Life Depends upon a Sentence

Mom’s head lay on her pillow underneath my arm. I lay half on my chair, half on her bed as her breath grew fainter. I held her hand until her skin reacted uncomfortably to any touch; then I rested my hand next to hers on top of the sheet.

I don’t read much fiction. Fiction is made-up stories about people who never existed. I walk down shelves of fiction at  bookstores, past thousands of pages of things that never happened. Yes, some are written simply for entertainment: the neighbor’s sister murdered the minister’s child, the invasion of planet Earth failed; someone’s witty butler gets his employer out of a jam. Read them and pass them along to a used bookstore or a jail or the church yearly tag sale.

Non-fiction, such as History or Biography, is an attempt to tell what really happened at some time. The attempt will be flawed, but the author is accountable. “That’s NOT the way it happened,” says the neighbor’s sister; “The Earth was not really invaded by aliens,” says Orson Wells; “My butler was as dumb as a rock,” says the gentleman. So instead writers write fiction. How easy to arrange events to their liking, how unaccountable to anyone!

My mother’s family is a family of storytellers. Thanksgiving dinners were a raucous telling and retelling of stories from decades, lifetimes ago. Or just a few years ago. After my cousin Philip died, at each Thanksgiving dinner someone mentioned how much he’d loved canned cranberry sauce. Then the cranberry sauce became something more than cranberry sauce; we passed Philip’s smile around with the small bowl shimmering with red sauce, plopping the smooth jelly next to the stuffing as another story would begin.

After Mom died, the family had a large dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York. I leaned over and told a story to my end of the table: two of Mom’s sisters and a cousin. I told the story of the time my mother was working late at a Western Union office in Manhattan when a burglar came in demanding money. My  aunts, who must have heard that story a thousand times, listened and laughed yet again. My cousin laughed; she’d never heard the story. She agreed that story showed just what Dorothy was like.

My mother once told me that all my grandmother Kate could remember of her mother, Margaret, was her brushing my grandmother’s hair. And an aunt once said that my grandmother Kate remembered her mother pulling her hair when she got impatient. Those two sentences create two realities, two personalities for Margaret. Because there are few other stories about Margaret, much depends on a sentence.

As Mom’s head was cradled under my arm, I saw in her face all the stories that made up her life, that made up Dorothy. Stories we listened to over again, perhaps noticing how they changed a bit according to the teller; then we told them to others. No one corrected anyone. We listened.

One family member went back through records to find the History of our grandmother’s life, and so much is illuminated. Puzzle pieces slide across the picture finding places to fit. The stories catch fire again. And so the story continues.

This week I borrowed a book by Alice Hoffman and one by Anne Tyler. I will not settle in to read, but sit up straight to read stories that come from somewhere and create us.

Then I will read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien because he said, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

-Dorothy A. [Hackett] Barrett, December 3, 1922 – October 6, 2015

Continuation Day, June 17, 2015

Our friend, Kate O’Shea passed away on July 17.

On our birthdays, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to say “Happy Continuation Day!” The day we are born is not a totally fresh beginning of new life, but a continuation of life. Not just inherited genes, but the web of the families who raise us, they all are reborn at our birth.  When I look in the mirror, I see Mom and Dad; sometimes I hear Dad’s words coming out of my mouth; unfortunately I sing like Dad, not Mom. The people who passed their lives to me were/are kind, loyal, racist, people who speak out against prejudice, full of life, lazy, alcoholic, generous, at least one thief, brave, funny, cynical, affirming, cold, calm, hot-tempered, loving. And they are just the ones I know about. Which seeds will I water?

As Jeannine’s mother was dying, her mother muttered, “Push, push…” as if giving birth.  As if she was being reborn. Jesus’ life story begins with a list of the generations he sprang from; it ends with Resurrection. Buddhist call this insight of Christianity, and of Jeannine’s mother, “No Birth, No Death.”

June 17th is Kate O’Shea’s new Continuation Day. She passed from our known to the unknown, leaving the trail of her soul for us to follow.

On June 17, we witnessed another Continuation Day. Not of an individual, but of a community. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, “Mother Emanuel,” carries the lives of her congregants down generations. In 1822, one of her founders, Denmark Vesey, attempted to start a slave rebellion. Denmark was executed, and black churches were burned down. The congregants rebuilt their church; after which all black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. So the people worshiped underground. All of this history, as well as their worship, their service, faith, their music, flow through Mother Emanuel.

On the 17th,  a terrorist killed nine of Mother Emanuel’s children. Mother Emanuel knows exactly which seeds she wants to water. Mother Emanuel mourned her lose, and forgave, and demands our whole nation shake off hate and turn to justice. For a start, she demands that the Confederate Flag, banner of a slave-holding regime, be removed from government buildings.

Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, called for the killer to be executed.The continuation of a misguided belief in the “justice” of retaliation.

And a nation has “Continuations of Values ,” passing down hate, powerful faith, retaliation and true justice.

