically possible; how great and
brave is that? How refreshing, to not make sense
for once, how refreshing to remember that we are
sworn to live by our conviction that there is so
much more beyond sense! And so: amen.


Easter is late this year and everyone complains—being sure the weather should comply with the Feast if not the season. They complain just as vociferously when Easter, the immoveable moveable feast, is early, say March 31. And yet . . . the late great writer Brian Doyle who wrote the prayer above communicates Easter’s soul—without a single period (well just one). Periods, or stops, Doyle has declared, are fascist. Easter has no periods and never stops.

Bless to us this Easter rising.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

2019.04.14 Three Cheers. Three Palms. Three Words of Wisdom.

Palm Sunday involves much hullabaloo in the Christian church. I’ve always wanted to downsize the hype, introvert that I am. Do we have to re-enact the triumphal entry story of Jesus on a donkey entering Jerusalem, raising a rumpus, bringing cheering jeering crowds, and raising the hackles of the reigning authorities charged with maintaining order? I feel sorry for them. Jesus was a trouble maker—for the sake of justice we argue.

And then—post-triumph—we re-enact the rest of the story with us all playing the hostile turncoat crowd, betrayers all, shouting: Crucify him. Crucify him. I want to shout STOP don’t crucify him. Don’t crucify anyone! Thank God there’s no sermon on Palm Sunday, save this morning’s brief fervorino, aka pep talk—in this case for Jesus. No need to say more than the complicated tragic story already says.

Sometimes these reenactments feel pale, with people lined up in front reading their parts from scripture. It’s pretty stiff theater, but it is better than to abandon the biblical story completely and write our own little play version—dumbed down as if we all were in kindergarten. So I’m stuck with the Palm Sunday hoopla.

We act all this out and pretend, or pray, we too are going to reform our systems for the sake of justice and love and peace. Does this ritual work? Does it inspire, set on fire?

Well, sometimes it is effective. It helps me return to the beginning and imagine the primordial chaos into which the Creator infused life and hope. This creationing process keeps on and never stops. It gives me hope.

I bring my palms home, drape them over beautiful pictures—icons, a landscape, a cross on the wall—where they will stay until next year’s hope-packed whoopee. Some may even make it to the burning pot where they will be turned into ashes—forehead reminders that we all are dust and to dust we all shall return—for Ash Wednesday. I am happy to have had their company for a year, and to have them renewed for another year.

Ancient repetitive rituals have inner value. Below are three quotes of my own. They were lifted from my blog posts by a spiritual director who used them for her facebook group ministry. She’d started the group to promote her own practice, but it morphed into an online ministry. It was fun for me to see my name and my words, on her site—framed and decorated in colorful ways.
  
Heed the intimate scriptures of your own heart and intuition.
    

Religion without spirituality is arid and spirituality without religion is lonely. 
    
Spirituality is a matter of training your heart and your eye to see beyond or inside a simple ordinary scenario and marvel at its sudden inexplicable grandeur. Do you ask: Is this God?
   

I'm humbled and honored in the best way—though not too humble to feel surprised at my own wisdom and wonder: Is this God AND me together co-creating?

Sunday, April 7, 2019

2019.04.07 A Flat Out Failed Wrinkle

Recently we watched the movie “A Wrinkle in Time.” I was looking forward to it. I had loved Madeleine L’Engle’s book by that name and was sure the movie would live up to her vision. After all, Ty Burr, cantankerous Boston Globe movie critic, even gave it a few nods, and Oprah Winfrey was in it. How could it lose?

To say I was disappointed is to put it mildly. I was furious. The movie was flat out terrible. Even if you knew nothing about L’Engle’s book or had no expectation, the movie failed to portray in an integrated way the forces of mystery, science, religion, spirituality, and the drama of three children in search of their missing father, an astrophysicist, whom they believed was lost in space.

On their journey the children meet three guides who represent Goodness, possibly the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity, and named accordingly: Mrs Whatsit Mrs Who and Mrs Which. The actors who play these three guides in the movie are token black, token middle east, and token vaporous-mystical. Despite spotlighting big name stars and making God imagery expansive, the film’s dialogue is flat and the plot contrived. Possibly trying to be too “p.c.”, it fails to convey the spiritual depths of the classic good vs. evil drama. The film even downplayed the climactic scene in which heroine Meg Murry, token black, tries desperately to save her younger brother from the forces of evil they call IT. This rescue scene was one Madeleine L’Engle often chose to read publicly, in dialogue with her husband, a professional actor.  L'Engle (1918-2007) wise story-teller imagining tesseracts.
I admit my expectations for this film might have been too grand and complicated by my affection for L’Engle, but this interpretation missed her vision: her desire to communicate the wonders of quantum science through a dramatic quest story with obvious theological imagery.

Theology and science shaped Madeleine L’Engle’s spirituality. I first met her in 1980 when I was in seminary and fretting about having been turned down in the ordination process toward priesthood. I felt ashamed and inadequate. Madeleine, my spiritual director, did not argue with my feelings but rather told me that the institutional church was not exactly innocent in its devaluing of the ministry of women. She also persuaded me not to give up my quest and issued me a new commandment: “Now, my dear, when you get ordained, and you will, do NOT turn into a little man!” It made me laugh and gave me courage to resist being shaped by patriarchal forces—the IT in my life.

I felt like Meg Murry. She was driven to save her brother and find her beloved father. She dared to travel through time and space in the fifth dimension because of a tesseract, a word meaning four-dimensional cube, from tessara + actis "ray", adopted by L'Engle to mean a wrinkle in time through which one could travel into outer space.  As far as I was concerned the Episcopal Church might well have been a tesseract, a realm scary and mysterious with potential to destroy all my hopes and dreams. Besides her brain, her heart, and her love for her father, Meg uses her skills in math and science, her spiritual guides, and her wisdom to outwit IT, a force that insists that everyone is exactly the same. Meg knows that alike and equal are not the same. She persists. I have no mathematical skills, but I knew that women and men were alike but not the same. and definitely not equal—yet. And I did persist, nearly succumbing to the powers of IT and pretzeling myself into shapes I thought would please, rather than being myself. To come to my true self, I sinned and prayed, probably in equal measure, and enjoyed prodigal dollops of divine grace.

L’Engle also persisted. She submitted Wrinkle for publication twenty-some times over several years until finally the first publisher she’d submitted it to accepted it for publication in 1962.
Rejection hurts but it won’t kill you. Its plangency (don’t you love that word?) might even have provided me courage enough not to become a little man, as L’Engle had commanded.


P.S. My husband with whom I saw the movie found it boring. “So you have a copy of the book?”  he asked. I did. He read it and got every wrinkle of it—small but meaningful redemption.

