March 28, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

Sea Goddess by Tanya Torres
http://tanyatorres.blogspot.com/

Humor to not take myself too seriously, openness to see an old situation in a new way, and perseverance to push the tide of inertia and do the next right thing; discovering the desire for belonging beneath the words about family, recognizing the gift of an outstretched hand, celebrating flashes of comfort in my own skin; connections with children far off, dinner with those closer, and the warmth of my beloved all through the night.

Please note: the weekly practice of sharing gratitude on Thursdays (TILT) was inspired by my friend Jill Stratton who teaches about “Joy and Flow”.

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Seed (Patriarchy, Cooper and SCOTUS)

The seed of the argument is often missed in the drama that builds around it.  Such was the case when Charles Cooper offered the precious seed of his argument at the Supreme Court yesterday.  It was offered in plain sight but buried in part from the staccato barrage of words and, perhaps even more so, because we don’t have ears tuned to hear what was being shared.  It’s the seed; it’s all about the seed.

Scientifically, of course, it isn’t about seed at all.  But when the texts that we call sacred were being shared and written and codified, shared ignorance prevailed.  Semen was seed, the seed of life, the seed of hope, the seed for a new generation.  And as such, semen was sacred.  Spilt seed was a sin, for such was spitting on the very prospect of life.

In an ancient patriarchal world, male-male sexual activities that included semen were an abomination. The offense was that not male-male love was problematic (read: the incredible love story of David and Jonathon); the offense (and it was huge) was the waste of seed.

Similarly the ownership of seed was safely guarded.  Customs evolved and were codified based on the ownership of the seed and it’s transmission that to us today may seem bizarre.  One such law was that if a man died having shared seed with a woman, the man’s brothers (in age succession) now married (owned) the woman.  This practice protected the progeny (root word: seed).

Wittingly or no, Cooper shared his fundamental concern with gay marriage: seed.

As Justices Breyer, Kagan and Scalia all chimed in about the ludicrousy of the procreative argument as the state’s defense against gay marriage, Cooper remained resolute.  Kagan cited couples past childbearing age, where both were over 55.  Scalia even reached for humor, “I suppose we could have a questionnaire at the marriage desk when people come in to get the marriage — you know, ‘Are you fertile or are you not fertile?’ ”  But what Cooper was offering, and the justices didn’t seem to be hearing, was fundamentally relevant.

Cooper’s argument is that patriarchy itself is on the line.

While the justices are amused by the thought of geriatric couple’s fertility, Cooper is deadly serious.  Procreation is, he defends, the domain of male fertility.  A woman’s fertility is of no consequence to his argument and luckily so because women (who are, by the way, the real seed carriers) do not spend our lives in a procreative state.  For better or worse, the window for procreation is pretty short and many of us discovered too late that it closed too early.  But the production of offspring isn’t Cooper’s concern, protection of the seed (read: semen) is.  Female fertility, he explains, is really quite irrelevant.  He points out that “very few men outlive their fertility” and that, for listening ears, is the ball game.

This particular concern, control of the seed, is the third rail of patriarchy. And inasmuch as patriarchy is on the line, he’s right.  Curiously, or not so, true patriarchs were never much concerned with women who loved women, at least until we began to have boy children without benefit of fathers.  As women are able to procreate without the (apparent) participation of men, patriarchy is threatened.  And fighting mad.

What is at stake is a cultural shift that is bigger than any of us has minds to embrace or words to describe.  While feminist ministers followed second wave feminism into the pulpits bringing gender inclusive language, scientists were giving renewed attention to just how procreation occurs and opening new possibilities for how it might occur.  While feminist clergy may have rattled the pews, amazing advances in science have simply removed the floorboards.  Still unspoken is the fundamental role that patriarchy plays not only in our sacred texts but also our social systems and even our legal code; and as the floor boards disappear, the skeleton of patriarchy is being exposed even while we cling to the pews.

