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.