Monday, April 1, 2019

2019.03.31 Prodigality?

Prodigality? It’s actually a word. I looked it up. It’s the noun form of the adjective prodigal, which means spending money recklessly. OR there’s the noun which gets personal: a Prodigal is someone who is extravagant with money—lavish. So you see it is a complex word, loaded and layered. Christians use this word with prodigal abandon, attaching it, errantly and recklessly, to one son in a parable told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

American consumerism, I conclude, encourages prodigality, and simultaneously spawns lost souls, which is really what the biblical parable we prodigally call “The Prodigal Son” is about. This boy is lost. So is the sheep in the Lost Sheep parable, and so is the coin in the Lost Coin parable. The grouping of three parable about being lost and found is purposeful.

The lost son has asked, probably nagged, his father for his share in the family inheritance—more than double his allowance I wager. Worse, the father gives it to him, while also giving his older brother the other half. Mom has no voice in this story, but if I were here I’d have advised against this transaction. The younger son wastes his money on “dissolute living.” He gets demonized by interpreters for his inability to resist temptations that few young immature boys could. Who is prodigal here?

I’m tired of Christian interpretations that identify the effulgent father with the image of God—oh so generous and merciful. This parabolic father is the one who behaves prodigally, dishing out his wealth prematurely. What self-respecting father would do such a foolish thing? In so doing he creates a near-impossible family trauma. The younger son is thrilled and races off into the world to squander his wealth. He ends up in a pig sty starving. He—  cagily and wisely—remembers that Papa has money and fatted calves so he heads back home to a father who welcomes him with a prodigal banquet, thus earning the ire of the elder son who has stayed home, worked hard and invested his money in the local bank.

Okay, I know it’s only a story, but nothing is “only” a story. Every story has value and meaning, especially a parable in the Holy Bible, through which we are supposed to discern the presence of divine grace. Traditionally, this prodigal father is imagined to be God, but I think this pop needs a little deflation.

First of all, this story is in Luke’s cluster of three lost-and-found stories in which all those who have lost something search diligently and ceaselessly for the lost. These qualities—diligent caring for the lost and the least— are divine.

The father in the prodigal, however, is not identified as hiring posses et. al to search for his lost son. He makes no such efforts. Then he sets the boy up for a disaster in which the home-coming banquet is lavish and earns this father a reputation as the all-merciful Lord-lookalike. Daddy is also gracious to the elder brother as well, but it’s too late to prevent the looming sibling rivalry that surely will torture this family for some time, not to mention garnering a reputation for his firstborn as a bitter whiner with no grace in his heart. Divine grace, I conclude, isn’t foolhardy or cheap, is it?

One definition of grace is the experience of being known, exactly as you are, and loved, exactly as you are, at the same exact time. The one who sees you this way with no conditions attached is, yes, divine.

Do you think that is what the father in this story provided to his sons? He knew them both and gave them each equal portions of his money, whether they deserved it or not. He also knew, I suspect, their weakness and vulnerabilities. But he gave extravagantly anyway, and—foolish old coot. Dumb enough to be divine I’d say—and prodigally so.







Monday, March 25, 2019

2019.03.24 Why Church?

In Lent we’re invited to reflect on things that matter, not on every little sin we keep on committing and committing—and once again commit. I define sin simply as whatever separates you from the goodness of God —in God, in yourself and in your neighbor. One of my sins is to be too pushy about my considered opinions, most all of which I adore and consider indispensable

This morning I told my beloved spouse that, although I’d exercised my senior exemption from fasting, I decided to fast from being ornery and bossy toward him. He said: “Don’t do that. I won’t know you’re here.” We laughed.

When one of us gets too high-falutin, the other fights back defensively, and BOOM, we’re disconnected. Then we confess and laugh and kiss, and BOOM, we’re reconnected—over and over. 

One of the things we tussle about is the Church. We have both been professional “churchies” for years. The Church seems, in many places right now, to be failing, or are we failing it? We do not settle our questions of course, but we go to Church regardless. Why? What IS the Church? What is it for? What is its unique raison d’etre? How is it different from so many things that call for our attention, some of which we’d rather be doing?

I’d like to say the Church exists to offer forgiveness for the repetition compulsion called sin. But every family knows and often exercises that function well enough. Why Church?

Is the Church about social justice?—all the rave just now. Well, in part, but not really. Anyone who is civic-minded and inclines toward activism for good causes does social justice. It’s central to the current penchant for humanism—the new true religion. Why Church?

Is the Church a building—preferably on Main Street front and center? Partly, yes. It is easy to get attached to a lovely setting, one in which you have felt safe, have experienced the love and grace of God, not to mention the pastoral care of a priest, many prayers, and those colors sparkling in the sun through stained glass. But God is not a building, though God may be felt in a building. On a religious retreat years ago, I sat enjoying a good meal. Suddenly I looked at my watch and realized I wanted to get to the chapel before dark for my meditative prayer time. I thought “I’m late for church.” Immediately, I laughed at myself, realizing: I AM in Church. And the Church is in me.

Is the Church for community?  Well, yes, but not really. We can find community in many ways, and people do because it’s naturally human to make and gather a community of concern and a team to pursue mutual interests and activities—to belong. Twelve-step recovery communities are an excellent example of intentional communities of support for wellness.

Why Church? 

My answer is that the Church is unique because the Church worships: shows reverence and adoration for a deity, a power both beyond and within ourselves, either individually or collectively. The Church is the BOOM. It offers structured liturgies, rites, rituals practices that re-enact the basic passages of human life—connected in God. I speak of the Christian Church but I know all religions offer similar rites, rituals, sacraments across a lifetime.

In Church you ae lifed—birthed in a font-womb, baptized into God with Christ.

In Church you are fed, brought to a long dining table-altar with the rest of your family. You may be an infant who doesn't take solid food so the priest blesses you; sometimes a tiney fingertip of wine is placed into your mouth. You sleep like a baby—well fed.

In Church you hear lots of music—lullabies cradle you and zestful praise awakens you. You learn some songs yourself in a choir.

In Church you absorb the divine into your flesh—over and over again.

In Church you get to pray, silently or aloud, feeling your sins and sorrows—getting forgiven over and over. You get to say I am sorry and I love you to God and to other worshipers, silently or aloud. Sometimes you get a hug.

In Church you are remembered after you die with prayers, hymns, and sweet words that soak your soul in the security of eternality.  No one forgets you. Neither does God.

In Church you re nurtured from birth to death in wonder, love and praise—over and over.

That’s why Church. Worship is as important as other things you do to take care of yourself. All living things in Nature worship without much help—naturally. We humans? We’re more needy and complicated—mysteries on our own. BOOM, we need Church. 




Sunday, March 17, 2019

2019.03.17 Mixed Mood Management?

To balance a mixed mood is arduous, precarious—and yet.

I should be writing about St. Patrick, noted for pubs and miracles and shamrocks, but I’m not in the mood. Oh, I have nothing against this British-born patron saint of Ireland or green clovers, nor his day filled with parades, green cupcakes, and whiskey-induced joy. What does irk me is the one-sidedness of the way some of us Christians, or Americans, or Bostonians overplay the upside at the cost of ignoring the downside. Call it cheating the wholeness of the Holy.

