Sunday, June 30, 2019

2019.06.30 Leaving and Grieving With Grit and Grace

It is hard to say goodbye and harder to make that goodbye authentic, that is, with feeling but not sloppy. There’s only one way to do it—just do it. The apostle Paul called it speaking the truth in love. I call it leaving and grieving with grit and grace.

We have been priest associates at a parish in Charlestown Massachusetts for seven years. Today was our last Sunday. We’ll be moving on, not because of anything negative, but because it is time. A bit of the process:

Our notice in the parish newsletter, June 10—Holy Spirit season takes hold.
Dear Parishioners of St. John’s,

In conversation with one another and in communication with the parish wardens and Canon Carol Gallagher, the regional canon for our area of the diocese who has oversight over transition processes, we have decided that it is time for us to move on from St. John’s parish. Our last Sunday in the parish will be June 30th.

The Priest Associate arrangement was made under the appointment of the former rector, and we have served in that capacity over seven years with gratitude. Your gracious hospitality gave us an altar and a pulpit  whereby we could function as priests during our early retirement years. Thank you.

You are entering a transition time when you will be discerning your future and new leadership. It’s the right time for us to move on. We are making plans for our next retirement phase which will have us moving out of Massachusetts.

With deep appreciation and gratitude for this community, we bid you all farewell and bless you with grit and grace as you go forward. Thank you.


The Rev’ds Lyn G. Brakeman and Richard J Simeone, aka Lyn and Dick

A Gracious Response

This Sunday June 30, we say farewell to Rev. Lyn Brakeman and the Rev. Dick Simeone, who have been an integral part of St. John’s for many years.
Together with us:
    They have preached, celebrated baptisms, officiated and been a spiritual balm at funerals, heard and healed us, and called us time and time again to the Eucharistic table.
    They’ve broken bread with us, laughed, cried, fussed, found things that were lost, and sat with us when we were feeling lost.
    They’ve visited those of us who were sick, dying, grieving, newly parenting, struggling, or confined.
    They’ve inspired and provoked us to look within ourselves and without ourselves to the needs of the whole world.

Lyn and Dick—we will miss you. We wish you oh so well in the next stage of your lives. We send our love, our prayers and our knowledge that we are all and always a part of the community of Christ.
         Catherine and Sarah, Parish Wardens.

What I love most about this response is that it acknowledges that parish ministry happens together. 

Final Blessings  On invitation from the Interim priest, we offered the closing blessings—dual but not dueling. As we said our favorites heads nodded and lips moved in recognition. We felt warmed.
Lyn: Time is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts and minds or those who travel the way with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind.
Dick: And, as you go forth to life and ministry, the blessing of the eternal and ever-living God, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit, sustain, strengthen, challenge, and renew you this day and forevermore. Amen.

Party Time This parish specializes in food glorious food. There was enough to feed those 5000 hungry stragglers on the hillsides as Jesus did. (I’ve often thought it would be a great idea for St. John’s to start a small cafĂ©/tearoom ministry. Then I remembered we don’t have a dishwasher.)

Many people shed tears of love, offered goodbyes and remembrances of beauty and humor, even a little anger. One man remembered that when his mother was sick and lonely and uncertain about God’s judgment, he’d asked if I’d give her a call. I gave her many calls. She called  me “her spiritual advisor,” and, after she’d read my memoir, declared: “Well! I guess if this woman did all this acting up and is a priest, I must be fine with God.”

Parting Words  We each offered parting thoughts—humorous, wise, and into the future. I am only qualified to share my own.

