The Bible is a memoir

“If you want to understand people, ask for their stories. Listen long enough and you learn not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”

-Sarah van Gelder (Yes! magazine)

In September, Belding Memorial Library (MA) offered a 4 week memoir writing class taught by Jane Roy Brown. Each week six of us, and Jane, sat in the childrens’ section of the library around a knee-high table learning how to write our lives.

Sitting in the library’s childrens’ section helped conjure up some memories. Long ago I sat in a big, puffy red naugahyde chair and started to read the Bible. I don’t remember my age, but my feet did not reach the hassock. That was when I first learned, to my amazement, that Jesus was not a Christian. It took me a few moments to figure out why.

Unlike autobiography (“Just the facts, m’am”), memoir is personal recollection. Fact matters, but story matters more. Writing style matters, but narrator’s voice matters more. Thoreau could have written his autobiography, but instead he wrote “Walden: Or Life in the Woods,” one of the best known and most influential memoirs written.

When I started the class, I assumed I’d write about the exciting parts of my life: checking for a bomb under Betty Williams’ car, rolling under a car to avoid being trampled by mounted police, getting arrested in front of the White House, keeping house at Gampo Abbey, etc. When I sat down to write, the first thing I remembered was how one of my aunts would sleep on a couch in her living room with the television on.  As  I told the story, I watched my family’s interactions, rhythms, oddities. After fifty years, the story still lived in me.

Autobiography: I was arrested with Quakers in 1971 in front of the White House. Memoir: My family is a rich jungle of attitudes, beliefs, history, secrets, love, anger, which somehow led to this particular young woman being arrested in front of the White House.

Autobiographies, says reviewer Jennie Yabroff, “… were useful for students of history, and, occasionally, were even readable.”  Students of history find that using the Bible to track down historical events is somewhat hit-or-miss. Precise geography, accurate time-lines, detailed descriptions are secondary to the main purpose: telling the personal, meaningful stories of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. The Bible is memoir.

Our spiritual ancestors are sharing “not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”

God’s Opinion on Everything (for Dummies)

 

God has proved himself (herself) very clumsy and a bit vague on what his (her) opinions are, including whether he or she is he or she. On topics as varied as abortion, capitalism, the environment, child-rearing, Occupy Wall Street, women, yoga, apocalypse, same-sex anything, God sends confusing and contradictory rules and regulations.  What kind of God is that?

God (let’s go with “He”) tried to narrow things down with Ten Commandments, but that doesn’t seem to help much. What exactly does “covet” mean anyway? He probably thought “Thou shalt not kill” fairly straightforward. But translations (“kill”? or “murder”?) and a wealth of interpretations (i.e. “Just War Theories”) muddied the issue. I imagine Him banging His head on His desk.

Maybe the problem is the language He chose. What Christians call the Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a little Aramaic thrown in. Other than a few Yiddish phrases, I’m at the mercy of translators. “Oy vey” doesn’t appear often in Scripture.

Leviticus offers a wealth of mysterious commandments. “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.” So much for companion planting. Carrots are forbidden to lie with tomatoes. But Leviticus is too easy a target. Any book with instructions on exactly how a man should sell his daughter just isn’t going to hold any father’s respect. Except perhaps when she’s in her teens.

After God’s done banging His head on His desk, I imagine Him calling in His Leviticus scribe, “What the hell were you thinking? Who cares if a coat has two fabrics?” By then it was too late. Humans had already taken it as the word of the God – the God of mysterious ways.

I love that the slogan describing the UCC` faith comes from Gracie Allen: “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Those of us struggling to hear God’s voice can take another cue from Gracie when she was channeling God:  “Try to understand me. Nothing is impossible.”

“Forget Grilling, You Can Cook Your Hot Dogs in a Pringles Can”

-Headline from Huffington Post

I was all set to write a serious column about social justice and spiritual consequences when I saw this headline. It’s July, how can I let hot dogs cooked in a Pringles can pass me by? It has solar energy and the two greatest culinary gifts of the U.S. combined in one headline.