Gay marriage is the canary in the coalmine as the very fabric of our patriarchal culture begins to shred, a most welcome canary for all who cherish life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. May we safeguard his passage.

Oxymoron: Good Friday

For decades now I struggled with the name ascribed to the day in remembrance of Jesus’ death: Good Friday. In churches where I served, I carefully pushed against the tide calling the day “Holy Friday” or “God’s Friday”, anything but “Good” Friday because, quite frankly, it is not a good day and not a good story.

The story told on this day is gruesome and tragic. It is a story all to common, then and now, as innocents are made to suffer and die for no sin of their own. And it is not good.

The etymology is uncertain and some would claim that originally the day was called God’s Friday. Maybe so.  The more common explanation for the title is that Jesus’ suffering and death, though in itself tragic and sad, was necessary for the greater good of our salvation. Inasmuch as one accepts the common doctrine of sacrificial atonement, the day is (say it’s proponents) appropriately titled.

Most progressive and critically aware Christians today, however, reject the notion of substitutionary atonement on multiple grounds. For one thing we can’t square a compassionate life force with a demand for blood sacrifice. History’s way is watered with the blood of innocents shed in the name of Jesus; while anecdotal, the evidence is painfully clear that a violent God-character girds a violent peoples.

James Byrd, Jr.

We choose to believe that what is holy and sacred is not violent and (more importantly) does not seek or condone our violence. Which brings us to the corollary of why the doctrine of sacrificial atonement is fundamentally flawed – even were the source of life to need such sacrifice, such an offering is not something that is done for you. When we begin to seek other’s to share the most heinous burdens of life, the results are never good.

Certainly the concept of substitutionary atonement is relevant this week as so-called Christians enjoying their heterosexual marriages are prayerfully asking the Supreme Court to protect the sanctity (and privilege) of their marriages by denying the same to gay and lesbian couples.  The logic is that in order to protect the majority experience, it is justifiable that a minority suffer.  An uncritical acceptance of substitutionary atonement fails us not only as it propagates a fabricated need for atonement but worse, the concept that your suffering is necessary to alleviate mine.  This concept leads to scapegoats, not freedom and certainly not justice.  Would that Christians move beyond asking others to suffer for their beliefs.

Archbishop Oscar Romero

To be sure, the earliest followers of Jesus told stories of his suffering and death, this is not in question. Also true is that these stories bolstered the early followers as they too faced brutal circumstances. The value of these stories has been tried in times of persecution and found valuable. The problem is that these same stories, donned by the oppressor rather than the oppressed, become at best a macabre charade and at worst (as history attests) open the floodgates to tyranny. The infamous Passion Plays even now incite violence against Jewish communities and Mel Gibson’s bloody rendering, “The Passion of Christ”, offers no balm to the violence that continues in God’s name. A quick survey of Western history yields countless examples of the crucifixion story propagating violence but for those seeking a more careful critique, James Carroll obliges with his work, “Constantine’s Sword“.

The more ancient texts that informed Jesus’ life and teachings remind us not only that those who live by the sword also die by it (2 Samuel 2), but also that the sins of the father’s will be visited upon the sons (Exodus 34). There is nothing good about the story that will be shared on this upcoming Friday, and calling it so only elongates the suffering of those weighed down. More relevant for our time is the story that our Jewish brothers and sisters share this week, the story shared by the one we remember this week, a story also buried in this week we would call holy. The Passover story celebrates liberation, freedom, justice; it is a celebration worthy of our children. Following Jesus needn’t mean a recreation of his torture. Following Jesus, taking seriously his life and teachings, might more appropriately leads us to Seder tables this week where we bear witness to freedom and recommit ourselves to justice.

Considering the choices that are ours as we move through the theological minefield of colonial Christianity, it strikes me that the one good thing about Good Friday is the information the label provides. The dissonance of the label invites us to pause and make conscious choices about the stories we share with our children. There is nothing good about this tragic story nor the catastrophic consequences meted out over the millennia. Holy, yes. Belonging to God, yes.  But good?  No.

