Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

When a young person dies



One of the members of our own Hospice Team suffered the unexpected, sudden loss of a loved one at an early age. Those of us who deal with death and dying were undone by our shared grief and heartbreak for our co-worker.  I kept saying "He was only 37 years old." My Chaplain colleague kept saying, "I just keep thinking about that baby growing up without a daddy." We each had our own hooks on which we hung our grief. We were all asking each other: "What can we say? What can we do?" And, just as importantly, "What shouldn't we say or do?" So, when we gathered this morning for Team, we set aside a time to remember and pray. My chaplain colleague offered a beautiful, deeply meaningful, extemporaneous prayer which I wish I had recorded. It healed many broken hearts in that room. I read excerpts of the "Eulogy for Alex" by William Sloan Coffin, delivered to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City in 1983, ten days after the sudden death of his 24-year old son. It's a eulogy I return to often as a resource. I offer these excerpts here for you.


As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son--Alexander--who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family "fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky"--my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms":

"The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places."

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. 

Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths--I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here--deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist--….

But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died--to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, "You blew it, buddy. You blew it." The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that.  

My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

That's why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers--the basics of beauty and life--people who sign letters simply, "Your brokenhearted sister." 

In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends--not many, and none of you, thank God--were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn't face. But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone's protection, just for everyone's unending support.

And that's what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us--minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here were I not upheld.

And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Yes, but at least, "My God, my God"; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn't end that way. 

As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the "right" biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold:
"Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee"; 

"Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning"; 

"Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong"; 

"For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling"; 

"In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world"; 

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall--so let us all--seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Could YOU be a White Supremacist?

I went to a Unitarian Universalist Church this morning.

It was quite intentional.

The sermon was on White Supremacy.  Which is why I went.

I mean, can you imagine such a sermon topic in an Episcopal Church?

Well, I can. But, I can't imagine too many rectors who would be brave enough to step up to the plate and take on a topic like this on a Sunday morning.

Maybe in the parish hall in an adult forum. But, never from the pulpit.

Okay, I can think of one or two but they are rare as hen's teeth in this beloved church of ours.

The Minister there is presently an interim position. (The final candidate comes at the end of this month for a long weekend where she will preach and teach and mix and mingle and then 90% of the congregation has to approve her before she is presented with the 'offer'. Not 90% of the search committee. 90% of the congregation. Pay attention, Episcopal Church.)

However, the entire Unitarian Universalist Association is participating in these sermons on White Supremacy over the next few weeks. This is due to a serious shake up at the national level during which the President of the Association resigned over controversy about problems with - you're not going to believe this - diversity in the staffing practices at the national level.

Yes, I'm still talking about the Unitarian Universalist Association, one of the most overtly and obviously affirming and inclusive of diversity of all the religious denominations or movements.

A white male was chosen to lead the group’s Southern region, replacing another white man who was retiring. Christina Rivera, a Latina laywoman who has served on the UUA’s board of trustees since 2014, revealed that she was a finalist for the position.

In her blog, "On being a good fit for the UUA" Rivera wrote:
I do not reveal this lightly…in fact it is with real fear that I am jeopardizing any future career within UU communities. But as I consider what has happened, I keep coming back to the thought that if they weren’t willing to hire me for this position then what makes me think that will change for any theoretical future? And ultimately how do we hold the UUA accountable for racial discrimination and upholding white supremacy if no one stands up in the public square and says “me, it was me, you did this to me and it is not ok, I demand you make this right!”
Yes, she said, "racial discrimination".

And yes, she said, "upholding white supremacy".

About the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Which begs the question, if it's possible for a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association to be a White Supremacist, could I be a White Supremacist?

Could YOU be a White Supremacist?

The UUA minister handled the sermon / reflection time brilliantly. She began by framing the issue in terms of what had happened at the the national level and then invited four people to share the reflections they had at their "Tuesday evening UUA Seven Principles Reflection Group."