This alternative cooking method was developed by an elementary school teacher and used as a science project for her class. Since we’re talking about grilling, it’s probably his class. Cut a window in the Pringles can. The inside, you will see, is lined with some shiny silver aluminum foil substance. Cut two small holes in either end of the can. Stick a wood skewer in, through a hot dog, and out the other side. Set in sun. Aluminum foil substance catches sun’s heat and cooks the hot dog.

Aside from the mind-bending combination of artificial components creating a single meal, there are questions: who ate all the Pringles? Who ate all the hot dogs? Who allowed this teacher to work with children?

The idea of our bodies being the temple of God, the embodiment of our souls, a wondrous mystery of nature, or all three, is dust.  Nutritionists try to head us back in this direction, but keep bumping into each other. (Butter or margarine, vegan or fish, cooked or raw, green leafed vegetables or something that tastes better, vitamin B-somenumber, vitamin C or too much vitamin C, etc.) They could make their lives easier by simply putting up signs over the Pringles shelf that said, “Your body is a wondrous mystery. Think about it.” I suppose someone might think, “Yeah, it can even process this stuff,” and buy two cans.

Having been first raised in Queens, NY, I never ate a fresh bean until I was twelve.  A friend pulled one from her father’s plant and gave it to me. I’m 64 and can still taste that first taste. My parents, born and bred in Manhattan, ate vegetables taken from cans. As they had grown up city poor, having the luxury of a full plate to feed me was a triumph.

Food itself has become something of a religion. As I was eating an egg in a restaurant, a woman came up to me and said, “How can you eat that embryo?” and walked away. I’d committed chicken abortion?   No matter what you eat, someone somewhere will give you a dirty look. Food purity has replaced sexual purity. In parts of our country being gay is okay; give Pringles to your kid and someone will call child services.

I remember that first bite of a raw bean more clearly than my First Communion. And think of it when I pull a bean in our garden.  I admit I am easily shocked. When I hear Gregorian Chant played in a mall to encourage shoppers at Christmas, I am tempted to stop and yell in frustration. One store  had a “Sale Rack” sign hung on a statue of Guadalupe. I dug my fingernails into my palms to keep from ripping it off. However, I’m no food purist, but hot dogs cooked in a Pringles can is just too much. Some people ask whether there is such a thing as sin.

Beans are from heaven, Pringles are from hell.

 

 

 

 

 

Using the Wound to See

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

May 14 is the 2nd anniversary of my accident. On that date in 2012,  a car hit me as I was crossing the street. Against the odds, I did not die. A surgeon who was skilled in repairing “filleted” ribs was at BayState Hospital. Medical staff and an amazing array of tubes, blinking lights, beeping machines, and knock-out drugs kept me alive through septicemia. I’ve written before about the community of comfort, prayer and song that accompanied me. And needless to say, the gift of my vigilant, loving wife Jeannine.

What about now?

You’d think it was time to let go of the past and resume my Alice-ness. However my old Alice-ness is altered. And I’m still discovering the nature of my altered Alice-ness.

This winter I shoveled snow. Afterwards I was on the floor and couldn’t get up, the pain was so bad.  Yesterday I lifted a tray over a coffee table and the same thing happened. The pain is located just below where my body had six surgeries. So I’m writing this on ibuprofen and an ice pack. My body has changed, but what about the other essential parts?

When I meditate, scary memories arise. When I pray, the space is empty. But I meditate and pray anyway, in some form or another. Is that what people call “faith”?

Something still feels amiss. Sarah Pirtle helped me describe the feeling: part of Alice is still on Maple Street, getting hit by a car. Another part is struggling against wrist bindings. Another is having the horrifying hallucination that I was paralyzed for life. Other bits and pieces of Alice lay strewn between Holyoke, Linda Manor, and home. My body sometimes forgets it’s not in a wheelchair.

I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself. Some people refer to the process as “Soul Retrieval.” The people in the Prayer Medicine group at church have helped so very much. Praying for Kate O’Shea in the group pulled me up and out, allowing me to send energy, with others, to her healing. Praying, sending energy to another person helps me become whole. Perhaps praying for someone sends out a call to all our parts, “Come home, parts, Kate needs you.”

Someone asked her minister, Kate Braestrup I think, to pray for her. Braestrup was dubious about the effectiveness of prayer. After praying, she realized that, no matter the effect on the person’s health, she herself was changed and blessed by the act of prayer. Having been on the receiving end, I know that prayers have an effect on the pray-er and the prayed-for.

