Three great kings upon a journey going,
And some already on their way back…
… by a different route.
This art, a painting by Rockwell Kent, will look familar to many of you. I used it a year ago in this post, when I was still living in the city, and thought that kind of full moon unlikely to shine on me again.
Silly little mortal!
Last week, deep in the night before my birthday, the moon on the crest of the new fallen snow/gave the lustre of midday to objects below (thank you, Clement Moore). Mrs. Peel, silhouetted by the window, and I, curled under my feather quilt, watched for a while, and breathed blue light. The moon, pregnant round, near-term with hopes and dreams, sang us to sleep. The next day it snowed like white feathers drifting.
How is it that I am back in a place where the moon shines blue, and sings in the coldest nights? And that a year ago I had no idea I would be? or could be?
Gifts beyond measure, grace upon grace, spilled out, overflowing, and every once in a while one actually recognizes them. Was blind, doubtless will be blind again, but for a moment, can see.
I fell and broke my right arm on the 16th, and the degree of difficulty of everything has been temporarily increased. Typing is difficult. Driving is difficult. Can't walk through a door carrying anything, because I can't turn doorknobs – doorknobs I never really noticed until they became barriers. I managed a blog post a few days ago, but it will be a little while before the next one moves from heart through head and hands to hyperlink.
Being quiet is good. With Mrs. Peel on my lap, it's very good indeed. I love to read, she loves to purr, and we both stare, and think. Something's bound to come of it. In the meantime, if you would please pray for a speedy restoration to health (and some breaking up of a bureaucratic logjam), I would be very grateful. And fewer doorknobs.
And remember, it's still Christmas. The 12 days don't end on the 25th. They start there, and we're in them. Rejoice!
No matter how many wings we have, if and when one breaks, we circle. My own broken wing, my arm in a sling, has reminded me that Advent is neither a journey from here to there, nor a path from this day back to then. It's a spiral, toward the center. Now is then, there is also here. And here is everywhere.
All we, in the darkness, circle what light we can find. That's where we tell stories, and listen to stories, big ones, because each of us needs a bigger story than the story of self.
A lion roars creation into being, a rat looks on a god, a hobbit saves the world, the boy who lived defeats that which could not live. All of these draw from deep myth, and so do many elements of the story of the birth of Christ. As people feel they must remind me, every year. As if myth means untruth.
Any writer, mystic, or mathematician will tell you that what is true sometimes does not fit into what is known to be factual. We must not forget that music was being made long before there was music theory to dictate how one could or could not make it. Languages were spoken long before there were systems of grammar, and I am pretty confident that theos preceded theology. We start so big, and then, in the process of categorizing things, we get small.
I remember being taught, in primary school, that we humans were different and special because we used tools. But as it turns out, so do ravens. Or because we made songs. So do whales. Or have dreams. Ha! Ever had a sleeping, twitching cat on your lap? Or because we just knew stuff. Homo sapiens. Please. We don't even know how to be polite half the time, much less be fully human.
But all is not lost, because we still tell stories. Perhaps someday, if we ever learn to be still and listen, we will hear all the stories around us. Day to day pours forth speech, says the Psalmist, and night to night declares knowledge. Trees might talk to us about community, rocks might teach us to take the long view. Cats have things to say about attention; ravens, about rollicking. Then, maybe, when something impossible and unfactual is nevertheless true, we won't need angels scaring us half to death by shrieking "FEAR NOT!" just to get our attention.
Prayer is like watching for the
All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he's been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But when you've almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
(Disclosure, by Anne Lewin)
So many years ago that this is almost a story that could start with "once upon a time", my family lived in a very big house, a legacy of the days of grand families and grand architects. The realtor called it a mansion. My family still calls it The Big House.
The first floor was indeed very grand. There was a parlor for company, and a library with built-in shelves. A dining room that overlooked a formal rose garden. A ballroom. The second floor had the good bedrooms, big as New York City studio apartments, with much nicer baths than I have ever had since.