For those who take Jesus’ life and teachings to heart, Good Friday is an oxymoron that is simply not acceptable.

dropping the storyline

Once upon a time a little boy had a favorite blanket that became tattered and worn and seemingly useless until his mother refashioned the rag into a vest.  Over time the beloved vest became similarly worn and was then refashioned into a tie.  The tie, when worn, became a button.  When the button fell off and was lost forever, the little boy was certain that the treasure was gone for good.  “Oh, no,” said his mother.  “There is just enough left for a story!”

Stories are powerful.  Stories are treasure.  Yet in tandem with their power, stories can also be destructive, and as I move through this season of life I am aware that the stories I carry are both bane and blessing.  I have been through a major transition and with the metamorphisis comes signficant loss.  Although the story of the broken cocoon is real and worthy, I am aware that the constant drumbeat of the lost cocoon threatens the fragile beauty of the butterfly.  All of the stories that come together to weave our lives are worthy, but our lives will be shaped by the choices we make about which stories to remember and share.  Although a million and one stories fill my heart, daily I repeat only a handful.  These stories that I repeat wear a groove on my soul, and wisdom demands that I tend the selection for the stories shape us in powerful if unseen ways.

Pema Chodron is a popular spiritual teacher who encourages us to honor the feelings that are ours, to sit with them and be mindfully aware of the emotions with one important caveat: “drop the storyline”.

In “My Stroke of Insight”, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s book about her recovery from a massive stroke, she explains the physiological mechanism behind emotion: an emotion like anger that’s an automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it. (Chodron)

Recently I’ve been experimenting with Chodron’s challenge.  As the waves of emotion crash and I begin to recount the story, I practice catching myself long enough to remove words and images.  I seek to focus on the emotion, the body sensation.  Particularly helpful with the painful emotions, dropping the storyline removes the quicksand effect. Receiving emotions sans sticky drama enables us to face and dispatch emotions that otherwise would either bury us or be buried by us.

Sometimes I want the storyline, even the painful one.  Sometimes the storyline is seductive in its promise to revise history, a promise upon which it can never deliver.  I awoke this morning after a dream invoked loaded feelings from a recent loss. I wanted to recount the dream in vivid detail, to examine the story in excruciating detail.  My instinct is to spin and I do it with amazing deftness.  But I’ve been practicing the invitation to drop the storyline today; feeling the emotion as it washes back and forth through the day and letting it flow.  The instinct to reach for the story is strong; I feel the pull, honor it’s presence and return my attention to the emotion at hand.  This too is practice not perfection, and I’m grateful that baby steps yield progress.

Also I am grateful for storylines that are worthy of repetition. I have a picture on my desk of my beloved and I at our wedding.  We are both grinning and my head is resting on her shoulder.  As I look at the picture, the storyline fills my heart with sweetness and I am reminded of the great gift of love.  This is a storyline that opens my heart to compassion and my mind to possibility, a storyline that creates more of what I value in life.  I will keep this one.

March 21, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

Tenacious and fragile spring flowers, all the more precious when spring dawdles; the touch of my beloved’s hand imprinted on both hand and heart, tangible even in places where handholding isn’t; spiritual practices for everyday that are available for extraordinary ones, bringing breath and pause and fostering new growth in old ground…. perfectly small miracles in a quite imperfect world.

Please note: the weekly practice of sharing gratitude on Thursdays (TILT) was inspired by my friend Jill Stratton who teaches about “Joy and Flow”.

Daffodils and Impermanence

The daffodils are blooming just around the corner, an exquisite carpet of yellow on the late winter lawn.  Close on the heels of the crocus, the daffodils are the annual harbinger of new life which is already, if not yet, come among us.  The deepness of the yellow, the intricacy of the bloom, the fragility of the life-bearing stem are all testaments to the earth’s longing for life.  And it is very good.

daffodilsWhen my dear one pulled me around the corner to see them, her eyes were shining with delight.  When I caught sight of them, I could feel the grin that filled my face.  Stopping to take a picture, the gardener smiled knowingly and offered that I could take some home.  His generosity not withstanding, we both knew that I couldn’t accept such an offer.  To take a daffodil, even just one, would remove it from its life source.  To take one home would quite literally kill the wonder.  Daffodils and the wonder of the spring must be observed but not owned or contained.  Yet even in the heartiness of the garden ledge, the blooms will not last more than a long week.  Stop now while they dance this week to soak in the delight.