I so want to hit the pause button here and imagine what it would be like if The Episcopal Church could articulate Seven Principles and then had reflection groups around them but in most places we can barely gather 3-4 people of a Sunday morning - much less mid-week - to a Bible Study or to reflect on the lectionary for the coming Sunday so I'll just stop right here.

The topic that evening was the Fourth Principle:
"A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." 
Apparently, this principle was discussed in terms of the charge of White Supremacy. Three very different women and one TransMan each gave a very short presentation which ranged from righteous indignation tempered by open, honest questioning, to a wonderful comparison to the early days of the feminist movement when women burned their bras publicly and charged men with being "chauvinist pigs". (Oh, yes we did.)

This had been preceded by a reading from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It was followed by the UU Interim Minister giving her reflection - which was intelligent and eloquent, honest and passionate and deeply moving.

She reminded us that, at the end of the service, the congregation would meet in the Library for refreshments during which there would be a "Twitter Storm" to support groups/individuals seeking to promote environmental awareness.

Following that, there would be "Circles in the Sanctuary" were people would be encouraged to share their reactions to the day's service.

I just have to press pause again here and note: Twitter Storms and Circles in the Sanctuary. Not to mention moving Shells of Joy and Concern and Lighting the Chalice. I've always said that no one can beat an Episcopal Priest at ringing at least 3 sermons from one symbol or metaphor but, ya know, ya just gotta love the UUAs.

So, here's the deal: No one in that church this morning was a White Supremacist.  Of course. If they were, they wouldn't have been in that room - or, in fact, anywhere near it.

And, we would have been able to easily spot them with their skin heads and tattoos, right? Or, the white sheets over their head? Or, surely from the red baseball cap with "Make America Great Again."

In academic usage, particularly in usage drawing on critical race theory the term "white supremacy" can also refer to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level.

I believe Ms. Rivera, in making her charge of "White Supremacy" was talking about the assumed, unexamined privilege of being white. And, who, indeed, will be held accountable if someone - if she, herself - didn't stand up and say, loudly and clearly, "OUCH!"?

If we don't - if she didn't - put a face on an ism or an ideology and say, "ME! It's ME! Look at ME! The Chicana, Latina. See ME! The same woman that has been serving on the national board for the last three years. The same woman you carefully considered for the position. The same person you said was equally qualified for the position. It was ME. You did this to ME and it is NOT okay. I demand you make this right." - then how will it ever have a chance of being made right?

It was a personal, political decision and she was personalizing the political.

She was also using the same technique the early feminist movement used to wake people up from their complacency. No, not every man is a male chauvinist pig but making that charge caused a few men to wake up and pay attention.

It's like that old analogy from the early days of the feminist movement: Fish don't know they're in water.

If you tried to explain it to a fish it would say, "Water? What's water?" They're so surrounded by it that it's impossible to see. They can't see it until they get outside of it. And then they are also able to see how polluted some parts of the pond have gotten.

That's what happens when you charge UUAs - or any nice, polite, white person - with "White Supremacy". It's like taking a fish out of water and saying, "Look! Look what you've been surrounding yourself with! Look what you've been living in! Look what it's doing to some of the other fish."

Our service bulletin this morning included this "White Supremacy Pyramid" which makes it pretty clear that being White carries with it assumed, unexamined privilege which can, and does, negatively impact people of color.

Add maleness to the white supremacy model and you get the culture of Fox News and most of the culture of corporate America.

And now, the Oval Office of the White House.

Like most pyramid or ice bergs, the tip of it is just the obvious, presenting problem. It's what's below the tip, the bottom of the pyramid, where the covert, socially acceptable behavior exists - and becomes more dangerous the more attention is paid to the tip and the less is paid to the base.

I don't know about you, but from time to time in my journey I have wandered around the base of that pyramid. I confess that I've been an ardent subscriber of the "But We're Just One Human Family" perspective.

It's a lovely thought.

It's a marvelous goal.