Unexpectedly, Emily Dickinson has taught me many lessons. She confronted pain and grief head-on, no walls. She was not given to comforting thoughts, but to examination of these feelings under a scope. She changed my definition of “healing.” Is the work of healing actually keeping the psychic wound open? Not in masochistic pain, but to transform the wound into a opening. Or, as David Brooks said, “…turning it [suffering] into something sacred.” Perhaps a wound of any kind can become another sense with which to experience the world. Emily used that sense.

My Alice-parts are trudging home in fits and starts, what Emily calls “That precarious Gait.” I am trying to coax all the pieces back, to get reunited with myself.  As my physical gait and snow shoveling improves, I also cherish the parallel journey: continuing to walk with that precarious gait, recognizing how many of us walk with that gait, and using the wound to see.

-Braestrup: Here If You Need MeBeginner’s Blessing

-Brooks, “What Suffering Does” New York Tmes Op-Ed April 7, 2014

 

 

Antidote to Apocalyptism

I enjoy reading things that have “irony” stamped all over them. For instance, the church that offers gluten-free communion wafers, and raffles for assault rifles. Sometimes I think I make these things up, but I saw the church bulletin and bulletins don’t lie.

The danger of enjoying irony is that it can degenerate into cynicism. That, as I’ve mentioned before, is a slide into apocalyptic thinking, by both the right and the left: everything is going to hell in a hand-basket (whatever that means). And only God can clean up our mess.

This morning, I came across the complete opposite of apocalypic thinking. The Franciscan Earth Corps are ecumenical groups of young people across the country, aged 18 to 35, who “connect social and environmental justice activities with Franciscan teachings that stress the interconnectedness of creation.”

For instance, on a recent Saturday in Syracuse, members stocked shelves and cleaned storage rooms at a food pantry. In early March, the group screened “Triple Divide,” a documentary about hydrofracking. Later this spring, they’ll put up bluebird boxes at a retreat center. In Milwaukee they led the “March of the Golden Calf,” complete with golden calf, on the issue of money and politics. They read and discuss Franciscan spirituality and practice prayer and contemplation.

Many churches preach and practice those values: engagement in the work of the world, the interconnection of life, solidarity with the disenfranchised, aiding one another, prayer and contemplation. Sometimes the U.S. seems enveloped in apocalyptic hysteria. Are the Earth Corps, small groups, and wise individuals, just islands in a sea of cynicism? The roots of justice and compassion run deep under the earth, intertwining, nourished by the interconnection of life the abounds there, even in a winter that won’t end. Can you feel it?

Now for the real news: 1) Muslim clerics have issued a religious ruling (“fatwa”) forbidding any Muslim from traveling to Mars. 2) ‘Nice Jewish Guys’ Calendar’ sues ‘Naughty Jewish Boys’ Calendar’ over trademark infringement. Pictures at 11.

 

Breaking News – Violence in Society

CBS News  June 6, 2013 2:47 p.m.

“We interrupt this afternoon’s program for Breaking News.  This afternoon, in Conway, Massachusetts, a man was sighted teaching softball to his three children and numerous others. Onlookers blocked traffic on Route 116 for two hours. Pictures at 11.”

Introduction to “60 Minutes”: “There have been reports from the Mid-West that parents have begun feeding their children breakfast, kissing their heads and sending them to school. Six people carried food to a sick person in North Dakota, and in Arizona, a daughter drove her mother to the hospital after her mother slipped and fell. In downtown Chicago a teenager held a door open for a person in a wheelchair.

Tonight we look into: what is wrong with these people? And is it spreading?”

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Isn’t it great news that violence is what makes the news?

February-type news

Each month I keep my ears open to news and ideas in the religion realm that would be fun to write about. Maybe it’s my mood, or the cold, but there is so much bad stuff in religion news this February.

Two parents were sent to jail 3 – 7 years for allowing their child die rather than call a doctor. They prayed with their pastor instead. This is the second child they killed this way. They have seven more children.

A snake handler died a similar way. He got bit, refused a doctor, and is being hailed as a martyr.