I get it. Joy is more fun than pain. Still: both are real and both are godly and both belong together.


As to St. Patrick, it helps me to remember his beginnings as a lad of sixteen, captured by Irish pirates and taken into slavery to care for animals. That’s enough to know in order to balance things out, stabilize the mood swing option, and acknowledge that sainthood can arise within post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

Much of the time we worship in communities in which the mood is mixed, not unipolar. This is why we have carefully detailed liturgical seasons to observe—different colors, prayers, and moods—to make sure we honor all the vicissitudes of human life. Call it the wholeness of the Holy.

In my parish of the moment we are in mixed-mood mode. The rector of nearly ten years is leaving within two weeks. We feel naturally sad. On the other hand, we feel naturally joyous because he is leaving for celebratory reasons: his spouse has been elected to be bishop in another diocese. We want to rejoice, and we want to make room for sorrow too. We are in mixed mood.

The poor rector himself has been making strenuous efforts to pump the community full of trust, faith, hope, and love.—parting gifts. He is not dishonest in doing this, and the mood is mostly up. Nor is it wrong or even phony to keep the mood bolstered. How hard it is to have somber feelings and be upbeat at once. I was administering the sacrament of healing prayers today. At least twice the number of people came to request healing prayers. They focused on personal needs of course, all true and sincere, yet I wondered if the small numeric surge had to do as much with the underside of the general mood-mix as it did with their particulars. I don’t know. I only know that I felt spiritually enlarged, suddenly grateful, for this space to let down.

I was equally grateful for today’s anthem, for the beautiful poetry of John Donne (1873-1631), English poet and cleric.
-and for the authentic way the small choir sang it. It leavened the mood with wisdom.

WILT THOU FORGIVE?

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.


 


Sunday, March 10, 2019

2019.03.10 Getting "Woke"

Today is Gillian Brakeman Colbath’s  23rd birthday. I remember how miraculous it felt to be present the day my oldest daughter brought forth her oldest daughter. Potentiation. Creation. Woke!

Dear Gillian, I remember when you were 7 you sang a solo on stage all alone—a song learned at camp: “Down by the River to Pray.” I remember you taking the lead in the play “Annie Junior”—little orphan Annie singing “Maybe” in your brand new red dress with the white sash as she dreamed. And hearing your mature adult voice sing as you played your guitar to the Joplin song: “Me and Bobby McGee.” I got “woke”. Most beautiful precious Gillian, I know one day you will sing your own perfect love song to yourself.  You are beloved. I love you. Grammy. (Photo of Gillian, Grammy and Auntie Jill, also with a wondrous singing voice)
According to biblical story, Jesus and his disciples got “woke” on the Transfiguration Mount; the brightest big-bangiest light they’d ever seen shone on them, and Jesus lit up like a firecracker. Have you ever seen someone light up with insight, song, love, whatever? It’s biblical, honestly. 

My “woke” story isn’t as grandly biblical. I was forty, feeling like a mid-life “first-grader” in my first course: The Scriptures of the Old Testament ,at Yale Divinity School in 1978. I didn’t know much about the OT, because, until the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, readings from the OT happened only at daily Morning and Evening prayer, not at the Sunday Eucharist.

The Old Testament! My adolescent impressions, formed from reading the whole bible in seventh grade (when else?), were that the OT was hot and sexy and murderous. Hence, I could hardly wait to find out more. In seminary it was required, and soon we’d be hearing it every Sunday in church, along with a reading from one of the many epistles, most of them Paul’s, and a gospel reading from the New Testament’s big 4: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—specialists in the life of Jesus the Christ.

I sat on the edge of my chair, in a huge lecture hall, my notebook opened out on the pull-up desk, and my pen poised to write down every word I heard. I never wanted to be any place as much as I wanted to be here right now, ready to study God in OT.

The professor entered and mounted the podium. The room hushed.

“In the beginning, God potentiated . . . “ he began in sonorous tones. 

I wrote that down. I knew this once-upon-a-time story: God creating to the point of divine ecstasy, every living thing—even mosquitoes.

For big required courses like this one there were weekly lectures and also smaller classes called sections for which we wrote papers, and where we got to ask our questions and discuss. The sections were led by teaching assistants (TAs), usually graduate students earning their keep. That’s when I met Jim Echols. I bet he was younger than me. He was tall and lean with an afro so significant it looked as if it could topple his head. We could call him Jim. I loved his sense of humor, his mild, slightly amused manner, and his willingness to entertain any and all argument, chief among them biblical inerrancy, which most of us, including me, had confused with biblical literalism. I still wonder.

Just last week I read in the Christian Century Magazine that Jim had died at age 67 of complications after a fall at home. You don’t get a big obit in this magazine unless you have some religious clout. I felt sad. Jim Echols helped me get “woke.” I remember him well.
According to his obituary, Jim did accomplish big stuff. He was an ordained Lutheran pastor, a Rev. Dr. no less, and the first African American scholar to serve as the Dean and President of  an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) seminary in Philadelphia, and a retired ELCA pastor, having served many parishes along the way of his career in theological education. Jim grew up in Philadelphia. At Yale he was studying psychology, religion, theology, and the church and culture, earning his PhD among a string of other degrees. 

Formation seemed to have been a passion for Jim. He did much work to support and promote high-quality continuing theological education. He would have been a fan of the Education for Ministry (EfM) program in which I have been involved at many levels for 35 years. Another connection I discovered was that Jim, like me, encouraged interfaith relations, helping to create a Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at the Lutheran seminary.

So my fondly-remembered TA in OT was a rock star. A professor emeritus of church and society and urban ministry at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago where Jim was president from 1997-2011, called him “a giant in the world of theological education . . .who stirred many people of African descent to aspire to be faithful in their service in the church and the world.” I bet I intuited that way back when I was a green seminarian falling in love with OT and getting “woke.” 

Dear Jim, I am so proud to have known you for such a short time at the beginning of my own theological education. You helped me love the OT and find the grace of God in the oddest of places. I remember when I wrote my final exam for the OT course, I got carried away and wrote in my little blue exam book:  OT LIVES!!  You added a big red exclamation point right next to mine. Thank you. You helped potentiate me. Call it “woke.”

Sunday, March 3, 2019

2019.03.03 Annual, Annual, Annual—Perennial

The annual meeting of an Episcopal parish church can be an occasion for groaning and dread among parish leaders. Our own parish annual meeting this year was quite different from the usual saved-up and savored gripe session.

First, it happened later than usual, because of the rector’s three-month absence as he healed from an accident, followed  immediately by the election as bishop of his spouse—an obvious move out of the diocese for the bishop-elect and our rector. The result of all this was that the annual meeting, frankly, left little room for more than business (confirm a budget and elect officers), kudos and appreciations, and a few well-bestowed gifts.