It's not our reality.

Not unless you don't know that you're swimming in water. And, it's polluted.

I have come to believe this: Western Christianity is built on a frame which assumes the supremacy of Caucasians. It begins with the blond, blue-eyed Jesus and works its way through various manifestations like pew rents and tithes, and continues to ascribe higher value to literacy, social and educational status and social location than the content of human character.

You can find it in more subtle manifestations of spiritual disciplines which ask people who may not be able to afford food to "fast" and asks people who are are suffering the indignities of the oppressed to subscribe to Lenten disciplines which "sacrifice" something in order to better understand the "sufferings" of Jesus.

We've got an awful lot of work to do in order to dismantle the framework of an institution which is so immersed in the waters of prejudice and discrimination that it doesn't even know that there is a different environment in which we can all swim freely.

Please hear me clearly: Wealth and educational and social status are not inherently evil. It's the arrogance and greed that prevent the wider distribution of wealth and opportunity that is evil. It is the valuing of individual wealth and social status over human ability and potential based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc., that is evil.

Especially in the church or any religious community.

If you need a recent history lesson in this, just watch the movie Hidden Figures based on the book by Margo Lee Shetterly. 

As the service came to an end and the candle in the chalice was extinguished (I know, the images are confusing to me, too), we sang a song which was written by one of their former Ministers who has since retired. The hymn has become a closing tradition for them:
We extinguish the flame in this chalice, but not the one in our hearts.
This is the light of our soul that shines forth when the world seems too dark;
it is the spark that ignites hope when that seems lost.
Your light is precious; carry it with you.... always.
I came away from that service with a hunger that was nourished with a renewed committed to the work of justice.

And that work begins, once again and as it always does, with me. With "this little light of mine".

My light is precious. And, so is yours.

Could YOU be a White Supremacist?

That's a question I encourage you to explore for yourself.

Start by tending to your own light.

Then, take a look around at the water in which you swim.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pink Moon Rising.


It has begun.

As early as Sunday night, desperation notes started popping up on social media.

"I want to die," posted one person. I checked in on him. He said he wasn't suicidal. Said he just felt like he wanted to die. Said it wasn't anything new. He was just tired of it all. Felt like he couldn't go on one minute more.

Then, he started responding publicly to everyone with a rant about, "Oh, so NOW you want to talk? Where were you when I needed you? When I needed to talk? When I felt all alone?"

In a strange way, it was like he wanted to be noticed and then got embarrassed because people did.

Or, maybe he wanted to make us all feel the same way he did: hopeless and helpless.

Or, something.

Crazy, right?

Well, maybe not.

The phone starting ringing at 7:30 this morning.

"We are just a few hours into Holy Week and I'm not going to make it," said one voice.

I think that one was the third that morning. Or, maybe it was the fourth.

"Don't worry," I said, "by Friday evening the ERs around the country will be overflowing with suicide attempts."

I might have been a bit sarcastic but that was not a joke. I wouldn't joke about something like that. That's from experience.

I can't tell you how many Good Friday evenings I've spent in the ER with a parishioner or a student or a neighbor or a colleague.

And they weren't all religious. Some weren't even Christian.

This year - 2017, this week - there is a convergence of four major holy days  - three of them the holiest, highest of high, holy days - of four of the world;s major religions.

Hanuman Mistakes the Sun for a Fruit by BSP Pratinidhi
"Hanuman Jayanti" is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Hanuman Ji, the monkey God. He is the symbol of strength and energy. Hanuman is worshiped for his unyielding devotion to Rama and is remembered for his selfless dedication to the God. He is widely believed to be immortal.

Passover has begun for the Jews - the time they observe the history of their people when God saved them from the plagues in Egypt and set them free from centuries of bondage.

For Western and Orthodox Christians, this is Holy Week - the time we observe the history of the Passion of Jesus who set us free from the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law and win for us Life Eternal.