The spring flowers shower us with essential life lessons as we are ready to listen.  For years mesmerized by their beauty, I was a couple of decades into life when I began to take seriously the fragility of these early spring flowers.  In midlife I began to understand the promise of the annual return and now as I crest this midpoint of life I find myself taken by the message of impermanence. Jesus is said to have given a nod to the lilies of the field in their simultaneous splendor and fleeting nature.  A fundamental spiritual practice is allowing the water of life to flow unimpeded in, through, and around us as we come to peace with fluidity.  Sometimes I would build a damn or cling to a dangling branch, yet movement is constant and clinging is both painful and futile. “Let go or be dragged” (Zen proverb) is the promise of the quickly changing flowers of early spring.

As I revel in the wonder of the daffodils, aware that in their wake will bloom a plethora of fragrant marvels, I begin to see the comings and goings of life put in context.  A short life span is not a comment on beauty, the ending of a chapter is not a testament to its worth, for with the passing of crocus comes the delight of the daffodils and with the passing of the daffodils comes the tulips. Life is filled with beauty and promise just as surely as it is carries sorrows and losses.  The flowers, in fact, rely on the richness of the soil where our sorrows are woven into new life.

Today I share a prayer of gratitude for the daffodils.  Fabulous, truly.

March 14, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

K&D handsThe miracles of diversity and the senses that take notice; three cats with three coats (sleek, soft, fuzzy) and three personalities (imp, grump, lover), three children with three unique stories and approaches to this world (they could not be more different from each other or more loved by their moms), and one beloved who sees what I cannot and holds my hand tightly as we make our way safely across the road.

Please note: the weekly practice of sharing gratitude on Thursdays (TILT) was inspired by my friend Jill Stratton who teaches about “Joy and Flow”.

Today’s Guest – Sadness

This morning I crawled out of bed long after my dear one had left for work, feeling the stupor of grief heavy in my body.  My coffee tastes good and the sun is beautiful this morning, but I am aware of tears pooling in the corner of my eyes and the spasm of a sob still buried deep.

I am tempted to recount how this grief began and to calendar the days in search of it’s close.  But the truth is that it is a combination of griefs, of losses, of avoided griefs that have snowballed into this season of my life.  Last week I was bowled over with a wave of anger, today I awoke with deep and inexplicable sadness. I recognize these emotions as belonging to the snowball and try to welcome them as they come.

a crowd of sorrows (inspired by rumi) www.creativeeveryday.com

A decade ago I was struggling with complicated friendships and vocational uncertainty. On the other side of the struggle, I had my professional life but not the friendships and I grieved deeply. I poured myself into my work and truly experienced some of my most productive years in that context.  Sitting in this rich loamy soil, I am finally able to touch the sadness and at the same time feel gratitude.  “Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

Five years ago I was again struggling, this time with an identity from which I could no longer hide; an identity which threatened both my family and my profession, the very fabric that had carried me through the prior cycle of grief.  Navigating with deft measures of control and much dumb luck, I managed to shed the layers in rapid succession.  Now every piece of that former life has been recycled or repurposed, nothing remains the same.  The blossoms that are in this place are truly exquisite, the greatest love story of all time and a daily life that is simple and sweet; but every bit of it is new.  My kids are now grown, my husband is now my Ex, and even my profession is now gone.  The cocoon that held the caterpillar is left behind as the butterfly wings.

guest house, rumi (flickr: beverly1021)

Witnessing the butterfly, I feel disloyal in grieving the emptiness of the cocoon and the loss of the caterpillar, but my sense of guilt only impedes the sadness which demands it’s audience.  I have no complaints and am indeed grateful, but I am also sad.