The normal tenor of many a parish annual meeting, and I’ve seen my share, wasn’t present. I’ve learned to expect:
    -long-held complaints, aired annually for their own sake
    -the annual question from the annual questioner who protests the parish’s annual assessment for diocesan ministries, read, poor-little-us, followed by the same explanation—it’s your taxes, get a grip!
    -what’s a bishop really worth—we only see her or him annually at best, and even then, we have to put on the dog with a super duper coffee hour
    - contesting a slate of officers with the secret wish that you yourself would be nominated by acclaim
    -self-nominations from the floor, which instigates a challenge, requiring a lengthy debate
    -endless budgetary petty picking like why do we spend so much on envelopes? 

All too often the loudest annual-only complainers are those who rarely attend on Sundays, seldom help with parish fund raisers or attend other annuals, like the fair, the rummage sale, Easter. I exaggerate for humor’s sake of course—but not too much.

Honestly, I was grateful that there was no petty tedium this year. Perhaps that’s because we have extremely capable and efficient parish officers and a treasurer who knows how to “treasure” money properly. Perhaps it’s because people were caught up in their own anger and uncertainty, reversal of expectations, fear about the future, pain at the thought of more change, trying to feel joy for the bishop-elect—and yes, plain old abandonment. I don’t know. I do know that I felt more sure than ever I have that this small community will thrive, financially and spiritually and that it will not be by some grace-in-the-sky miracle, but because of the Spirit’s lithe and effective use of our own focused efforts and gifts and prayers.

Lent and buried Alleluiahs aside, we are in Easter now. NOW.   

Henceforth therefore, I will think of Annual Meetings as perennials—Lilies or my favorite black-eyed Susans.

Perennials are enduring, recurring, and apparently infinite. Perennials symbolize hope. They are faithful. They show up. They are like us. Like the Church that goes up and down and dies, not quite, and returns again ready to bloom. Why? Because we keep on planting—day by day and year by year. We sing perennial hymns. We pray perennial prayers and variations thereof, generation to generation. We keep on doing what our founder insisted on—over and over and over—because we are perennials of hope, no matter what.


P.S. I cannot help but add this stunning metaphor the Warden used to describe the parish church. He said "We are getting this stagecoach moving on time and up to speed." Stagecoach? Yippee Kayay!๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜ƒ 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

2019.02.24 Epiphany Everlasting?

Once a long-lost Epiphany Collect, #8, saved my life.

Epiphany is the season of light and life. It leads us into Lent, a season that calls for self-reflection, which can be gloomy. Reflect honestly and you’re sure to discover something icky. The brightest light is Easter of course, but the more light you can attract on the way the better. Hence, the longer Epiphany lasts the better—not only for Lent-avoidance, but because more light in my winter heart reminds me that spiritual light does not start—or end— with Easter.

Few would care, but it’s amusing to eavesdrop on clergy crowing knowingly among themselves: “Hey, we have a long  Epiphany this year! We get to pray EIGHT Collects.” Who but parish clergy would think to think such a thing?

Q: But what happened to Collect #8—my lucky one?
A: Well, my child, my upstairs professor informed me, when Easter falls after April 22, which happens rarely, we get a full Epiphany season, and we pray #8. The last time we got to pray it was 2011. (Oh, how inauspicious! Poor little #8)
Q:When will #8 recur?
A: 2038. Check it out—a splendid prayer (BCP p. 216). Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it should be neglected. Besides, you’ll be 99 and maybe in heaven by 2038.

Here begins the story of me and #8:  I was hired as a consultant for conflict resolution in a parish in which the leadership was sorely challenged by some malcontents. Chaos was spreading like a red tide into the wider community. Attempts at reconciliation had been ineffective.

Situations like this are not uncommon, but they are painful. Some people had left; some stayed to fight; others sank into anxiety and discontent. The leaders felt helpless and under attack. I was no miracle-worker but at least I had no big personal axe to grind. I listened to the principals, met separately with each, made no judgments, and soon felt as if I were sinking in quicksand, secretly losing my cool while looking cool. Only then did it occur to me to ask God for help. I had of course dutifully prayed at every meeting, but there is soul-deep prayer and token prayer. I had a great big Gethsemane-like ask: Get me outta this!

Out of nowhere, or maybe from the upstairs professor in my head, the esoteric, infrequently used #8 popped up. I thought it was no kind of answer, but then God didn’t really do exactly what Jesus asked in Gethsemane either. I wanted a brilliant self-generated solution that would please all parties and get me much kudos; I got a Collect of little note.

I copied #8, said it over and over, prayed it with my little group, by now stuck in a concrete impasse, then sent them off with the assignment to recite this prayer every single day until we met again in two weeks. Good God, how impotent I felt, but I prayed this Collect daily as if it were my last meal.

“Most loving Father [sic], whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our cares on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.”

In two weeks we met again. I went in, fearing a mini Armageddon and my own self cast into outer darkness. The air in the room I noticed was not as stifling. I don’t know why. The complainers were as adamant as ever, but one cracked a tiny bit, as did the rector. Men close to tears? A deep honesty penetrated the icy standoff. I had no idea what would happen but sat silently with them for a bit, then announced that these meetings were over, and to go in peace. I wanted to add: “and sin no more” but tactfully refrained from doing a Jesus imitation. Everyone left. My consulting work hadn’t worked.

The “brats” continued to attend church. They contended that they were being “forced to leave”  by the rector. They sent me hostile emails to announce their eternal victimhood. The rector presided at the Eucharist as he always did. The complainants left two weeks later, never to return. I have no idea why. Rumor had it they went down the street to another church to try again. I kept on praying the Collect—a dash of necessary humility, laced with gratitude.

#8 just might have preserved us all from “faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal”—and kept us humble.   





 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

2019.02.17 Valentinus and Me

Who's ever heard of Valentinus?  Well, he’s not the saint who invented Valentine’s Day, alas. He’s not very in-the-box famous at all. Which makes him all the more mysteriously intriguing, if not infamous to me— mostly because his gnostic point of view did not win the day, nor the election as Bishop of Rome.  Check it out, he’s not iconically compelling either.
Valentinus was a poet and visionary, born in Egypt about 100 CE. His writings were sequestered in a cave with other ancient Christian and gnostic scrolls in an Egyptian town called Nag Hammadi. By 1945, scholars were flipping and buzzing about the Nag Hammadi discovery and all the sacred texts found there, Valentinus’s among them—a gospel called The Gospel of Truth.

Gnostic texts were considered heretical, mostly because they claimed to have exclusive knowledge (gnosis) about access to divine salvation. They also maintained that God favored only the spiritual world and was hostile to the material world, thus creating a dualism between matter and spirit. This did not do much for the guy Jesus I’d met in the church window who loved children, even at their worst, I was told. 