It's also the time of Pink Moon Rising, so named by Native Americans because it heralds the appearance of the moss pink or wild ground phlox - one of the first spring flowers. It is also known as the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon and the Fish Moon.

"Pink Moon" is the opening track from Nick Drake's 1972 album of the same name. It perfectly captures - well, for me, anyway - the tone and tenor of this time.
"Saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink Moon gonna get ye all
And it's a pink moon."
Nick Drake was an English born singer-songwriter, noted for his soulful guitar ballads. By the time Drake wrote this song, he was deep in the throes of his life-long battle with depression. He died two years later, in 1974, from an overdoes of antidepressants. He was 26 years old.

The power of the song for me is that, even in the midst of the deepest part of his depression, Drake could see the power of the undercurrent of life - the cycle of dying and death and rebirth.

There is no doubt in my mind that this week there is a powerful psychic-spiritual undercurrent which has been set loose in the cosmos.

Few of us will be left untouched by it.

You don't have to suffer a major depression to experience it.

You don't have to practice a particular religion to feel it.

You don't have to go to Temple or Church or Mosque and read a Holy Book to know it.

"None of you stand so tall/Pink Moon gonna get ye all".

None of us knows what stories others are carrying around in their souls, especially this week. Betrayal has a very long shelf life. So does cruelty. Violence buries itself deep in the marrow of one's bones.

And, pain? Well, a wise pastor once told me that "Pain touches pain."

Please be kind and gentle and compassionate to yourself this week, that you might be kind and gentle and compassionate to others.

You don't know what cosmic forces will tug and pull at some ancient scar deep in the crevice of the heart.

You never know what a tidal surge will wash up on the Shores of Memory.

Who is to know that which was once safely buried will be unearthed when the tectonic plates in the earth shift with the waxing and waning of the moon?

We have no idea what part of the soul which was once thought dead will be stirred back to life by the moonlight dancing on the water.

In the midst of the darkest part of the night, remember to look for new life.

The Pink Moon is on its way.

It has been promised.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Obladi Oblada

MacKenna Jane and her Mom at Hamilton
When MacKenna Jane, our eldest granddaughter, turned five, we convinced her parents to let us take her to New York City as part of her birthday celebration.

Convinced? Is that what I said? We pleaded. We begged. We cajoled. We promised.

Her mother was nervous. Her father was near apoplexy.

Nevertheless, we persisted. And, she came.

We knew just how nervous her parents were about this Very Big Trip to the Big City when we got out of Penn Station and came up the escalator onto Broadway and decided to call a cab.

"Oh no," said Mackie.

"What?" we said.

"Look at all the yellow cabs," she said.

"Yes, honey," we said, "Is there a problem?"

"Well, yes . . . Nana," she said, trying to mask her rising anxiety.

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"Well, there are so many yellow cabs and none of any other color," she said, tears beginning to well in her eyes and catching in her throat.

"Yes, honey," I said, "taxi cabs in NYC are yellow."

"But, Daddy said that it was okay to take a cab but I just couldn't take a yellow one."

Yes, that's right. He's Irish.

Anne Hathaway's House, Stratford-upon-Avon
Tonight, ten years later, she's on a plane with her Drama Club, headed to London.

They'll tour London and take in the sights and then head over to Stratford-upon-Avon and study some Shakespeare and watch a few performances.

I sent her a text this morning (Isn't that the only way kids communicate these days?).

I told her to be sure to have some Shepherd's Pie (because I know my granddaughter and she would never order fish 'n chips).

I also recommended she order a plate of "Bubble 'n Squeak".

She simply wrote "Thank you, Nana."

As I remember her anxiety about not taking a yellow NYC cab, I wonder what she thought about my recommendations for culinary explorations while staying in UK. 

I probably should have told her not to take any yellow cabs while she's in London.

I'm thinking she might not get the joke.

And, I'm thinking that those past ten years flew by fast.

Too fast.

In three days, Willow Elizabeth turns two years old.

