Saturday, March 31, 2018

Making space

A good Friday dream, following a beautiful, meditative interfaith service of worship. My prayer throughout the service was "Eyes on you, Jesus."

In my dream, I'm having dinner with Chrissy Teigan and John Legend (like you do) and John is asking me what I'm working on these days. I tell him about this book I've been working on - a historical novel about the sixteenth century.  I'm describing the hardship of those days, and while describing it, it comes alive - the cold, the hunger, the ever-present illness.  Then Chrissy has to go to an awards show, so she changes into her gown (God, she's so beautiful) and floats away while I go off to a writing retreat. 

It takes a while to find the door to the retreat house that my key will work in, but I do. I go to the room I have already selected and someone is in there.  She has set up a card table and her writing is spread out all over.  I feel like I should recognize her, but I cant remember her name.  
"Oh, hi Jennifer," she greets me not very warmly, "at this retreat we all like to have our OWN room." 
"Oh, ok, sorry." 
Meekly I take my items out of the room (that someone has shoved way behind the bed) and head down the long corridor, opening doors trying to find one that will have space for me.  They are all occupied. A few times I get settled, only to realize that there's no room after all, and then move on. There is a boarded up area that I'm pretty sure that I remember has some rooms in it but a sign warns about SUPER SPIDERS within.  I avoid it.  

I wake up from this dream with my shoulder throbbing and tears in my throat.  

Oh man.  I need to make more room and, maybe more importantly, I need to occupy the room I have.  Yes, it's hard to write and work and work out and be a mom and be a caregiver and be a wife and be a faithful child of God and be a friend and rehab a tender shoulder (not necessarily in that order). Yes, it's hard to make space - space in time and in psychic energy and just physically.  Yes, it's scary to start writing when I can't see in advance where it will take me. Yes, it's scary to keep writing when whatever I end up with will never be as genius Hamilton. Yes, it's all hard and scary. But it's not 1500's, digging-turnips-out-of-frozen-ground-so-I-dont-starve-and-anyway-I'm-likely-to-die-giving-birth-to-my-fourtheenth-child hard and scary.  

I have more time and opportunity and media and space to use my voice than any woman in history. Certainly more than my character did. And she managed to write songs and diatribes and sermons and letters and pamphlets - pages and pages and pages. (And those are just the pages that survived.)

Sometimes we pray and pray and pray and it seems like nothing happens.  And sometimes we pray "Eyes on you, Jesus" and wake up the next day knowing exactly the next step to take. Pen to paper, easy as that. Resurrection is coming.  New life is just around the corner. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pentecost Sunday 2017 - Circles

"Circles" (art in response to sermon)
by Rory Martindale,
fingerpaint on ipad
Pentecost Sunday, 2017
Jennifer Garrison Brownell

Let’s make a big circle
Lets make it big enough for everyone
who was sitting down that morning before 9:00
not to new wine, but to a bowl of cornflakes, or whatever they ate for breakfast in those confusing days after Jesus had finally left them for good. Let that circle swirl and spiral across time and space so that it’s big enough to wrap in everyone who was visiting Jerusalem that day –
true believers and serious doubters
and tourists looking for some excitement
and pickpockets looking for some tourists.

Let’s make a circle big enough to include people who are long gone
–those Parthians, Medes, Eliamites and Mesopotamians, and Judeans, residents of Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygians and Pamphylians–
Whose  languages, buildings and breakfast cereals
were centuries dead even when this story was brand new.

Let’s make a big circle
Let’s make it big enough for everyone in every time of life.
Let’s make it big enough for very new babies and very old elders.
Let’s make it big enough for the men and the women and the gender-expansive who are in the middle of life, working, building, creating, caring for those babies and those elders.
Let’s make it big enough for people
who can’t work,
who want work,
who work too much,
who barely scrape by,
who are domiciled in skyscrapers.
Let’s make it big enough for those people graduating from school and commencing all of life’s hope, all of life’s promise.
Let’s make it big enough for those whose school days are behind them, yet who wake into each new day with curiosity and delight, asking “What do you have to teach me today, Lord?”