In 1945, I was only seven and in love with myself, my pony, and God, in that order. I’d discovered God in my own little “nag hammadi” cave under a dining room table. As a child I was being a little gnostic, coveting my secret knowledge—also learning that I mattered a lot to a super-parent named God. In time it became clear that secrets, although excitingly powerful, weren’t so good for me. I also learned that all matter mattered to God-Creator—not just me. It was a comedown. Thus ended my gnostic phase.

As to Valentinus, his brand of gnosticism eventually proved worthy of scholarly attention, particularly that of Elaine Pagels, noted for her academic work on the value of gnostic gospels. Pagels challenged patriarchal assumptions about sacred texts. As an adult and a priest, I was challenging patriarchal assumptions about just about everything, particularly the authority of women in the church, the authority of the immanent nature of God, and the idea that the closed canon of scripture meant that there were no other gospels of worth. Bunk!—and more bunk! I have spent most of my adult life rebooting the God I’d met as a child, the God of my gnostic days, the God who gave me my spirituality.

One of the Nag Hammadi texts gives the life-giving energy at Creation a feminine voice: 
I am the thought that lives in the light. I live in everyone, and I delve into them all . . . I am she who gradually brought forth everything . . . I am the image of the invisible spirit. . . The mother, the light . . the virgin . . . the womb, and the voice . . . I put breath within all beings.” (Pagels, p 199, Why Religion?)  

Meeting Valentinus through Pagels’s work has been thrilling. St. Paul had merely hinted at other gospels, also at hidden wisdom revealed through the Spirit, “ . . .  for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. . .” (I Cor. 2:10) Even the depths of God? If this Spirit searched even God’s own depths then what was there to fear?  I have taken this as my mandate, permission, and invitation to dive into the “secret” mysteries of God, accompanied by this Spirit. Oh yes, I know we can never know God, but that never stopped me from trying. Paul’s words described what I’d experienced under that table: God and I exploring our depths together in lively conversation. Well, I talked and God listened and loved. Thirty-four years later God spoke to me and I listened.  

The Gospel of Truth, attributed to Valentinus, is all about relationships and connection. I had grown up thinking, and still wonder, about the Cross of Jesus as being the great separator, something that our liturgies still proclaim: the cross is an instrument of torture, suffered by Jesus, for our sake, our sins, coming perilously close to saying it’s our fault, and we should feel like hell about it—still. The Gospel of Truth, reframes the vision of the cross directly in new language: The cross is a “new tree of knowledge, which unlike the tree in paradise does not bring death but life to those who eat of it.” (Pagels p. 201) 

I get so tired of the words of death that continue to enshroud our Eucharist, even though Jesus is supposedly risen and we are to feel joyful and beloved. The words do not suggest that. The Gospel of Truth however suggests that when those who participate in the Eucharist eat the symbolic flesh and blood of Jesus they “discover him in themselves while he discovers themselves in him”. That's powerful truth. This mutuality feeds my body and soul weekly. It brings me back under my table and into my own flesh when I knew God, and God knew me, and we knew each other. 

Heed the intimate scriptures of your own heart and intuition. It’s not meant to be private, esoteric, or used to assert superiority over any living matter. It is, however, not provable, replicable, or measurable—inaccessible by scientific methodology.

Paul hints again at this knowing in his speech in Athens, giving a gentle nod to local poets from whom his broad interpretation is derived. Paul refers to God Creator in whom we all are connected: “For in him [sic] we live and move and have our being; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his [sic] offspring.”  (Acts 17:28) I knew this when I was three, and still know it today.



(Those sics are mine, because of course God is never to be corseted into one gender, especially when we’re speaking of the vast expanses of all Creation. Please!) 




Sunday, February 10, 2019

2019.02.10 Three LIttle Words—Silently or Aloud

According to song and poetry, love is a many-splendored thing. Love is all you need. Love makes the world go round. Love, according to the Bible, is a divine commandment: Love God and then love your neighbor as yourself. (I would say love your neighbor AND yourself.) Love is stronger than death sings the biblical poet in the Song of Songs. It is love between us that heals and saves.

When I was a kid the first love-talk I got was from God. I was a toddler curious and curiouser. I set out on my own. My mother’s brand of hovering loving threatened to drown me, and my father’s loving silence to erase me. My mother had told me I was a gift from God who loved me. What kind of love was God’s? In a sanctuary of my own making under a large dining room table I chattered silently and aloud until I knew I mattered. This experience I named God: silent, invisible, wordless, powerful—the hum underlying my very existence. God listened without critique or demand. 

I love you is God.

On the day of my ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1988, my husband of two years, also a priest, preached the sermon. I was afraid at first to ask him, because this day was so subjective. Did he have the objectivity to do a sermon? Did I have enough emotional control to listen without a faint or a gush of tears? 

The theme of the day wasn’t me or my ordination. It was the angelic Annunciation to Mary that she’d get pregnant with a kid who’d take the world by storm, a son! I was not going to take anything by storm, nor was I going to have more children at my age. But, like Mary, I was terrified that someone or something might mess up this day. I wanted to flee.

I tried to persuade Dick to tell me what he was going to say, but no go. When he got up to preach I hoped he wouldn’t look at me, so I put my head down. Dick does not usually look directly at people when he preaches but away so he can manage his thoughts without a manuscript. I thought I’d be safe from emotions. But when I heard his voice I had to look up. He looked right into me and almost through me as he spoke. I do not remember a thing he said, which sounds insulting, but it is not too dramatic to say this felt like an annunciation moment.  I was locked into his gaze and he into mine, as if we were alone and ready to make love—or already making love.

I love you is a sermon.

Writer V. S. Naipaul writes: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it." All singing is operatic when you give it your full and best voice while you are caught up in the most dramatic of plots. Writing a memoir is the same. Such powerful singing and writing allows the singer/writer and the listener/reader to fall in love with the tragedy and sing or write it into life everlasting.

I love you is an opera and a memoir.

People gather in church communities to pray. We praise God, listen to biblical wisdom in readings, hymns, prayers, and homilies, leading to a sacramental communion meal called Eucharist. The priest who presides issues an invitation on behalf of Christ:“Lift up your hearts!” We respond: “We lift them to the Lord.” These words connect us with God and each other. They set the tone and put structure around the uncontainable Love that is God.

I love you is community prayer.

As a writer I seek the right words for what I mean. Often they elude me, or too many come at once and I get a pile-up. True confession: I adore adverbs, often condemned, because verbs do the job on their own. Love is a verb—and more.

I love you is adverbial— truly, madly, deeply.

The first time I said I love you I felt instantly terrified and elatedly free. I’d said it before as a teen, but with the manipulative idea that I might get the high school boy I had a crush on to say it back. He didn’t. And with my first love, my first husband, I said it for real, and he said it, and then suddenly it meant sex. I say the three love words often to my children and grandchildren. The short-form “Love you” has its place, but it doesn’t replace all three words together, a carefully complete sentence with profound meaning.  When I say I love you now to my present husband, it usually rises from a sudden internal power surge, like the electrical impulse along a wire. It doesn’t matter whether I hear them back, I still feel elevated. And as I get older and closer to death these lovely three words arrive more frequently, gain depth, and communicate spiritual truth.