Which seeds do we water? I know which Kate O’Shea would choose.

Uganda and Ireland, or The Irish and the Gay People

When I asked Jeannine for an idea for this month’s article, she said, “How about the Irish and the gay people?” It sounded like a special presentation of the SyFy Channel. But it’s true: on May 22 Ireland held a referendum on marriage equality. It is the first country to legalize gay marriage by public vote.  Can this be the same Ireland I love in spite of everything? Will I have to drop the “in spite of everything”?

Long ago I read a book titled: “Saints, Sinners and Schizophrenics, a study of mental illness among Irish bachelor farmers.” Surely I should have seen this vote coming.
Oscar Wilde, Nuala O’Faolain, Emma Donoghue, Elizabeth Bowen, Brendan Behan are among Ireland’s favorite writers. I must have been blind not to have foreseen it.

Regarding the upcoming vote, the Archbishop of Dublin said, “I have no wish to stuff my religious views down other people’s throats….” Just as I read this quote, a chick-a-dee feather blew in our window and knocked me over.

Meanwhile, here in Massachusetts:
On December 14, 1957 Scott Douglas Lively was born in Buckland. In 1986 he became a born-again Christian and in March 2009, Pastor Lively and two other evangelical Christians gave a series of talks in Uganda. “The theme of the event, according to Stephen Langa, its Ugandan organizer, was ‘the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda’ — and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.” [New York Times]
In November of that year, the infamous “Kill-the-Gays” legislation was submitted to the Ugandan parliament. Lively was unhappy that the bill called for the death penalty; he simply wanted homosexuals to be put in jail for life, that’s all. The law also called for prosecution of individuals, corporations, organizations that support gay rights, as well as of people who don’t turn them in to authorities. The law was signed into law (sans death penalty) on February 24, 2014. On August 1st the Constitutional Court of Uganda declared it unconstitutional because of a voting technicality. The government is appealing that decision.

In the meantime, beatings, “corrective rapes”, forced marriages, and murders of gay people have been rampant. Newspapers listed the names of gay men and lesbians along with “tips” for identifying gay people. One paper put the words “Hang Them” on the banner. The picture of one LGBT activist, David Kato, was printed on the front page. He was subsequently murdered.

In May, four asylum seekers from Uganda came to the First Congregational Church, not too far from Buckland, to help celebrate the anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts. Harold, Carlton, Florence, Jingo told us their stories. After finding their way to the U.S., asylum seekers are not allowed to find work. Their families often refuse to harbor them because of their sexual orientation and they end up sleeping in bus stations, on the street, with no resources, financial or legal.

Good news: In June 2008 the Worcester UCC Hadwen Park Church founded the LGBT Asylum Task Force to support the basic needs of people seeking asylum in the U.S. The Force has helped people from 80 countries where homosexuality is a crime, including Jamaica, Cameroon, Lebanon, Zambia, Uganda, Nigeria, Palestine, China, Morocco, Costa Rico, Iraq, and Turkey.

More good news: Scott Lively, now a pastor in Springfield, is on trial for crimes against humanity.

Even better news: The LGBT Task Force has so many asylum seekers to help that they are in desperate need of funds. And anyone with $5 can help! And they take PayPal!
So easy! Just go to
Ireland legalized divorce in 1995. This is not the most up-to-date country with regards to marriage rights. Until now. In less than 20 years it turned to openness and acceptance. Anything can happen anywhere. Harold, Carlton, Florence, Jingo carry justice on their back to our country. Time to help them.
And “Éirinn go Brách!”

An Embarrassing Hero

I saw Dorothy Day at a Mass one afternoon. She sat in a front pew with her head bowed in prayer. I had the same contradictory reaction to her that I do now, forty years later.

Her uncompromising belief in pacifism inspired everyone I worked with in the Catholic Left, activists who worked for the end of the American War in Vietnam, and for a shift in America’s attitude toward war. She is best known for her work with desperately poor people, opening Houses of Hospitality to feed and house the most marginalized in Depression America, and after. She constantly confronted the Catholic hierarchy in their neglect of the Christian message of social justice. Her stand for pacifism was absolute. Christians, she said, had no other choice.

That afternoon, what I saw in her bowed head was a piety and submission to authority that made me cringe. She once said that if the Cardinal told her to stop printing her Catholic Worker newspaper, she’d shut it down immediately. The idea of totally obedient and will-less devotion to a religious authority is a destructive medieval hold-over. It is an infantile approach to church. She was devoted to that obedience.

However, to categorize Dorothy Day as totally obedient or will-less or infantile verges on the ridiculous, and counter to everything we know about her life. So Dorothy Day, enigma, paradox, embarrassing hero, haunts my spiritual life.

This year, when a pastor was arrested for feeding homeless people outdoors in Fort Lauderdale, I swear I could see her right there. She goes to Palestine; she’s in jail for acts of social justice. She is working at the Food Pantry. She is insulating walls to protect the creation she loved. She is striking with fast-food workers for a living wage. She is an unfailing guide for social justice.