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for the generations that crowd before, and the generations that will march on after. 
Let’s make it big enough for those whose eyes are closed at last in rest after long, and satisfying life. 
Let’s make it big enough for those who are taken too soon by disease or violence.
Let’s make it big enough for Muslim children fleeing Syria and Christian adults riding a bus in Egypt and teenagers of all races dancing in England, and brave, brave men riding a train in Portland, Oregon. 
Let’s make it big enough for those whose lives are yet to come, for the grandchildren of our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for brown skinned people and black skinned people and white skinned people.
Let’s make it big enough for queer people and straight people and people who fall somewhere in between. 
Let’s big enough for divorced people, and married people, and single people, and people who fall somewhere in between.
Let’s make it big enough for religious people we don't understand and religious people we think we understand only too well.
Let’s make it big enough for boundary crossers, border crossers, immigrants and refugees. And lets never call anyone, anywhere, ever illegal,
because, friends, there is no such thing as an illegal person,
when the circle is big enough.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for those we love and those we hate. 
Let’s make it so big that those we love prosper, and those we cannot love prosper, too.
Let’s make a circle big enough and wide enough and abundant enough that scarcity and fear and hate are what is squeezed out, but not people, never, never, never God’s children. 
Let’s make a big circle where every single every living created thing knows that we are one family,
because in this big circle,
all living beings share the same first name
and that name is beloved.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s make it big enough for the stars that shine at night
and the blade of grass that pokes its head up through concrete. 
Let’s make it big enough for creatures of the sky – the bald eagles and the crows that chase them, and the hummers at your feeder. 
Let’s make that circle big enough for the creatures of the sea –the whale and the salmon and those mysterious creatures down below where it is too dark and cold for life and somehow life thrives. 
Let’s make that circle big enough for grizzly bears and anacondas and termites. 
Let’s make that circle big enough for seal pups and kittens with big eyes and babies in nests, their beaks reaching for the worm.
Let’s make that circle big enough for artic ice floes and tropical banyan trees and purple mountain majesties and
the sand you just found in your sneakers from
last summer’s trip to the beach. 

Let’s make a big circle around this table. The table of justice, the table of plenty, the table of forgiveness.  Let’s look around the circle, into the full, shining eyes of the ones who share this meal with us, today, right now. Let’s eat the bread that is one body together, and let’s drink the cup that means forgiveness for everyone, even that person we really, truly cannot stand. Let’s know that the circle is big enough that one and big enough for me and for you.

Let’s make a big circle.
Let’s know that we cannot, can never ever make this circle by
our own desire, our own cleverness, our own hard work. 
Let’s look!  Let us see the Holy Spirit dancing above us, each one of us, right here and now.
Like flames, like wind, and like birds fluttering over and around and through and in us. 
Let’s make a big circle.
Just like that first day, so long ago, when that frightened and grieving little group of disciples, gathered in the upper room, mourning their lost friend Jesus.  Those few, very few, who thought they were making a sad little circle, just for them. 

Let’s make a big circle because THAT day, and every day since, the Holy Spirit has had other plans.  Oh yes, she breathes, let’s make a big big big circle.  Amen.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible

I have never been the kind of person who has a daily spiritual practice. Although I admire the friends who get up early to meditate every day, I seem to pray better by the seat of my pants.

So, even though I never work my way methodically all the way through books of daily devotions, I love to dive into them from time to time. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks' Bible Sisters, A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible rewards this method.

The devotions are numbered, rather than dated, so you can open the book and begin anywhere.  There are fresh looks at familiar women like Mary Magdelene, Eve and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, as well as introductions to others who are less familiar.  If I had learned the names of the daughters of Zelophehad (introduced in Days 60-65), for instance, I have long forgotten them.  There is a helpful index at the back, in case there is a particular woman you would like pray with or learn more about.  People interested in learning more about the women of the Bible, praying with them and exploring their forgotten stories will enjoy this book.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review, and an additional copy to give away for free! Share the name of YOUR favorite Biblical woman in the comments  in the review posted on my facebook page by TUESDAY MAY 23, 2017 and I'll put you in a drawing to mail (or deliver!) the book to you.  

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Helps

I wrote this down on November 10, 2016.  Six months later, same still goes, I'd say.

Here is what helps:
Pray in public.
Get on the floor with children.
Sing the old songs and learn some new ones.
Let the sun embrace you.
Pray in private.
Cry some.
Light a candle.
Make something.
Eat a cookie, or maybe two.
Drink a glass of wine, or maybe one and a half.
Talk with friends.
Remember that it is ok to laugh.
Start a conversation with a stranger in an elevator.*
Change the sheets.
Clear a spot in a weedy flower bed.

*Today's example - me: how are you? she: I'm on this side of the grass, and that's what matters.

Away and Back Again

Highline Park (please note terrific
mohawk photobomb)

This is the third of three parts describing a recent trip to the Oregon desert and then to New York City. Here is part one.  And part two. 