I love you is heaven-on-earth, assumed, consuming, forever immersive. 

Susan, a woman colleague and friend about whom I recently wrote, died tragically from multiple internal injuries caused by a tree branch propelled by heavy winds shooting through the windshield and into her body. During her hospital stay she longed to speak but couldn’t. After 4 torturous weeks of trying to speak her needs and her love, she mouthed silently to her beloved spouse of 45 years: I love you. Then she died.

I love you is the last word.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

2019.02.03 Images To Love By, And Live By

As everyone by now knows, I love words. They’re my thing. I also love pictures. Images can spark uplifting feelings, laughter, and often memories. They nourish my soul. Here are a few.

1) In Blackers, a Kosher bakery in Newton, MA., I spotted this amazing sight: a huge (4.2" diameter) cupcake modeled after the small ones we used to love to eat daily for lunch in school: Hostess Cupcakes with the cute squiggles on top. They came two in a package. Inside the cake there is white creamy filling—a temptation too great to avoid, diet or weight paranoia or not. This bakery must have a memory too. They have packaged this giant treat—twice its the original size—by twos in a box.  We bought them. We loved them together. (We split them in half—wisely, then ate both halves.)


2) Just outside our front door there is an upside-down icicle. The heating pipe outlet that shoots out from the side of the house emits steam, and water drips down from it. In the freeze of winter the drips don't melt; they create quite an erection. ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚



3) On FaceBook I saw this wondrous image. (Thanks to trindlesandread.com) It tells a universal truth, and it tells my truth. I have always been a reader, voraciously so. As soon as I could get rid of the Dick and Jane series that taught me to read but did not stimulate my creative imagination, I plunged into the world of books. Books made me wonder, laugh, quiver, and love. Books made me want to be a writer of books myself. How many favorite characters can you recognize? I imagine God on top, not Santa. Nuts, huh?


4) Here is one of my favorite pictures from an old scrapbook. It pictures (l.to r.) Amanda, John, and Rob. They are cousins about 7, 3 and 6. They are playing dress-ups, donning old hats, scarves, ties, purses, and pretending, for a moment, to be grown up. Dress-ups is a game kids don’t play any more, but I used to love it and so did my kids.  Now kids play video games. I miss dress-ups. John, in the middle, is looking a bit smug; he has kept ahold of his Pooh Bear. Smart kid. Don’t these kids look delighted with life and themselves?  It fills my heart with joy.


5) Lest I forget, my favorite image of Jesus in good humor. He must have laughed if he was human, which he was in every way.
People don’t like such images I know, but I think they add to the Spirit of religion, keep it honest. After all, no one knows what Jesus looked like, and most images are deadly serious and stern, or too pious for their own good. My current favorite image for Jesus is Danny DeVito—short, swarthy, stocky, a bullet of energy, walking fast with a slight side-to-side gait, gesticulating wildly and flinging forth words as he goes—gospel words. Many follow him, trying to grab and grasp something—just something. Just something to feed their ravenous appetite for Hope.We're still doing this.



 6) Last but not least, old and faded photos of my four children when they were young. They sit today on my home altar. No, I do not worship them, but yes, I did and do adore them. I am profoundly grateful for their presence in my life. (Jill, 5, Bev, 7. Below: Rob, 6 and John, 3, on right.)
 


 

7) OK, two more I love. They also have a place at my home altar—not for worship but for love.
 

On top is Richard John Simeone, my beloved husband Dick at age four, delivering his first ever "sermon" to a watering can. Gramps is in the background. Some things start early and keep on going.  Below, Dick again as a boy chorister at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Harrisburg, PA.—now more serious and with an official vestment and glasses. Too cool!

Whatever your images are, follow them with passion and laughter and good soul. For heaven’s sake do not indulge in too much piety—unless it's authentic enough to connect heaven and earth.  

Sunday, January 27, 2019

2019.01.27 Body Matters

In preparation for a sermon, I engaged probably one of the most powerful and apt metaphors for the human condition: the human body. I know many of us religio-spiritual types would like to dismiss the flesh of the body as only a container for what matters most, they think; that is, the soul—the sliver of divinity in all living things. Bunk! We are ensouled bodies and embodied souls, and all of it works together for the good of all.

The metaphor that intrigues and inspires me is in Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth: I Cor.12: 12-31a. The lectionary ends the reading for Epiphany 3 on the first part of a whole verse. I’m always curious to see what they decided to leave out. What’s in verse 31b?

Paul addresses his people the Jews describing this Body of Christ. It’s startling when you let it seep into you, this new vision of a new community. Paul insists that no body part can say to another: I have no need of you. ALL members are honored equally; those that seem to be unworthy of honor, we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect. And furthermore, this is God’s desire and design. (Yes, I know that the brain is the head and the best body part, right? But what good is a brain without a body to empower?)

The whole body image is so egalitarian it surpasses even the best social justice rhetoric. It’s a non-partisan game-changer. Let it sink in. How does it make you feel?  Myself, I feel a little shivery when I see how huge and how demanding this vision is. I give to beggars,  pray like crazy, and do what I can, but I know that, secretly, I don’t see beggars as equal. Do I have a right to call myself a member of this Body of Christ—really?  I, a privileged person, can not say to the less fortunate, I have no need of you. I, an able-bodied person cannot say to the disabled-in-body, I have no need of you. I, a baptized Christian, cannot say to a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Hindu, or an Atheist, I have no need of you. I, a Democrat, cannot say to a Republican, I have no need of you. I, who count my race as Caucasian, cannot say to any other race, I have no need of you. 

Paul is a saint and spiritual genius, partly because he messes up so darn much. His spirituality soars, like with this image above, but alas, he simply cannot resist the temptation to qualify it. He rank-orders the gifts in this body of Christ (first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, and so on, all the way down to tongues.) Rank-ordering? Come on! What’s worse, concludes with: “But strive for the greater gifts.” Greater gifts? What? Paul sets us up for competition, critique, an ethic of win-lose. This is bad politics. This will NOT hold this body of Christ together. It certainly does not hold our world together very well.

So: what is in verse 31b? What is the second half of verse 31? What follows “Strive for the greater gifts”?  “And I will tell you a better way.”  Strive for the greater gifts, AND I will tell you a better way. There’s a better way than striving to be greater. What is it? 

Paul launches his famous hymn to love in I Cor. 13—what everyone wants read at their weddings. Love is a better way.  Love is the great equalizer, not gifts. Gifts divide and conquer. Love unifies. In Love there is no rank-ordering. Love holds this body of Christ community together. Love, by its very nature, and when we let it be divine-in-us,  neither competes nor devalues self or other. Pray for Love.