Her baby sister Ivy is turning the corner on four months old. 

Obladi Oblada life goes on, bra!

La la how the life goes on.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Hospice Hands.


NB: Every now and again, I'm asked by one of our extended care facilities to do "a little something" with and for the staff, especially after they have suffered a series of losses of long-term patients.  The challenge is to do "a little something" over staff break time (15-20 minutes). Today was one of those days. And, this was one of those "little somethings" I did.

What I remember most about our patient was his hands. Big hands. Gnarled hands. A man’s hands. A man who had worked with his hands all of his life. I especially remember the back of his hand which he swung at me occasionally when he didn’t want to be disturbed.

I also remember the hands of the CNAs who cared for him. I remember how they gently but firmly settled the spoon into his hands so that he might enjoy the dignity of feeding himself. That seemingly insignificant sight moved me deeply every time I saw it. It was such a kind expression of generosity and compassion: allowing as much human dignity as possible to a person whose dignity had become compromised by advanced age and infirmity.

So, I offer this little meditation on hands. Your hands. Hands that are vehicles of kindness and generosity and compassion. Hands that do the work of Divine Love. My hope is that this meditation will lead you to appreciate your hands as much as I do – and all of your patients.

MEDITATION ON HANDS.

I invite you into a space of quiet and peace, to ground yourself by noticing your contact with chair and floor, by sitting straight, by becoming aware of your breathing. 

Look at your hands. 

They've been through a lot, those hands. They have strength, scars, beauty.

I invite you to remember that it is your hands that do the work of love in the world. 

These hands may hold another's hands.

These hands may write letters to teachers about a child’s illness, sign permission slips and report card notices, sign legal forms, type emails to politicians, mail cards of consolation at grief and congratulation at success.

These hands may patiently teach, or quilt, knit, crochet or sew works of warmth and beauty or write words urging reconciliation and peace.

These hands may bathe children, feed elders, nurse the ill, work the earth, organize communities.

These hands clasp in prayer, open in release, grasp in solidarity, hold up and guard in self defense, proclaim compliance and vulnerability, clench in righteous anger.

These hands are God's hands, your hands, our hands; a great mystery of flesh and intention, a great potential of embodied love. 

God's work of touching and caring, healing and hope happen through your hands.

Now, press your hands lightly together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, thumbs close to the chest. Turn to the person on your right, bow your head slightly and say, "Namaste"

Now, turn to the person on your left, bow your head slightly and say, "Namaste."

Amen.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Immigrant

It happened again just the other day.

I was in a fairly newly-built office building. Toward the end of my appointment, I needed to make a stop at the rest room.  Before I left. Of course.

As often happens, we kept chatting as I made my way toward the rest room. I was searching for the light switch which should have been right on the inside of the doorway.  On the right. Right? 

Or, maybe - maybe - on the left, but right there on the inside. Right?

Nope.

It was on the outside of the doorway, on the left.

What?

How could that possibly be? This was an office in a building that had been constructed in the last 8-10 years. In Delaware. Not like the construction of homes when I was a child. In Massachusetts.

All the light switches were outside the entrance to the room. On the outside of the doorway. On the left. Bedrooms. Bathrooms. Kitchen. Dining room. Living room. Didn't matter.

Before you entered the room, you turned on the light which could always be found on the wall, on the left hand side of the door frame. Outside the room.

Which was a real liability when you were a girl in a family of four - three girls and one boy. My brother always waited until the sun went down and one of us was alone in the room with the door closed. The bathroom was his favorite spot but any room would do.

There you'd be, in the bathroom, sitting on the pot, or in your bedroom, studying for an exam and suddenly, the lights would go out.

"Johnnnnnnnnnnnneeeeee!" someone would scream my brother's name.

Giggles from the other side of the door would float their way into the darkness.

I always wondered why in the name of logic would anyone design a light switch in that way?

It had to be because we lived in old houses -  tenement houses and apartments - that were probably built by people who were, themselves, immigrants.