Well, we are soaring up, up, and away with Elijah in the whirlwind, but according to a typo in today’s bulletin we’ll be back again next week.
My two favorite spiritual gifts are grit and grace. [Grit and grace! they repeated knowingly.] A lot’s been said about grace, God’s, yours, ours, so I’m going to zero in on grit. I know some of you worry about the future of this parish, but let me assure you, you have what it takes in your DNA to thrive. I call this grit your blunt force determination and resilience. Two iconic examples:
    -Years ago a fire threatened to burn down the sanctuary. The rector, the legendary Mr. Cutler, placed his body between the stained glass apse window of Christ presiding at the Eucharist and a fireman wielding a large axe, ready to demolish the window. The window survived and the sanctuary didn’t burn down. Grit and grace.
     -Once a diocesan bishop was thinking of closing this parish. A small group of stalwart gritty parishioners, some of them here today, raised a great fuss, organized, and, as legend would have it, actually barred the bishop from entering the sanctuary.  I love the legend, but, in this case, the real story is even better: the gritty small group organized, went out into Charlestown, and rallied as many people as they could ambush to come to church that Sunday. The poor bishop arrived to a full house. He didn’t dare close the place after such a show of Christian zeal! Grit and grace.

The challenge this gritty and graced parish faces today, I think, is twofold: trust mightily in your DNA and simultaneously, slow down, listen to your self, to God, to one another, even a bishop. Christ isn’t presiding over a horse race, you know.

Carry on with grit and grace, beloved. You got this one. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

2019.06.23 Teachers—And Then Some

One of the most treasured and, yes, loving, professions is that of being a teacher. Teachers are all over the place, but I’m thinking of classroom teachers. I remember the ones who shaped my life by knowing the shape of my life before I knew it.

How, for example, could my high school English teacher have known when he assigned year-end senior projects that the best assignment for me would be Charles Dickens? He knew before I did that I leaned toward compassion and justice for underdogs. He knew that I swooned over big spiritual Scrooge-like transformations. And he knew I had a penchant for good words, preferably big unmanageable ones, and a longing to be found, or at least noticed.

My favorite Dickens novel was Bleak House. Honestly, I don’t remember much of it except that it was about a young girl who wrote letters to an older man who took great care responding to the girl’s missives. Thus she grew to love herself. The relationship wasn’t lascivious but avuncular. I remember it felt holy to me. Here’s a quote: “There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.” 

No, I did not remember those exact words. I looked them up. They felt just like something that would have stuck with me, made me laugh, and justify some of my own supercilious attitudes towards my elders. One of those elders must have gotten my drift, or been prodded by my mother, because, yearly for years, she gave me a bound-in-leather, gold-leaf, edition of a Dickens novel until I had the whole set. I hope my son Rob still has them—not for the money’s worth but for the soul’s worth.

A grandson, fourteen, recently responded to my typically-adult-inanity: What’s your favorite subject? He said something like: “Last year it was History but this year it’s English.” Why? Because last year’s English teacher was “no good.” The teacher makes the subject matter live. It’s an art.

My youngest son John is a teacher. He chose his profession, inspired by a teacher who wasn’t even his teacher but a special presenter in one of his college classes. The topic was educational advising, or how to teach teachers.  John thought: “I’d like to do that.” After the presentation he went to talk to the presenter, who was in a hurry and brushed off  John’s enthusiasm—a cardinal sin, I’d say. Nevertheless, even a sin can plant a seed. John pursued education instead of following his brother and dad into a business career. He taught in a racially segregated elementary public school in Florida. Anti-segregation laws soon passed, so his school had to integrate—admit more white children. The experience was formative for John, professionally and spiritually. Perhaps it was “Dickensian.”

I think this is how the Spirit works—not telling us what precisely to do but setting a small fire under our own desires.  I pursued, not Dickens, but writing with a religious, if sometimes sarcastic, bent. John returned to Connecticut, taught fifth grade, got his master's degree, and now heads up the library in an elementary school, where, you could say, he teaches teachers or at least ignites their impulses—known and unknown.  

Just a few days ago John was in an ice cream shop. The teenager behind the counter looked familiar. The boy smiled. John said: “I think I know you.” The boy said: “Mr. Brakeman?” John remembered instantly this young fifth grader, Timmy, I’ll call him. He had been a history buff with a special interest in American history. John had encouraged his interest and found books to fan the embers. Timmy told John he was going to college next year and planned to major in history. “Thanks for the education, Mr. Brakeman. The ice cream’s on me.” What better praise can there be?