It is this final piece of professional loss that wakes me in the night with sadness.  In the church we talk about vocation with reverence and share our stories of call.  I had clarity about my call long before I had clarity about marriage or no, even before I had my high school diploma I knew that the sacred was guiding me to church leadership.  To be sure it was a problematic understanding, as to that point I had only experienced conservative (ie: no women in leadership) churches.  The journey would, I always knew, be long and winding.  And it was all of that and more, truly beautiful at points.  Until it wasn’t.  When it was over, it was time to go.

As spring teases on this early March morning, I pause to notice the cycles.  I see where my life has wandered and give thanks for the many blossoms.  I see how the losses have fertilized the ground, the tears have nourished new life, and the deepest winter makes ready the earth for the coming of spring.  In this most recent cycle, these five years have been a process of revisiting each choice I made as I was coming of age, systematically examining, pruning, and redirecting. This late winter soil, which is readying itself to bear new life, is rich.  It’s musty and fertile, messy.

“A Guesthouse” by Anya Getter

And though the blossoms are still unseen, the roots which are stretching deep in the earth bear witness to the soon-coming blooms.  Already enjoying some of this new season’s fragrance, I am hopefully for what is yet emerging.

Not yet spring, it is sadness that I welcome into my heart this morning. A late winter guest, she comes just as the ground thaws.  I welcome her as we share late morning coffee, sweet memories and gentle words. I know that she won’t stay forever and I give thanks for whatever wisdom she bestows.

oxymoron: righteous anger

Midway through the week that followed my church leave-taking, I had an encounter with my former life which invoked righteous anger.  While the word for the emotion could be replaced with indignation, hurt or rage, the adjective was certain.  Make no mistake, I was the innocent in an unprovoked hurt.

Pouring good karma after bad, I lost 72 hours of my life that I will never get back.

For a couple of days I dedicated myself to measured and appropriate responses to rectify the identified injustice.  These efforts produced little fruit and much anxiety. While I was painstaking in my effort to use “sober adult” words, the endeavor was a fool’s errand. I am reminded of the good seed sown on the thorny ground which quickly thrives only to be strangled in the bramble.

Yet with the gift of hindsight, I find myself aware that seed might not have contained the rose that I desired.

As I sit in the brambles of my foray into righteous anger, I am reminded of a bit of advice in AA’s “12 Steps and 12 Traditions”, a bit of advice so stunningly countercultural that the dissonance alone is riveting.  “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.  If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also.  But are there no exceptions to this rule?  What about “justifiable” anger?  If somebody cheats us, aren’t we entitled to be mad?  Can’t we be properly angry with self-righteous folk?  For us of A.A. these are dangerous exceptions.  We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.” (12and12I vividly remembering my first hearing of this text and my utter disbelief.  To live life without alcohol is one thing, to live without justifiable anger is quite another.

The spiritual axiom assures us that if we tend the internal trouble that is our own, we can live in peaceful challenge with whatever the external world brings to bear.  As I rail with a current chapter of tantalizing drama, the axiom is beckons.  What is troubling my spirit that I am responding with such internal vitriol? Lest I thwart the invitation to self-reflection with a justification of my hurt, I turn again to the teachings of Etty Hillesum.  The incredible poetry of this mystic in time of great trial bears witness to the efficacy of the axiom.

“If there is ever to be peace, it won’t be authentic until each individual achieves peace within him/herself, expels all feelings of hatred and change it into something else, maybe even into love — or is that asking too much? It is the only solution.” ~ Etty Hillesum (http://www.maritspaperworld.com/)

Hillesum was a Jewish woman who was also a Christian-inspired mystic, coming of age in Amsterdam in the nightmare of the Holocaust. Acquainted with sorrow and looking evil full on, Etty’s journals bear witness to her choice to love. From the deportation camp at Westerbork she writes, “Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.” (gratefulness.org) Reflecting on the evil incarnate all around her, she lamented God’s inability to intervene and concluded, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.” (Brainy Quote) Hillesum was not naive to the suffering nor to her fate, she was not immune to the pain around her.  But she recognized that she had a choice each moment of each day to embrace that which is worthy, that which beautiful, that which is blessed.  And with her dying breath, she chose love.