My spirit's home, though, was up one more flight, in the small third floor servants' quarters. There, in a little monk's cell of a room with one window, I had a desk, a chair, a box of onion skin paper, my Sheaffer fountain pen, and a box of ink cartridges. And my companion, Jo March. I wanted to be just like Jo March, and to that end I scribbled page after page of – what? stories, probably, and perhaps some poems. I don't remember, and as my family moved a lot, nothing remains of all that ink except the memory of the texture of the paper, and the sound the pen nib made as I wrote line after line after blotted line. Oh, I wanted to be a writer.
Singing turned out to be easier, and my dear Lord is aware that I rather enjoy the spotlight. But this "words thing" never went away. I care about lyrics, I read aloud to people whenever I can, I do inspirational speaking, Shakespeare's King Lear leaves me sobbing on the floor, for Jo's spell has never worn off. And particularly at this time of year, the connection I feel to this fictitious character and to the extraordinary woman who created – or released – her is especially strong. It has long been my Christmas season practice to read Little Women again. Every year, somehow, it seems a better book.
My pretty little red leather-bound copy is currently in storage with the rest of my things, so I went to the local library. Their copy is for in-library use only – can you imagine? I'd have to wear shoes! But I found another treasure that I could take home: Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante (2012). As far as I know LaPlante is the first author to explore the relationship between Lou and her mother, Abigail. Ever since her death in 1888, conventional wisdom has held that Louisa was her daddy's girl through and through, educated by him, inheritor of his gifts, beneficiary of his attention. That never set quite right with me. If the Alcott family was the model for the March family, why was the father absent for most of the book? Well, as it turns out, Bronson Alcott was also much absent in real life, and he never made a living. His mind on higher things, he seems to have been content to let his wife and daughters do all the work for the lowlier purposes of rent and food. Unlike his wife, Alcott did not particularly believe in the equality of women, and he came late to the abolitionist's cause. It was Abigail (Marmee) who encouraged her daughters to live full, good lives and to work to utilize their gifts, Marmee who wrote volumes of journals. And it was Marmee who worked until her health was ruined, as did Louisa, whose writing supported the family until she died at 56 (her royalties did so thereafter). The relationship between mother and daughter was deep, and necessary for both women. LaPlante's is a beautiful and calmly fierce book, well-researched and well-written, sad in many ways, but ultimately inspiring. Abigail was left out of history; Eve has fixed that.
You can buy the book through LaPlante's website, to which I have inserted a link above. Amazon has it, of course, but if you possibly can, please get it from an independent bookseller.
I had a chance to give a talk based on scripture a few days ago. Here is the gist of it, minus the vocal inflections and occasional waving about of hands (not to be confused with laying on of hands).
Jesus and the Woman: John 7:53, 8:1 – 11
One more week, and one more day, and the election ads will cease, the polls will trail off, the pundits will… well, they’ll keep spouting, I guess, but the volume level might come down a bit. for as long as 10 minutes. I hope so. I am tired of being yelled at, especially tired of hearing about myself and other women as a specific slice of female torso, with no other body, no mind, no life, and not even a wallet to consider. And most especially tired of being told (mostly by men) what God’s will is for me, my sister, and my nieces.
Telling me about contraception. Abortion. And rape. Legitimate rape, forcible rape, emergency rape, false rape, God-intended rape and easy rape, with never any comment on the responsibility of the man, and, in the case of rape, the rapist (the actual criminal).
“There is nothing new under the sun”, says The Preacher in Ecclesiastes.
When the Pharisees haul a woman over to Jesus – one woman, no man – claiming “she was caught in adultery and Moses said we should stone her, and what do you say?”, something’s a little suspect. a little off.
The gospel writer says the scribes and Pharisees were testing Jesus, and hoping to be able to bring charges against him should he say the wrong thing. “Moses said to stone her. What do you say?” Since under Roman law, they had no power to execute anyone for anything, they must have thought they had him, coming or going. Yes to Moses equals no to Rome, Yes to Rome, no to Moses. Either way, that trap is sprung.
But that’s not the whole of it. The law of Moses says both parties are to be put to death, adulteress and adulterer. Not only that, it says so twice, once in Leviticus, and once in Deuteronomy. It’s very clear. So why are the Pharisees showing up with only the woman? Was she really caught in adultery? Perhaps she was innocent. Perhaps she was an “easy rape”. They wait for Jesus to say something in response.