It excites me when all that praise and glory we blast off on regularly in church escapes into the world we foolishly call secular, as if there were really a difference. If only we would notice. Pay attention to the small stuff that’s not supposed to happen but does.

Poet Brian Doyle wrote about another fifth-grader. May this poem serve to bless all teachers everywhere who teach knowledge—and knowing.

A Poem for Literature Teacher Beth
Morgan of Lassiter High in Georgia

Maybe you will think this is a tiny thing
But I do not think it’s a little thing when
A student asks me if I could possibly jot
A poem for his absolute favorite teacher
Because he wants to give her an odd gift
Of a poem by a writer she enjoys and he,
The student, says he knows this is crazy,
But he really admires this teacher, so he,
The writer, touched by the student’s guts
And how fine the teacher must be to jazz
 A student like that, says sure, and he sits
Down one morning to scribble the poem,
And here it is, but this poem, you notice,
Is a poem about the student being moved
By a teacher, and the teacher being zesty
And honest and real and so passionate as
To stories that he, the student, will never
Forget the teacher. That is the best poem.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

2019.06.16 Knocking Off THE Father and Loving the Daddy

Happy Father’s Day. Happy Trinity Sunday.

Many Christians claim to understand the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, yet no one does. How can the one God be partitioned—thrice holy? In church we pray to OUR FATHER. We bless and anoint in the name of THE FATHER. Adding HIS only son and a holy spirit, we lustily sing Holy, Holy, Holy. We proclaim, praise, and triple-bind ourselves into this girdle of holiness and name it One God. Now who really does not secretly know that the real head of this sweet holy trio is THE FATHER? 

I’m a woman, also a mother. My preferred pronouns are she, her, hers. I’m not named as one of these major God parts. I’m not bitter, because my spiritual experience tells me I’m holy, and that the Trinity really means that the One Father God’s holiness is innumerable—not three or even three zillion. God has no preferred pronouns. God is not my father. 

Most days I adored my father. I used to think he was like God and imagined him in grandiose ways. One day though I did discover that he really was the bravest man in the universe.

Daddy was a city man—reserved, handsome, advertising executive. As a child I longed to capture his attention. My strategies, chiefly cuteness, incessant questions, and begging for one more book, bore little fruit—except in the summer when left the city and spent time on a farm up-state. Daddy commuted but took lots of vacation time. We got to explore the near-sacred mysteries of life on a farm.

We’d read picture books about farm animals, so we’d practiced neighs, brays, moos, cackles, and oinks. On the farm our book-animals leapt alive. We bonded over barnyard sights, sounds, and smells, especially freshly mown hay, pigs wallowing in mud, and cows. I was scared but Daddy was brave. Watching a cow give birth terrified me. The mother cow struggled and bellowed. Daddy told me to wait, luckily refraining from a lesson in sex education. I held my hands over my eyes, but peeked. When the calf finally emerged my heart jumped. How had it fit inside? This led us to the bull—a daddy to avoid, Daddy said.

The bull had his own stall. We peeked in. The bull snorted and had sharp piercing eyes—angry. One day the farmer asked Daddy to help get the bull up a ramp and onto the trailer for transport. The bull was secured by ropes tied to a halter. I watched, shivering with fear. Some men tugged the lead on the halter and pulled. Others poked with pitchforks from the rear. The raging bull jerked his head and took a quick turn toward Daddy. The farmer yelled: “Jump aside quick!” I held my breath till the bull galloped up the ramp onto the truck. Daddy was saved.

Driving home, I asked softly: “Daddy, were you scared?”

“You bet I was Lynnie,” he said.  

At that moment I knew my father really was the bravest man in the universe.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy—God also of course and in case.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

2019.06.09 Who Is a Mystic?

Most people would say “Not me!”

