Sunday, October 20, 2019

2019.10.20 Importunity

There’s this brief but potent little tale tucked into a series of parables about faithfulness and healing in Luke’s gospel. I’ve always loved this story, nicknamed “The Importunate Widow.” (Luke 18:1-8)

I love the word importunate. It’s a word that demands attention—so startling in fact that later translations of the story substitute the lamer word: “persistent.” But who ever looks up importunate?  It means persistent to the point of annoyance or intrusion, and comes from Latin importunus (inconvenient) and the god named Portunus who protected harbors or ports—protected. Importunity connects to opportune, coming at just the right time, or perhaps the nick of time.  Which time is it for this woman, the right time or the worst time?

The parable is about a woman, a widow and therefore on her own and vulnerable, who raises nagging to an art form for good reason. She will not be put off or sent away by the judge to whom she repeatedly appeals for justice against her opponent. One could assume she’s demanding a retrial without an attorney. Finally the judge, sick of her importunity, grants her request—not because he is just, but because the woman is a nuisance, an annoyance, in the manner of a mosquito whining in your ear at night causing you to slap your own ear to get the thing to shut up.
 Is this a story about faithfulness? Or is it a story about justice won? Or is it a “MeToo” story? I vote for #3 and note history: women have felt importunate for centuries, but have been silenced, publicly and behind closed doors—even unto death—
    - by strong cultural norms dictating how women should behave,
    - by women themselves out of fear,
     -by women who have silenced daughters and sons, passing on the silencer tradition.

When my oldest daughter, Bev, was about five she was unjustly punished, and I failed to stand up for her. My spouse/her dad was not a violent man, nor was there overt domestic abuse in our home. This is one small importunate incident. We had weekend guests who were preparing to leave on Sunday morning. They came down the stairs with their suitcases. As we were bidding them farewell, my daughter spotted one end of a toothpaste tube sticking out of Mr. X’s suitcase. It was funny. She pointed and laughed. Her dad became furious, yelled at her, and sent her upstairs to her room. My heart ached for her, yet I said not a thing. Hardly importunate of me. It was a petit mal trauma, the kind that leaves scars on a soul. You see what I mean.

What is remarkable—and truly importunate—is that this story appears in a tome as ancient as the Bible and is called holy. Jesus, as interpreted by Luke, introduces this story as a story about the need to pray and never lose faith. This is a classic case of someone’s, in this case Luke, putting words into Jesus’s mouth— interpretative words. It happens, you know.

The story purports to be about prayer and faithfulness in prayer to God. BUT……..

Faith is too weak a word for the untimely importunity this woman exhibits. Stubborn trust in her own experience and need is more accurate. We know nothing about her circumstances, except that she’s a widow and has an “opponent.” She “continually comes” at the judge, who is corrupt and NOT anyone to pray to. He grants her justice—“so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face”. The idea of course is that God will grant justice more swiftly and fairly than this unjust judge on earth. But where does that leave the woman? Flip the parable.

I see God incarnate in the woman. I see the God who plunders the depths of God’s own desire for justice, a God who never gives up, a God who is the nag, and the beggar, and the abandoned infant, a God who is importunate in empowering human agency with wails in the night and pounding fists on our souls. Can we hear such a God in our midst?  [Oh, this may seem like very undignified behavior for God, but I assure you, it is not at all above the behavioral repertoire of Ms. Holy Spirit to inspire such importunity.]

Jesus, as interpreted by Luke, seducer of Gentiles into Jesus’s flock, plummets headlong into the fray with the widow and judge, taking us with him. Then adeptly he steps back from the action to deliver a challenging and final crowd-stopper:

“And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

2019.10.13 Two Eves and Me

One of my mentors is Eve Ensler.  She is an American playwright, performer, feminist, and activist, known best for her play, "The Vagina Monologues.” I once had a starring role in that play. More humbly stated, I performed one of the monologues sitting atop a three-legged stool dressed in my clerical collar—and nothing else. Okay that’s a lie—fun, but a lie. I wore my professional uniform: black pants and shirt with a traditional stiff white band of plastic circling my neck. The collar, after which I’d lusted for some years, identified me as clergy, in my case an Episcopal priest. This collar gave me authority, authority it would take years for me to fully internalize, and even more years to relinquish so I could begin to rely on my own authority not the uniform’s.
Ensler’s play premiered in 1996 and was hailed by Charles Isherwood of the New York Times as “probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade.” Ensler’s mission was to campaign globally against anti-female violence. She offers the script free of charge to local groups every February 14th. Ensler as a young woman.
The Gloucester Coalition for the Prevention of Domestic Abuse, of which I was a member ,got the script in 2006 and put out a call for auditions. My heart leaped and I signed my vagina up for an audition. We got in. There were no official costumes, so I decided, with some trepidation, to wear my collar for the performance. 

I spoke the part of a mature woman who had attended a vagina workshop. Honestly, there really were such things. They were designed to help woman connect, or reconnect, with their sexuality, specifically to get to know their “privates". No kidding, women lay on mats and pretended to have a relationship with their vaginas while a young twenty-something guided them along. All I had to do in my monologue was portray my vagina’s release from hidden shame to wondrous self-affirmation while sitting on a stool, wearing my clerical collar, and faking an orgasm on stage. I got a standing “o”—that’s ovation.