But he doesn’t. He doesn't say anything. They didn’t see that coming. He leans over and writes in the dirt. When they fuss at him, he says “Let whichever one of you who is without sin throw the first stone,” and writes again. They obviously didn’t expect that, either, and to give them credit, they knew they did not meet that standard. Or they knew their colleagues knew they didn’t, and one by one, they slip away. With them gone, she has no accusers. There is only Jesus, only love, only forgiveness; there is only Jesus and the woman.
How many times in the gospels do we see this same picture, Jesus and a woman, speaking as equals? At the well in Samaria, in the nard-scented dining room of a house in Bethany, in the crush of a crowd near Capernaum, outside Lazarus’ tomb, and certainly in the garden on Easter morning – even though there may be men around, they often recede into the background as Jesus speaks directly to women, and women answer him with equal directness in speech and gesture. It is not to his female followers that Jesus has to explain and explain and explain himself. They get it. First to proclaim the gospel – the Samaritan woman at the well, first to see and proclaim the risen Lord – the Magdalene – the women get it. There is no gender inequality when the man in the room is Jesus. When Jesus is present, there is no inequality of any kind.
If, as Christians, we reach back to Leviticus for our guiding principles, forswearing haircuts, wearing only one type of fabric at a time, insisting that women submit to their fathers, their husbands, because the Bible tells us so…. Well, yes, it does, because before Jesus, that’s how things were. Women did not own property, they were property, and breeding stock. And centuries later, when the Church took some parts of Paul’s letters as the absolute last word on how women should behave – be quiet in church, and do not teach, for instance – women again had to submit, submit, submit.
But that’s not the only thing Paul said. In his letter to community at Galatia, he wrote:
… for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female [social structure]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28).
Throughout Jesus’ brief and intense three-year ministry, and for a while after the resurrection, the poor, the sick, the grieving, and yes, the women, were seen, and heard, and honored, and equal, just as we were in the first chapter of Genesis, in the Garden, made in God’s image.
Nowadays, when people talk about “biblical womanhood”, that’s the part they leave out. When I hear them use the words “biblical womanhood”, I wonder why they omit the good news of the gospel? Who edited out all the red words? Some very vocal Christians seem to believe and proclaim a lot of wacky things about women, things that include some very bad science, and none of the words and actions of Jesus. You’d think Jesus never lived.
But he did, oh yes, he did. And he does. And in him we are one, and we are free.
But the singer line runs primarily through my mom. Her father, Leonard Kranendonk, is the man standing on the right in this photo. From him, my mother and my uncle (on the left) inherited their voices; from my mother, my sister and I inherited ours.
Mom was a coloratura soprano of astonishing range. She now sings tenor with her choir. My Uncle Bob, a true musician-singer, has a rich smokey baritone voice, and my sister's is a contralto as sweetly dark as buckwheat honey. But we did not all become professional vocalists; only my grandfather, my uncle, and I followed that path.
My grandad was for many years the lead baritone of Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, an internationally-renowned glee club that started in the late 1930s. My uncle also sang with them for a time. You may not have heard of them, but there would be no Glee TV show without them (and possibly no Robert Shaw Chorale, since that's where Shaw got his start). Waring had a weekly radio and then television show, and they are considered, I learned last year, to have been the original Show Choir. English was my grandfather's second language (he emigrated from The Netherlands), but his own perfectionism and Waring's Tone Syllables, a diction technique, resulted in what you will hear on this opening track from his only solo album.
My grandfather and I did not agree on the role of improvisation, but I think he was proud of me, and I feel him with me every time I sing in church. And because he sang sunrise Easter services on a mountaintop, and blessings at the Thanksgiving table, I reckoned I could, too. Singing anytime, anywhere, without accompaniment was normal.