Pentecost is the wildest, freest, most voluminous occasion and season of all seasons spiritual. It marks the biblical story of Creation’s awareness of the presence of a Holy Spirit that powers, let’s say, divine activism. GO! She travels far and wide, probing the depths and sowing seeds of hope, healing, and divine Goodness and Love. She/He is gender-free and bright green, passionate red, eye-popping gold and blue-all-over—a genuine Mystic, wisely irrational. 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes about the Kabbalah Jewish mystical tradition:  “I think what our generation seems to be living through is the realization that rationalism is only part of the answer. I think, I’m not the first one to notice this, that Auschwitz and Hiroshima were perfectly rational decisions. So there’s this sense that religion has to be more than rationalism. Any mysticism offers—it says, sort of like in the corner, ‘Psst, hey kid how would you like a direct experience of the divine? Would that help your religious life?’ A lot of people discover that they’re mystics after all when they’re given that offer.” 

Rabbi Kushner’s definition of a mystic: “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradiction, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” 

I like that definition better than the one that insists on a direct experience of the divine—not because it is more rational, far from it, but because it makes room for the immanence of the transcendent—the divine within us, encouraging and empowering us to trust that hidden unity.

Kushner is a long time student of the Kabbalah. He was influenced by a Jewish historical figure named Gershom Scholem (1918-1982). Gershom rescued this tradition from obscurity.  The spirit of Kabbalah wraps teachings in teachings, wisdom in wisdom, life within life—analogically, like a Torah scroll wraps round itself. Kushner is the Emanu-El scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and the author of many books.
As a young child I experienced an invisible, inaudible, listening Presence I called God. I chattered. God listened. I learned that I mattered. You could say my words wrapped within The Word. I erred and strayed, but I never forgot the mark that experience left on me. It left me with that “gnawing suspicion” Kushner described: Good lies concealed in any chaos.

Every morning about 4 a.m., the birds begin their day-song before day breaks. They are natural anticipatory mystics, sensing, trusting, and proclaiming the light before it comes. Seeds planted in fertile soil do the same. Tree roots are the same: they hide under layers of concrete sidewalk, yet they push through and grow! GO. So also for tiny seeds of kindness planted in trusting desperate souls. Lions know when to leap and monkeys when to race up trees. GO! Jesus knew when to shut up and when to GO!

In the Old Testament, God spoke directly to prophets who conveyed divine messages—mostly about ways people can help God by listening and looking, especially in the darkest corners of misery to see where God needed help to create life anew. Imitate God, they said. Imitate Jesus the Christ, Christians say. Imitate Holy Spirit! GO!

When the prophetic tradition died out, people feared there would be no more direct Voice of God. Would God be silent? No. God continued to communicate in a new way called the bath qol.  It means “the daughter of a voice”—not inferior to what prophets experienced but more inward/subjective, far-reaching. For Christians, this voice is carried by the Holy Spirit. It is what Jesus heard within himself at his baptism: You are my son, the beloved. GO!

I have heard this bath qol seven times in my life, mostly posing challenging questions, such as what in the world are you thinking of here? These queries were personal wakeup calls for subjective clarity. 

BUT twice, God’s bath qol was more direct.
    -I was in deep distress after being turned down in the ordination process. I had run out of words completely, maybe like Jonah sitting dejectedly under the sheltering plant God provided and Jonah failed to appreciate. Or Elijah sitting outside his cave in misery. Both discerned the bath qol telling them: GO! This is the same voice Mary Magdalene felt within her vision at the empty tomb of grief. GO! To me God said: “No one can take this away from you, Lyn.” This stark truth was confrontive not comforting.  I heard: GO! 
    -And once again when I was fretting about ordination, Godde’s bath qol said:“Lyn I don’t care if you’re ordained.” How rude. I got it. GO! I kept going, unresolved.

Do such experiences make me a mystic?  I don’t know. But I can tell you that I do have the annoying tendency Kushner identified as mystical: "the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradiction, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” 

I say “annoying” in part because this tendency annoys my empirical beloved husband who accuses me of missing the obvious ingredients that make things look impossible. I do miss them, but that’s often because I trust there’s something unitive, transformative, gloriously hidden, and emergent—if I can only trust the long slow work of God and my own grit to GO— no matter what.