But, a spiritual guide? Yes: “How can you not believe in God when there are so many beautiful things?” she asked her lover. Her beliefs about the sanctity of voluntary suffering? No. Her rigidity about women’s roles and about divorce? No. Her humbleness before church authority? No. Her humbleness before God? Yes.

I gave up this year. The only way to deal with a ghost is to face her. I’m reading what she wrote and what is written about her. I’m sitting next to her before God. The result: her paradox is becoming more pronounced – not what I was hoping for. Now the paradoxes in my own soul are clearer to me. Wandering in the celtic knot of Dorothy’s life is making me recognize the knot of my own life. Celtic knots are mysterious and beautiful, however unsettling to live with.

Leggo My Jesus!

I was meeting a friend at a coffee shop in a very large bookstore which shall remain unnamed. From afar I saw a bright, shining cloud. I was drawn to it as if I were ascended, only horizontally. There, on the shelf of bibles, was one I had never seen before. Glowing, as if barcoded from heaven: the Lego Bible in a box. The penultimate of American Christian art! A reflection of how devout bad taste can be! And the combo set of Old and New Testaments with moveable figures for only $29.95!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the many bibles available to Christians now: the Green Bible, with lines highlighted in green to show us how often dirt is mentioned; the Justice Bible, highlighted to show that God cares about the poor and oppressed “a lot,” and my then-favorite, the American Patriot’s Bible with George Washington on the cover (let the French write their own damned bible).* But this…..
On the cover, I kid you not, DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” with little Lego people. Awestruck, I knelt before it to look closer. I have looked closely at DaVinci’s version, the faces, the expressions, bodies. I’m sorry, but it does not compare to this version: cube heads, blank expressions, little plastic bodies with somewhat moveable arms, primary colors only. So easy on the eye.

Revelations of biblical scenes appeared before me: Jesus knocking all those money-changers off the table onto the floor where the dog can chew them up, a barbie-sized Goliath smiting a teeny tiny David. Are pebbles supplied for stonings? Or do we have to supply our own? I wondered how they would depict Peter cutting off the Roman soldier’s ear since Lego people have no ears.

Turns out, I am years behind the times. The original version came out in 2001. “The Brick Bible,” as it is called, was pulled off the shelves at Toys-R-Us and Sam’s Club because someone noticed the sex scenes. The Brick Bible includes, you guessed it, graphic Lego sex scenes. (This whole blog was worth writing just to be able to use that phrase.)
The creator, Brendan Powell Smith, was astonished at the censorship. The depictions in his bible were nothing compared to the Bible bible’s sex scenes. Why didn’t they ban the original? I’m not sure how his version ended up on the shelves again. Perhaps the graphic Lego sex scenes were removed.

At the unnamed store, my fingers coveted that Brick Holy Book, that igniter of imagination, that simplifier of all things miraculous, the pure Americanism of it, the graphic Lego sex scenes in it, but I resisted. However, Christmas is only eleven months away… (a hint for those who have ears to…. oh, never mind).


The Anteroom of Heaven

Religion News Service reports an uptick in the numbers of Protestants who believe in Purgatory. Jerry Walls, a Methodist theologian is leading the rush to change hearts and minds. Not an easy task. Protestants rejected the idea of Purgatory 500 years ago. Purgatory is just too Catholic. No one can pray a sinner into heaven. It’s just a trick to sell indulgences (look it up).

Over time, Catholics have lost interest in Purgatory, but Walls is encouraging them to change their minds back to believe in (to remember) this place they lost interest in.

The article on Purgatory resulted in the longest column of “Comments” I’ve seen at RNS, including on gay marriage. Commentators are arguing whether Purgatory is scriptural. I read some of the comments. The critical thinking method here is: you first decide what you believe, and then go to Scripture to find sentences that back you up. Some people call this “theology.”

Much of the disagreement about Purgatory involves “Salvation by Works” vs “Salvation by Faith Alone.” Simply: do good and you’ll go to heaven vs receive Christ as savior and you’ll go to heaven, never mind good works.


1. PRO: John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (English Standard Version)

2. CON: Matthew 25: 34-36 -‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (ESV)

3. ETC:  etc., etc. (EVS)

Baffling. If you believe in Christ, you’ll probably, though not necessarily, read the New Testament where Christ tells you to love and care for your neighbor. On the other hand, if you do good things in the world, you’ll probably agree with what Christ had to say. So in my mind, it’s all six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other.

Walls disagrees: “I think that in the next 10 years, purgatory is going to develop as a serious conversation.” I hope it is limited to a serious conversation. During the Thirty Years War (look it up), 7.5 million Europeans died fighting over these things. Let’s not go back there. Agreed?

Either way, I believe that trying to figure out the best, easiest way to get yourself a ticket to heaven seems, I don’t know, like trying to outsmart God. Think?

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.