It's autumn in upstate NY. As winds tug at the leaves of gold and
flame, the trees simply let go, and drop them (you want
lessons in attachment and non-attachment? Look to the deciduous trees). It's getting colder. Both my grandparents lived into the 21st century, and I lost them only
11 years ago, my grandmother Elsie (who sang alto) in October 2011, my
grandfather the following spring. I feel them, and feel the pull of the old songs that are my my most valuable inheritance, and the voices that carried them. All these years later, I'm the one singing loudly in church. But really, whom then shall I fear, when I never sing alone?
Thanks to writer Diane Duane for the link.
My title is a Greek word that turns up fairly often – 44 times – in New Testament. As you can guess, it is the source of the words scandal and scandalize, and it means stumbling block, something one trips over, something that causes one to fall. These things happen in life, but no one should be placing the stones so as to cause a fall, as Jesus said. "Woe to the world because of stumbling
blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to
the one by whom the stumbling block comes!" (Matthew 18:7). Paul wrote, in his letter to the Romans, "Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another,
but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance
in the way of another… Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification." (Romans 14:13,19)
When two women from the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were tried and sentenced for an activist action in a church (or committing sacrilege in a church, depending on one's point of view), I became involved in an online discussion led by a member of a Christian religious order. I felt that person's position against the women of the band, even in light of the pain and anger the action had caused, was extremely harsh, and I posted a comment questioning that stance. We back and forthed a little bit, chapter-and-versing, but in the end, I was smacked down by Thomas Aquinas. Oof! Serves me right, perhaps, for messing with [a person of unnamed gender who is a member of an unnamed religious order of an unnamed denomination].
About a month has passed, and now a conflagration triggered by insults to the founder of Islam and his followers has caused riots, and killed our ambassador to Libya, along with several members of the embassy staff. These deaths are not justifiable in any way. They are heartbreaking. Information currently suggests that the protests were used by outside agents to cover the murders of the ambassador and embassy personnel. I am trying to separate the killings done by a few from the anger displayed by so many, across several countries.
If Pussy Riot's action was sacrilegious, it seems to me that the film Innocence of Muslims is, too. If we are to accept that churchgoers were hurt and scandalized when the punk band disrupted the sacred service, how can we not see that devout Muslims would be outraged by this film?
Someone – I think it may have been Fran Lebowitz – once wrote, "Your freedom to wear a lime-green polyester pantsuit ends where it meets my eye." There are limits, even for we Americans. I have heard people say that though the film is regrettable, we have freedom of speech. Yes, we do. Here. If we stay within our own borders. But elsewhere, where American law does not apply, we have to abide by the laws and customs of the country we are in. Even at home, we have to be prepared to accept the consequences of that free speech. In Muslim cultures, one does not make a picture of or a joke about the Prophet. I am sorry to have to say this, but really, if a five-year old can figure out that it's unwise to pull the kitty's tail, can't alleged adults predict that riots and violence will be the result of such "free speech"? That may someday change, but we are not the ones to force that change.
There is another definition of skandalon: the movable stick that triggers a trap, the stick that has to be carefully and deliberately set in order for the trap to function.
Someone made a movie defaming the prophet Muhammed. I have read it was intended to be a Christian evangelization tool. Most people smart enough to make a movie are probably too smart to have made such a colossal misjudgement, but it didn't matter much, because only about ten people ever saw the film prior to now. So who really decided it would be a good idea to release such a film, and to post a trailer on YouTube at this particular time? And who funded it? $5,000,000 went into that film. Instead of criticizing the quality of the production, why are we not asking who put up the money? Because it's not that easy to find that kind of money. If five million dollars grew on every tree, I would have planted an orchard, and be having a very different life right now.
Most Christians agree that it is, at the very least, bad manners to show blatant disrespect to Jesus Christ. Responses vary from person to person. Grief. Rage. A shrug. A prayer. But there is always a reaction. So what, then, makes it OK to similarly disrespect Muhammed?
Nothing. It is not OK. And we misrepresent the God of love we profess to follow when we allow it to happen in His name.
I don't know what the religious I conversed with last month might say about what happened and is happening in Libya, Tunisia, Sudan. And Aquinas? I have not studied his work much, so I don't know that, either. But I do know this: three months before his death, Aquinas, while serving at Mass, had a mystical experience that led him to say, "All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has been revealed to me."