                               The joy of the Creator be your strength.
                               The compassion of the Christ be your heart.
                               The boundless energy of the Spirit be your soul.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

2019.01.20 Accident

On a stormy November day, on a local street in Brookline Massachusetts, the wind and the rain grabbed onto an outsized branch, detaching it from its trunk and jet propelling it through the passenger side windshield of a car and deeply into the body of a woman named Susan Butler. It crushed her innards. Susan, age seventy-one, suffered multiple internal injuries and sustained multiple surgeries to repair multiple organs at a Boston hospital.

The horror of this accident—and accident it was, for who can blame a tree for being a tree, or God for creating a world of such cruel fragility—seized many people with vicarious traumatic reactions, even those who, like myself, knew Susan peripherally. A woman of quiet unassuming grace and practical wisdom, formed and fortified by her religious faith as a Christian, Susan was a longtime mentor in the Education for Ministry (EfM), which is how I knew her.

A week after the accident I went with my husband Dick Simeone to be with the EfM seminar group Susan mentored with Laurie Brown her co-mentor. We lead a Prayer Vigil, including a reading from Romans 8 about divine omnipresence, and a hymn I composed to the tune #508 in the Hymnal:

Breathe in her breath of God
healing her body’s pain
so that she may in purest love
breathe in and breathe out again.

Breathe in her breath of God
making her body whole
so she may know Your life in hers
and hers in Your gentle hold.


As Susan lay in the hospital we prayed, sang, and wept for her healing. Susan’s husband of forty-five years, Jim Butler, a physiologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, offered to come speak to the group. Jim was driving the car when the accident happened and was unharmed. “Unharmed” is a ridiculously inaccurate word to use, but I mean unharmed in body only. I thought Jim’s offer was incredibly brave.

Here, in his own words, is his offer: “I know that all of what's said in efm is confidential; I also know that many of you are hurting for information and feel helpless, as do I.  Would you think it a good idea if I came this Wednesday to speak with the efm group?  I have no idea how I would handle talking about this, but am willing to try.  Of course I know this is unconventional, but then this is an unconventional time, at least for Susan and me.  It may be that sharing some of this would be good for all of us.  I would offer two things, depending on what you think: 1.What happened and the medical aftermath.  2. My own thoughts on life, death, dying, and whatever road Susan will be on.”  His was a gracious and helpful gift we all received with gratitude. For many this gift was the beginning of their being able for the first time to feel their hearts and to sob.

Jim told us how very much Susan wanted to talk and could not. He created a word board by which she could nod to letters. She was able to firmly indicate NO to certain further procedures, and the couple struggled together, with love and fear and hope, for a month before Susan died on December 9th.

Here is the postcard Jim sent their family and friends in gratitude for “Love and Support:
It is with a heavy and broken heart that I write in response to all your cards, speaking of your love for Susan. I thank you for that, and apologize for the impersonal nature of this postcard, but I am swamped with cards, love, and prayers, and this is the best I can do. I know Susan always responded with a postcard, and I am trying to do the same, on her behalf. Please know that you are all very near and dear to me, and to Susan.”



I am touched by Jim’s own own spirituality. He is not religious, as Susan was, but, when I sent him Socrates’s phrase: "Wisdom begins in wonder",  he wrote this:“Yes, I know this attribution to Socrates. It's pretty foundational to my own spirituality -- to see the divine, not just in a beautiful flower, but also where it's hidden. That's harder, but no less important.  Sometime I'll tell you about homework I used to assign (graduate level physiology): take a walk, look, touch, wonder. Students hated it; it's too hard.”  This spoke volumes about the sensitivity of this scientist who, when I suggested he was a theologian, firmly denied it.

How do we deal with such heartbreak? I don’t know. One thing Jim did was to find a tree on the hospital grounds, embrace it and tell it it wasn’t its fault. I wept. Accident comes from the Latin root ad+ cedere = to fall into. That’s what the sodden branch did: it fell into Susan. Simply so.

It is so very hard to accept an accident as just an accident. We want causes, explanations, we want to place blame or responsibility somewhere, even if it us upon ourselves. But this was pure accident.

For this all we can do is gently tend to our own feelings and surround ourselves with people who say dumb but well-meaning things, such as: “God will not give you more than you can bear.” What baloney!  Or worse: “Everything happens for a reason.”  If your heart is broken by a tragic accident or a senseless death, such words plunge like a sharp knife into your heart and break it all over again. Just say I love you, or,  Is there anything I can to help? 

When Dick was hit by a car and suffered significant injuries to his leg, a friend asked what I would like. “Can you please bake me some chocolate chip cookies.”  She did and delivered them. I have no idea exactly how that helped me cope with an injured husband and a parish to manage, but it did. 

Before she died, Susan Butler silently mouthed to Jim the three greatest words in the universe: I love you.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

2019.01.13 Birthday Baptismal Day

Today is my oldest daughter’s birthday. She is fifty-six years young, looks beautiful as always, and is filled with vigor and passion for justice for all people.

Today is also the day the Christian church remembers the Baptism of Jesus at the hand of his cousin John the Baptizer. Baptism is the day one becomes a Christian—nothing to do with denomination or any particular community. Baptism is belonging to Christ, becoming an initiated followers of Jesus the Christ. When anyone is baptized they are welcomed into a community of faith with powerful promises, some water, the Holy Spirit and a passionate sentence of chrismation, anointing the forehead with oil, saying their name and “. . . you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  This sacramental ritual carries the weight of thousands of years of tradition, the biblical mandate, a whole community of prayer and support, and just plain sacred beauty. When you are baptized you work for Jesus Christ in whatever you do.

The baptismal job is no cushy or high-paying job. It’s lifelong, serious, risky and grace-filled.    In addition, who wouldn’t want to work for a boss who had a great sense of humor, cried real tears, never gave up on the vision, knew he could not do this alone, and looked roughly like this?
Baptized when she was about five months old, Bev wore a long white, sweeping, dress—elegant. Her small head, covered with heaps of very dark hair, stood out amidst billows of white lace. There is a photo of her in that baptismal dress, somewhere in the annals of years of scrapbooks. I wish I could share it, because it is etched in the eye of my heart.

Bev is fulfilling her baptismal vows. She might laugh at this, since she does not attend church; nor, is she at all certain about God or Christianity. She has, however, always followed the ways of Jesus. She is kind and compassionate and a devoted mother of two daughters. She has navigated painful ups and down in her life with dignity. She works, in every job she has ever had, for justice for all people, gender equality, the rights of the poor, and the working classes.

In my lingo, Bev is most baptismal in her involvement with politics, making sure that the values of the “kingdom” Christ proclaimed are secured on earth as they are in heaven. Why would Jesus speak so strongly and consistently about working to bring about the kingdom of God, if he were not a politician?  “Kingdom” is a political term, lest we forget. The spirit of this kingdom is not constrained by partisan politics, binary absolutes, sexual identity, wealth, religious affiliations, or territorial boundaries. This kingdom calls for us to drop our precious identity labels and work together for the good of the whole. That is good politics. That is also good religion.