Thinking about Hillesum, I realize that whatever trial I may face this day, it is comparatively trivial.  Considering her extraordinary embodied compassion, I realize that I too have a choice. Admittedly the feelings of anger and angst are a part of my being, but I can honor the feelings without perpetuating the hurt. The apparent choice between denial and rage is a false dichotomy.  Spiritual giants from across time and space invite us to consider a third choice, love. Love honors the hurt by investing in its alternative.

I will never get the hours back that I wasted pursuing my anger, but I can choose now to focus on the beauty of today.  I can be grateful for the lessons learned in the encounter and honor the pain by allowing it to water worthier seeds.  

For today, I choose to water seeds of compassion.

 

Please note:  The images in this blog come from a fabulous artist named Marit Barentsen.  You can read her blog, enjoy (and buy!) her art at: http://www.maritspaperworld.com/

For International Women’s Day: I am here

Today I’ve had the delightful privilege of being the wife.  My beloved is presenting a paper at a conference and I’m in the cheering section.  As I sit in the rooms and listen to the banter, I realize that I’ve been here many times but never in this seat.

I’ve been the participant at many conferences.  Some of my favorite were the women-church events organized by a cadre of ecumenical women in Minneapolis before the turn of the millineum.  These were church conferences where the women were daring to step aside from the learned patriarchy and practice a different way of being church.  Called “Reimaging”, these conference actually re-embodied a way of spiritual encounter and were filled with lively of music and the words of Barbara Lundbald, Mary Daly, Rita Nakishima Brock, Thandeka, Rebecca Walker and so many more.

These were professional conferences more than academic, and as I was taking in this morning’s context I had a shard of memory from a more similar context that is still sharp.  The time is my middle 30’s, I am new in St. Louis and have had the heady experience of reimersion in academic study.  Infatuated with the feminist-womanist professor, I have written a worthy course paper and now been asked to present the work at a regional conference of religious academics.  My then-husband and children are in tow and at dissonance with the unexamined feelings that I have for my professor/mentor.  I remember little of the presentation, save that it was anti-climatic.  What I remember is the smile of my professor, the place that stirred within me as we shared passion around ideas.  It would be years before I could name the love that was in those days new and innocent; years and distance and broken relationships.

To be sitting beside my beloved as she prepares to present is a new and otherwise innocent enterprise. Today there is no anxiety, no unbidden and intentionally unexamined emotion, no professional angst.  This role of observer is a privileged one, to experience the challenge of academic conversation without expectation to perform or achieve is precious.

To be here on behalf of my beloved is an even more profound privilege that I could not have imagined in my earlier incarnations.  She, of course, has the full range of anxious emotions but mine today are simple.  Mine are pride and delight.  My beloved is a scholar, often self-effacing but always intentional with a razor’s edge for justice.  She has been using the master’s tool to dismantle the master’s house (see: Audre Lorde), this particular paper looking at the myth of ability.  While her field is not mine, I share her passions and value the importance of her work.  It is a delight to watch her shine.

I take a break in the lobby, reveling in the warmth of the early March sun, and ponder the emotions that are mine this day. In this moment I realize that I am here. I am in the place for which I’ve spent my life preparing.  This isn’t a place defined by  job or title or pedigree. This is a place of peace, of groundedness, of relatedness. I am in the moment and it is so very good. To be sure there are questions still before me, business that awaits. But it isn’t today’s.

International Women’s Day – Mango

At peace in the moment, I realize that today is International Women’s Day.  On this day I pause to note that it is in our being, as well as in our doing, we are rising.