Then there is the 84 year-old nun sentenced to three years for breaking in government property to protest nuclear war. Our friend Paki Wieland was sentenced to fifteen days for a peaceful protest against war. (She said Jail “was almost like a Vipassana retreat. The operative word being ‘almost’”.)

“The Son of God” movie had to cut out a scene with Obama look-alike Satan. Well, at least they cut it.

Miranda Barbour, the “Craigslist Killer,” said she killed at least 22 people after joining a satanic cult. But the Temple of Satan says she’s not a member. I’m not not sure if this is in the good news or the bad news column. She probably made it up.

John Tavener, composer of beautiful spiritual choral music, including “The Lamb”, died in California. Okay, that was in November, but I heard about it in February.

I have to admit, there was a concert by the Israeli-Palestinian Chorus singing for peace in the Middle East. (At the Jerusalem YMCA!) Not all is gloom and doom. [Question: in India, is Israel the Middle West?]

Column I wish I had written: Omid Safi’s February post asking what Islam would teach if Mohammad had been born in a snowy climate. Would we have metaphors like God’s love covering us like snowfall covers us all? Check him out at religionnews.com.

But listen to this: Richard Dawkins says any alien civilizations would be atheist. Oh boy, something to look forward to writing about! Spring must be right around the corner.

Delicious Christmas Controversies

Ahhhh, January. Time to kick back and review all the juicy controversies surrounding Christmas. The controversies are often dry as toast, but, like toast, can be delicious.

1) At the all-time, top-of-the-list controversies must be poor Megyn Kelly’s (Fox news reporter) insistence that Santa Clause and Jesus were/are white. She later claimed it was a joke, but I saw it and her comedic talents are somewhere below her news reporting. The reactions of black newscasters and the comic parodies will keep Christmas joyous for decades. Which leads me to believe that Megyn Kelly is really a black comedian with a ton of make-up who works for “The Onion.”
I did come across one disturbing article about “The Legend of the Candy Cane,” a book used in Florida for first graders. (Since removed.) “White is for Jesus because he’s white and red is for Jesus’ blood and if you flip the candy cane upside down it makes a J for Jesus.” Some psychologist should write about the creepy aspects of this statement. Too many to begin here.
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2) The dueling billboards outside Lincoln Tunnel in New York took up some media time. The “atheists-hate-Christmas billboards” vs the “Christians-hate-atheists’ billboards” billboard war is getting old now.Both sides display an appalling lack of imaginative advertising.
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3) “Merry Christmas” vs “Happy Christmas” controversy is new to me. I thought it simply had to do with which side of the pond a person lived, Brits: “Happy”, Yanks: ” Merry.” Silly me. Somewhere back in the convoluted history of the English language, “merry” meant “intoxicated.” I enjoy watching young children singing, “We wish you a merry Christmas” so much more now.
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4) “Happy Holidays!” As you know from many sources, this phrase is a weapon in the War Against Christmas. I thought it was a slightly more inclusive greeting than “Merry Christmas.” More than one Jewish writer has pointed out that Jews do not have any holidays after Hanukkah, so why say it? I’ve had only a taste of being a minority in Thailand and Vietnam and when living in Dorchester, so I don’t take greetings lightly. Joyful greetings are a necessity in this dark time of year, however “Happy Winter!” is disingenuous when the slush is two inches deep. I thought I was so clever: at Eurphoria Bakery I said to the woman behind the counter, “Enjoy your time off!” She looked at me oddly and said, “Have a Happy Holiday.” I may just have to go with “See ya next year!”
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5) On NPR a woman called in to say that the Star of Bethlehem was sent by the devil so the Wise Men could lead Herod to Jesus. Good point. I’ll have to think about that.
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6) Miscellaneous: -A conservative Alabama town mistakenly invited a black drag-queen dance troupe, “Prancing Elites,” to dance in its Christmas parade. – K-Mart’s ad for boxer shorts: a line of men in tux tops and boxer shorts shaking their booty to “Jingle Bells.” -And lastly, the most crowded Capital steps in the country? Florida! A beer can Festus pole, a Nativity scene, a chair holding fake spaghetti with eyeballs. Officials drew the line at the Satanic Temple’s depiction of an angel falling head first into an open fire. Satan has the same letters as Santa, so I don’t know what their problem is.