I got a clue to Bev’s direction in life from baseball. She wasn’t particularly interested in baseball, but she was interested in being the first girl admitted to play on a local Little League team. She made the team. I went to the games. Bev’s batting skills were sporadic. She struck out, or lucked out with a bad pitcher and walked. But she could run like crazy. Sitting with other gabbing parents, paying attention only when their kids were up, I was startled one evening by the sound of a loud CRACK. It was Bev’s bat. She hit a home run—out of the ball park, as they say. She was so stunned she forgot to run until the coach yelled: RUN!!  There was much applause, cheering, and kudos. I can’t remember if her team won, but that day she won. I cried. I thought then that she’d hit a home run for women’s equality and inclusion. I also learned that she approached life with a combination of curiosity, desire, and caution in about equal proportion—always summoning courage to try new things and keep on swinging. Baseball is a team sport. So is Jesus-work.

Bev’s personality exhibited both toughness and softness—tough on herself and soft on others. Her intelligence and passion for good causes even at a young age remains contagious, likewise her robust sense of humor and agility. Swimming became her sport of choice. Not only is she an excellent swimmer, but swimming has spiritual consolations—trusting the water’s buoyancy to hold you up, and letting it support you.
Bev might say I am imposing my perspective onto her life, and perhaps I am. It would be nice if she joined a Christian church community, I suppose. Nevertheless, I see the fruits of baptismal spirituality in her, and I dare say that one does not have to be Christian to be a christ. 


Sunday, January 6, 2019

2019.01.06 Oh, My God. Epiphany LIghts.

The church begins the season of Epiphany today. It’s the season of light, of manifestations of Christ in our lives, of new beginnings. Epiphany light makes what was hidden come to light, often startlingly. We ask: What is this? Is this God?  Our biblical ancestors asked this about Jesus: Is this God? It took them a long time to see, and longer to say: yes, we see God here. It took more time to realize that after Jesus died, they still saw and felt Jesus’s presence. They called this the Light of Christ, and said again: yes, this is God.

Epiphany invites us still to see that light, and still to say: yes, this is God. And yes, God in Christ illuminates, and yes,  it's not always easy and sweet.
                                         OH, MY GOD.

Seriously, I have a black tee-shirt from the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City with Oh, my God., in white calligraphy on it. Note the emphatic period not an overenthusiastic !.

Do you have epiphanies that feel spiritual? Spirituality is a matter of training your heart and your eye to see beyond or inside a simple ordinary scenario and marvel at its sudden inexplicable grandeur. Do you ask: Is this God? Listen to how often you, or people around you, say or text: OMG! OMG!
                                            *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Across the street from us there’s a creche—not unusual at Christmastide, but this one is a standout, not for its artistic beauty or creativity but for its inner glory. The creche scene is squeezed into the small fenced-in strip of concrete alongside the front of the house.The traditional manger figures are all present, including a camel tied to a fence post so it won’t blow away. The figures are life-sized, colored pink and blue and yellow, save for the camel and Joseph who get to be browny/goldish. Each figure is illumined. It is honestly a most gawdy scene, yet every year out it comes—set up faithfully, tenderly by its owners. This year all the lightbulbs, save for Joseph and an angel, were out. The creche stood darkened. I thought maybe the owners had lost their enthusiasm. But, Oh, my God!  on Christmas eve new lights bulbs suddenly flickered on for Mary, Jesus, Magi, shepherd, sheep, and the other darkened wise men. Some work went into that illumination, some money and effort, some God.
                                         OH, MY GOD.

A young man rode by on his bike with his small son in a seat on the back of the bike. He was going fast, possibly in a hurry to get home before pitch dark. I watched and saw the little boy gesticulate with his arms, and also no doubt shouting. The dad screeched the brakes on and executed a swift, not without risk, u-turn. Why? Oh yes, the siren call of the train whistle, the clang clang of the crossing gates coming down, and the train’s light approaching. The child simply had to see this, so dad whipped around so the child could wave vigorously to the train from his little seat.
                                         OH, MY GOD.

A very self-important man holding the highest office in our land had a conversation with a seven-year-old child. He asked the child whether he believed in Santa Claus. “Oh yes” said the boy. “Isn’t that a bit marginal for a seven year old?” said the man. Undaunted, the child nodded, saluted the man and stuck to his answer. One can only hope the child did not know the meaning of “marginal”—or better yet, rejected it.  

When I was seven, a friend in school told me in no uncertain terms that there was no Santa Claus. She had a very good reason for her surety: Santa certainly couldn't afford all those presents. I went home and told my parents: “You won’t believe the stupidest thing Nancy told me in school.” I scoffed. I continued to believe in Santa Claus. I still do, marginal that I am. This might explain the fact that no one has ever dissuaded me from my own devotion to God and all things religious.
                                        OH, MY GOD.

Daniel Jackson, author of "Portraits of Resilience", a book that brings light to people’s stories of depression in order to reduce the stigma of shame that surrounds mental illness, keeps a blog called “Resilience Postcard.”  Recently he posted this idea: Civility = Optimism

“You can’t solve a problem with the very means that created it in the first place. Radicalism and incivility got us where we are now; only thoughtful compromise and relentless civility will bring us back.  . . .  Civility is essential in our personal lives too. It’s not just that being civil to each other makes our interactions more pleasant. Or that behaving in a civil way, and restraining our anger, is curiously empowering.

"More than anything, I believe, it’s that civility is a form of optimism, because it draws us back from the precipice. Civility tells us that our society is not yet in such dire straits that we must take up arms against each other. That people are fundamentally good, and that rational and sympathetic discourse can change minds. That each human being deserves as much respect as any other; and that many small actions can bring about big changes.”
                                      OH, MY GOD.
                                          
Sometimes what is unspoken carries more power than what is spoken. Some inner explosions represent truth, even when civility keeps us from speaking them aloud. Well-meaning religious idiots often say in the face of a sudden trauma of unimaginable death: “God never gives us more than we can handle.”  Here are Elaine Pagels’s inner reactions from her memoir, Why Religion?, after her young son and her husband died a year apart:“How dare you speak of this as a gift from God? What do you know of what I can—or cannot—handle?” Never stifle the soul-truth of a profound spiritual outcry with religious platitudes. Never, never do it. Never. If God is God, God cries out. Christians ought to know this. Let’s not give God a bad name or demolish divine Love.
                                   OH, MY GOD—NO.

On a sweet note, here is a photo of a tree ornament my son John created, with help I'm sure, when he was in nursery school in 1973. On the back are his initials and date:  JTB, 1973. His nursery school teacher saved some of these ornaments and hangs them on her Christmas tree. She is nearing ninety, and John is nearing fifty. Memories, like Love, never die.
                                   OH, MY GOD—YES.