There were some older women from my parish in the front row. They looked stern I thought, but I saw one of them suddenly cover a giggle. They never said a word, a grace for which I adored them. But two young women joined the parish after they saw me in the play, and another friend in my yoga class told me her 80 year old mother had whispered to her: “Can we go to that church?” Well, there’s more than one way to evangelize. Call it V-evangelism.

Eve Ensler is sixty-six now and continues to write about big topics like God, death, and women. I write about the same topics. Her experience of being systematically beaten to bleeding by her father throughout her childhood was more traumatic, although comparisons are odious, than my experience of being sexually molested in a NYC movie theater when I was eight by an old man with a long white beard who looked just as I thought God would. I called him the old God-man.

I buried my own trauma in an abyss of shame—sure something was wrong with me that this happened.  It was not until I was in seminary seeking God, a way out of shame, and the fullness of my own sexuality, that I wrote about what happened to me in a journaling course that encouraged experiential theology. I’d thought just knowing what happened was enough, but knowledge was only the melody. When supported by the tones of my feelings and bodily sensations, the truth grew robust—and holy. I knew I had written the old “God-man” to death—myself and my body to new life. Perhaps this was my own vagina monologue.

Like Ensler, I found healing through writing, as well as through performing in her play.

Ensler has just published a second memoir called Apology in which she exhumes her father through her imagination and writes the apology she wished she’d had from him. She ends her book with: “Old man be gone.” I now that feeling. Old God-man be gone!  AMEN.

I wear my collar now when I’m officiating at a religious rite and when I feel proud of something I’ve done with God’s help, such as writing books in which the Holy Spirit takes the lead.
In the 5/26/19 NY Times Book Review Ensler quotes from her favorite book: "Letter to a Child Never Born," by Oriana Fallaci: "And yet, or just for this reason, it's so fascinating to be a woman. It's an adventure that takes such courage, a challenge that's never boring. You'll have so many things to engage you if you're born a woman. To begin with, you'll have to struggle to maintain what might even be an old woman with white hair or a beautiful girl. Then you'll have to struggle to explain that it wasn't sin that was born on the day when Eve picked an apple, what was born that day was a splendid virtue called disobedience.”

It remains a challenge for us women to find our voices, our bodies, and our dignity in this rootedly patriarchal world, still doggedly resistant to sharing power. But we are present. We speak. We write. We keep on disobeying the rules set for us by forces over which we had no control. We will simply BE. What grace there is in that simple declaration of Being itself—just as we are. Thanks be for the first woman Eve and for all her spiritual namesakes, like me and Ensler, and so many others. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

2019.10.06 Invictus/Convictus

Many people have deep soul-convictions that shape their lives from the beginning and get more courageous and more sinewy when threatened. Such was the case for Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned for treason during the hard struggle against the apartheid politics of the South African government. Mandela spent 27 years in exile, some of it at Robben Island in hard labor.

Mandela’s story is complicated, just as any story of someone who struggles with spiritual ideals and cold hard reality and falls down many times along the way is. Nevertheless, he was a man of conviction and spiritual strength. While imprisoned he was offered his personal freedom once. He refused  to comply with the condition that he unconditionally reject violence as a political weapon, saying: “What freedom am I offered while the organisation of the people (African National Congress) remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

Mandela emerged after much negotiation, including international protests, and pain to be elected as South Africa’s first black chief executive in 1994.

Mandela subscribed to basic democratic values and the African ethical tenet, ubuntu: “A person is a person through other persons.” Mandela died of respiratory illness in 2013 at the age or 95. He was not a model of moral rectitude or religious rigor, but he was a man of conviction. How? Well, in part because he kept this poem alive in his heart as a mantra, a prayer with which he strengthened his soul.

Invictus  William Ernest Henley, 1875.

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

The wisdom of this poem is true for me, up to a point. As I age and face my own convictions,  the mastery of my soul has withered. I of course am neither as strong or as bludgeoned as Mandela was, but when I read “Invictus” I said yes, then, not convinced, and being a word-nerd, I looked up the word roots, Latin of course.
    Invictus means conquered from within already, and therefore unconquerable from without. Invictus is I. Yes, I was conquered from within like Mandela. 
     Convictus means conquered with (con), not alone, like with a close friend or intimate association. Convictus is WE. Yes, I was conquered by not feeling alone, because God was there. We are masters of my soul.

Convictus Lyn Gillespie Brakeman, 2019

From the vastness of the sea,
the endless stretches of sand,
I am drawn into one drop, one grain—
my own.

I am not the master of my fate,
the keeper of my soul
as I’ve spent years imagining—
and forgetting.

It’s not so.

For years ago
I deeded my soul to God
my heart to Christ
my fate to the stars

Thus . . .
all my words
my deeds
my thoughts
are convicts—
escapees, convicted anew—
over and over, daily.