Which, of course, made them deficient and flawed and at the very least "second class".

The issue took on even greater significance when I was old enough to visit my classmates and friends in their homes. 

One of the first things I noticed was that none of THEIR homes had light switches designed in that way. All of THEIR light switches were right where they were supposed to be, logically: on the right hand on the inside of the door frame.

Or, at least, the light switch was on the wall on the inside of the room. Not too far from the door.

Of course! Why would it be anywhere else?

To my young, impressionable mind, it was one more piece of evidence that to be a second generation immigrant - especially one from Portugal - was to be a lesser child of God and a second class citizen.

The evidence was compelling. It wasn't enough that my skin was darker, my hair was dark and curly, and my eyes were not brown - they were hazel green - but definitely not clear blue like the rest of my friends who had names like "Smyth" and "Brown," "Brandon" and "Workman."

My schoolmates spoke in that breezy, giggly way young girls do about the stores where they had gotten that "cute" sweater or "cute" pair of slacks. I had no idea where my clothes had first been bought. I only knew they were first worn by either my cousin Judy or Jennie.

And, my clothes were not "cute". Cute meant "the latest style" in "the latest season's color."

My clothes, when they were worthy of notice and comment, were considered "nice".

I knew the difference between "cute" and "nice" and "nice" wasn't "cute". 

"Cute" is definitely what you wanted your "outfit" to be.

There were other differences. Their homes smelled like beef stew and chicken and fresh flowers. Our homes smelled like garlic and potatoes and bread and fish.

"Peasant food," my girlfriends called it, trying to be .... "nice". The problem was that in trying to somehow elevate that status, they only emphasized the inferior status of our culinary habits.

Oh, and their mothers smelled like French soap and expensive perfume.My mother smelled like Lysol and Noxema and Jean Nate.

If I could name any one thing that shaped and formed me it would be summed up in this one word:

Immigrant.

I've spent thousands of hours (and dollars) working out all of the "second class citizenship" and the attendant self esteem issues that are all part and parcel of a very formative part of my childhood.

I've always thought that I had made great progress in healing those old hurts and salving those old wounds.  I've always been aware of and grateful for the progress I've made.

And, in fact, I have. Healed and made progress.

And there I was, just the other day - a grownass woman, fairly well educated, responsible, fairly accomplished, emotionally stable, co-parent of six and Nana to seven - breaking into a slight sweat about the location of the light switch.

How neurotic is that? 

Oh, I laughed softly at myself and then, when I closed the door, I found myself simultaneously thinking about and relieved by the fact that I could, if necessary, use my cell phone as a flashlight.

I confess I sat there wondering who designed or built this office? Why in heaven's name would you put the light switch outside the door?

Were they immigrants, too? Children and grandchildren of immigrants like me?

Could be. There are a lot of us around. Even in Sussex County, DE.

I wondered if their kids were growing up thinking their "outfits" were "nice" but not "cute", or worried that they carried the smells of their ethnic food on their hair and clothing and if they were concerned about how different they look and how they don't fit in.

And then I thought that at least I didn't have to worry about someone coming into our home, breaking down the door, and taking my grandparents or parents back to Portugal.

My therapist likes to remind me that I am, in her words, "like many Episcopal clergy - female or male - a healthy neurotic." She also reminds me that "some are not so healthy, just Really neurotic. We have a name for them: bishops," she laughs.

She says its an occupational hazard. It comes from being told that "its not all about you" and yet we are constantly encouraged to self-reflect and be self aware.

In fact, a big part of our ability to have healthy relationships with appropriate boundaries as clergy with our parishioners is dependent on our ability to self reflect and be self aware and have insight about our behavior and the human condition.

I think it may well be that.

For me, it's more about being a legal American citizen who, somewhere in her heart, will always be an immigrant with "nice" hand me down clothes who is concerned that, not by her own design, won't always be in control of the light in her room. 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Last Temptation


I hate Lent.