In sum, I bet there are more mystics in this world than not—a few are clothed in human flesh.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

2019.06.02 Ask and You Will Receive

Furious Prayer for the Church I Love and Have Always Loved but Which Drives Me Insane with its Fussy Fidgety Prim Tin-eared Thirst for Control and Rules and Power and Money Rather Than the One Simple Thing the Founder Insisted On.

Granted, it’s a tough assignment, the original assignment I get that. Love—Lord help us, could we not have been assigned something easier, like astrophysics or quantum mechanics. But no—love those you cannot love. Love those who are poor and broken and fouled and dirty and sick with sores. Love those who wish to strike you on both cheeks. Love the blowhard, the pompous ass, the arrogant liar. Find the Christ in each heart, even those. Preach the Gospel and only if necessary talk about it. Be the Word. It is easy to advise and pronounce and suggest and lecture; it is not so easy to do what must be done without sometimes shrieking. Bring love like a bright weapon against the dark. The Rabbi did not say build churches, or retreat houses, or secure a fleet of cars for general use, or convene conferences, or issue position papers. He was pretty blunt about the hungry and the naked and the sick. He was not reasonable; we forget this. The Church is not a reasonable idea. The Church should be a verb. When it is only a noun it is not what the Founder asked of us. Let us pray that we are ever after dissolving the formal officious arrogant thing that wants to rise, and ever fomenting the contradictory revolutionary countercultural thing that could change life on this planet. It could, you know. Let’s try again today. And so:amen.

by Brian Doyle, A Book of Uncommon Prayer. 100 Celebrations of the Miracle and Muddle of the Ordinary, 2014

The Muddle
A man named James who sits in his wheelchair in Harvard Square. I pass him every time I walk from the subway to where I get my hair cut. I only see him once a month, but I look forward to it. James is a lovely man with multiple handicaps, a gentle soul, and a smile from heaven. You could say James is homeless, disabled, an amputee, a street person, a beggar just looking for the next drink. You could discount him, as some do when they bustle by. I know he lives someplace where he is taken care of, and that someone brings him daily to his spot. He’s not an aggressive man, and he doesn’t call out or rattle a cup of coins for attention. But boy, when James smiles you know the world is his proverbial oyster—and you are the only one who matters at this moment. And James knows how to ask for what he needs. This is the part of the biblical wisdom we do not easily engage: asking and receiving are related, part of a whole. Once James asked me to marry him, and once he stammered, “ I love you” and motioned to me to lean towards him for a kiss. He is a person who matters, and I am not the only one who notices James.

The Miracle
Google-godde came to the rescue. James made it online. A Harvard senior, George David Torres, befriended him. James told Torres that he needed a new wheelchair. He asked. In the midst of Torres’s final exams he took the time and the heart to start a gofundme page to raise money for a new wheelchair for James. People were generous and Torres worked with The Boston Orthopedic and Respiratory. James received his new chair plus the bonus of a new cup in which to store his earnings.  Here he is with his new chair and cup—and his thank you note in process.

So much for envious projections of snootiness onto Harvard students. Call it Harvardism.

So much for assumptions about the general goodness and generosity of the public. Most people are kind.

So much for judging street beggary and putting everyone into the same nasty box called lazy, irresponsible, poor, or drunks.

So much for the idea that it is mostly religious or churched or Christian people who do their spiritual homework and follow Jesus’s only one commandment: Love. And doesn't love require paying attention and listening, both asking and receiving?

From what I have read about street people they appreciate money, but more importantly, they appreciate being noticed. I am not the only one who notices James. All this took place at the end of last summer. This summer so far I have missed James and pray with him. Please do the same if you will. Prayer is not a haughty holier-than-thou practice, nor is it magic or useless. It evokes hope in absence. It invokes God. Anyone can pray, and there probably is no one who has never prayed.

May Brian Doyle have the last word: 
Let us pray that we are ever after dissolving the formal officious arrogant thing that wants to rise, and ever fomenting the contradictory revolutionary countercultural thing that could change life on this planet. It could, you know. Let’s try again today. And so:amen.