Or, more accurately, I hate what it’s become. 

Let me explain.

My first call in ministry was as Chaplain at ULowell. It was 1986. The Priest at the Newman Center decided, my first year there, that as a way of modeling Christian behavior, we should do “stuff” together. Celebrations. With food. 

I really think he wanted to help me succeed but that's another story for another time. 

Thanksgiving Dinner was our first effort. It was so great, we decided to do more.

Christmas. New Years. Valentine’s Day. All of these celebrations were great.

Then, he, being Irish, decided we just HAD to do St. Patrick’s Day, complete with corned beef and cabbage, potatoes, onions, carrots, and soda bread. The students were doing the cooking. I even planned to make some green cookies. We were very excited.

And then, I looked at the calendar. St. Patrick’s Day was on a Friday that year. And, it was at the beginning of Lent.

“Hey,” I said jokingly to my priest colleague, “If we do this St. Paddy’s Day thing, we’ll have to ask for two dispensations. One for celebrating during Lent and another for eating meat on Friday during Lent.”

He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll square it with the bishop. We’ll get a double dispensation.”

Did I mention that I was joking?

He wasn’t.

So, later on that day, we talked. We included the students we both had on the leadership counsel from both groups.

They were of two minds. One group – a mix of Catholic and Protestant students – was of the mind that what we were building in terms of relationships across ecumenical lines that would have been inconceivable by their parents was more important than rules imposed upon us by the institutional church.

If we had to ask for dispensations from the bishop, they argued, we ought not have the dinner. They felt the insult of asking for dispensation was worse than the injury of not having a dinner together.

But another group felt that was flawed logic. They challenged us to find the scriptural basis for Lent. And, would we be so kind as to show us when it was, exactly, that Jesus ever directed us to give up meat on Fridays in Lent? 

What was more important, they asked, the relationships we were building together as Christians through these celebrations we could share or the institutional church’s directives about a liturgical season imposed upon us by the church? They felt we should have the dinner and not ask for a dispensation from the bishop.

This made my priest colleague break out in a sweat.

Suddenly, the group started to lean toward not having a traditional meal for St. Paddy’s Day. Part of the group didn’t want to make things uncomfortable for observant Roman Catholics. Another part didn’t want to have to go to the bishop for a dispensation they considered unnecessary and an embarrassing remnant of patriarchy.

For a while the group entertained the possibility that we simply declare St. Patrick’s Day a “moveable feast” and have it after Lent, during the Easter season.

One member of the group reminded us of the last stanza of the poem in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Is that what we were doing? The right thing for the wrong reason? Or were we doing the wrong thing for the right reason?

The best part of the conversation, however, came when we engaged more deeply the ‘penitential’ nature of Lent. It’s a conversation that forever changed the way I look at Lent, the way I observe Lent.

It’s the reason I hate Lent. Or, at least, “Lenten disciplines” that trivialize and diminish the power Lent can have in our spiritual lives.

As I remember we talked about ‘repentance’ which is how the King James Version translates the Greek “metanoia”. But, something gets lost in that translation – like the nuances, the depth of the layers of meaning.

Metanoia, literally means, “change of mind”; more fully, it translates to mean “spiritual transformation”.

Let that sink in for a minute.

That doesn’t mean “sacrifice.” Or even, simply “changing your mind” about something. Well, not necessarily. It means “spiritual transformation.”

So, it was asked, what does giving up ice cream, or wine, or meat on Fridays have to do with “spiritual transformation”?

Over the years, I have heard more metaphorical gymnastics stretched and twisted over “Lenten sacrifices” – things we do ‘without’ as well as things we ‘take on’ – than I care to remember, all in an attempt to justify them as appropriate for Lent.

One person argued that the money saved by not have a latte at the Bistro during Lent would allow him to donate that money to a favorite charity. See? He was being a “better steward” of money! And, clearly stewardship is a spiritual issue. Right?

Another argued that giving up soda during Lent was helping her “cleanse the temple” of her body. See? That’s spiritual, right? That she might loose a few pounds in the process was some sort of ‘proof’ that God approved of her Lenten sacrifice. 

As if, poor helpless creatures that we are, God is the direct cause of weight loss. So, I suppose, it follows that if we gain weight, it’s not our fault, directly. It’s just….. “God’s will”.  Apparently, God seems to will lots of God’s creatures to be ‘chubby’.

Seriously? Is this the stuff of metanoia? Spiritual transformation?

One student in the group said that she felt as if she were watching a modern-day version of the scriptural story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. (John 4:1-42)

The woman came to the well to get water to quench her thirst, but Jesus offered her ‘living water’. Something deeper. Something more satisfying that would quench the thirst of the soul. Something for which you’d have to dive deep and resurface.

The group began to dive into deeper questions: Is there more to Lent than just penitence? Is there more than just sacrifice? To what end? For what purpose?

A several weeks-long study group ensued to face into questions about penitence and sacrifice and the need for it, especially during Lent.

I’ll save that discussion for another time but it has to do with a discussion about Original Sin and Atonement, Redemption and Salvation.

As Blessed Joe Biden would say, “Here’s the deal”: Lent is not a self-help program. I really hate that for so many that’s exactly what Lent has become.

I find it especially cringe-worthy when I see clergy – and there are many, all over Social Media these days – proclaiming that they can’t go here or there or do this or that or, God knows, eat or drink favorite foods or beverages because, well, it’s Lent, you know.

And, see? See how they are sacrificing?  See how they – even they – are working at being better people and better Christians. 

I fear they have succumbed to what T.S. Eliot described as “last temptation.” It is the “greatest treason” to the spirit of Jesus who said, “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13).

What if . . . . . 

What if we, like Jesus, allowed the Spirit to lead us into a wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). 

Not The Wilderness. 

A wilderness.

A place we haven’t yet explored? A place as yet unknown to us? A place where we may confront things – demons, perhaps – we have not yet encountered?

A place where we can explore our own vulnerability? A space where we might discover the limits of our spiritual endurance?

What if we set no goals for a pre-determined outcome? No metrics like weight loss or amount of money saved and donated to “charity”?

Indeed, how does this ‘sacrifice’ which leads us to ‘charity’ actually underscore our privileged status and emphasize – but not bridge –the chasm between rich and poor?

What if we came to our eight-week Lenten journey with a real sense of ‘poverty’, with a full sense of our powerlessness and vulnerability and no measurable goals? 

What if we risked getting to the end of our journey not even certain what we had accomplished? (How thoroughly un-American, right?)

What if we simply trusted the Spirit to lead us into temptation? 

Might that look more like a ‘Holy Lent’ to which we were invited on Ash Wednesday?

How would we do that? Well, certainly not by giving up chocolate or wine for 8-weeks.

It would take a great deal of intentionality, with at least the possibility of some time away – a retreat for a time certain – in a place conducive to this deep spiritual work.

That may also be accomplished by committing to a set amount of time every day for meditation.

And/or, reading and reflecting and journaling.

And/or a weekly meeting with an anamchara – a spiritual friend/director – to talk about what you are finding deep in your soul.

And/or establishing a small anamchara group where you can talk about the landscape of your journey and what you are seeing and discovering along the way.

Again – and, I can’t stress this enough – this is not about Lent as a Self-Help Program.

That is what I hate about what Lent has become.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. 

It’s about trusting Spirit to lead you through an undiscovered, unexplored part of your soul.

It’s about trusting Spirit to lead you to the spiritual lessons you need to learn and leading you back again.

It’s about allowing Angels to tend to you before you begin the next part of your spiritual journey.

It’s about making a commitment to spiritual discipline which is transformative.

It’s about resisting the last temptation and doing the right thing for the right reason.

It’s still not too late to make this Lent truly holy for you.