After the Revolutionary Love conference I did touristy things for two days.  I gawked at the Flatiron Building and the Statue of Liberty. I ignored a certain Tower, and I took a picture next to the defiant girl statue, but not the charging bull. I sniffed flowers at a farmer's market and stood in the wind on the Highline. I ate really well and I got a sunburn. I waited in line for longer than I expected to in order to see the Daily Show, and it was worth every minute. I saw ads in bus stops that showed pictures of bombed out buildings and urged us to make a disaster plan before it was too late.  I passed statues of people I did not recognize (Roscoe Conkling?) and people I recognized but whose New York connection seemed somewhat murky (Gandhi?). I made a short pilgrimage to Ground Zero and still could not fathom it.
Right before I saw this,
I had literally just given money
to a guy dressed like the monk
who is pictured here. 

And I went to a May Day rally in Union Square, along with several hundred other earnest people. I walked around, taking it in. There were some speeches (which after the conference I had just attended seemed kind of bro-heavy) and some music from the stage, and OFF the stage people making theater and music and speeches of their own.  There was every kind of costume and sign imaginable.

And I saw an African-American man, passed out on a sidewalk.  I know he was passed out and not just sleeping, because his friend was trying to wake him up.  He was shaking him, and patting him on the face, telling him urgently to wake up, wake UP, man. I remembered Pastor Jacqui's sermon, her exhorting us "not to step OVER the homeless people in our neighborhood like they are PART of the ARCHITECTURE." I was holding a half drunk water bottle so I knelt down and offered it to the friend.

I believe that this sign holder
believes this.  And I believe that
sometimes our ideals are
easier to hold in the abstract

than to live into in reality. 
The friend poured some on the man's head, tried to help him drink some, told him to go home before the cops came. I sat down on the sidewalk, not at all sure what to do, and regretting (not for the first time) the untaken first aid classes. People walked by with signs, talking into phones, squinting up at the sun. If they did look at the man on the ground, at the man trying to revive him, their eyes held...what was it?  Mild disinterest. Pity, maybe. Or contempt.  The cops did come. And they called an ambulance, which I understood from the friend would cost the man $2000.

I joined the effort to wake him, shaking him, talking to him.  He looked up at us a couple of times, one time even sat up for a minute, then fell over again before we could catch him. And in that whole crowd, no one stopped. No one in that crowd of activists, lovers, human rights proponents offered to help. No one touched him.  When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics were loading him onto the stretcher, he looked up at the face of his friend and spoke for the first time.

"You. I don't like you."

"Yeah, I don't like you either," the friend replied without rancor.

And then he was gone, loaded into the ambulance.  An unlikeable drunk. A child of God.

All I had left was questions. Could I have learned his name? Could I have prayed out loud? Could I have tried to get help from the people passing by? And what kind of help was needed anyway?  What happens to a guy with no money when he gets carted off to dry out in a hospital somewhere? Could I have gone with him to the hospital with him to find out?  Could I have tried to pay the ambulance bill, which was just a little more than it cost to frolic in the city for a week?

I didn't do any of those things. I stood still for a minute in that swirling, swelling crowd and then I really wanted to find a place to wash my hands. As I walked out of the park, I tossed the empty plastic bottle into a bin.

Far and Away

Part two of three parts.  Part one here.

In which I leave the desert and fly to New York.

I got to the airport, after a great conversation with my Uber driver about fund-raising for non-profits, synagogue politics and bagels, to find that my red-eye was delayed a couple of hours. I hoped I would not be late for Revolutionary Love.  I slept pretty well on the plane overnight, but maybe not as well as I thought because I managed to get onto not one but two wrong trains from JFK into Manhattan.  
After realizing I was on the wrong train again,
and before being serenaded by the greatest train musicians ever.

That actually turned out to be really great, because if I had been on the right (faster) train I would not have seen three awesome subway performers - one of whom turned on some loud music and then did a kind of outrageous parkour up and around the poles of the car, the second one who sang a beautiful song and then told us that she had found her life's purpose and that it was singing to people on subway cars so they could be happy, and the third and oldest who looked like your average homeless dude but who played a fancy little concerto on his violin.

I just had time to check into my room and then walk from the Leo House in Chelsea to the Revolutionary Love conference site - Middle Collegiate Church. (I thought then, and I kept thinking the rest of the time I was there, that I could walk around in Manhattan forever and never get tired of it.)

Van Jones is very quotable:
"We have a common pain, but we need a common
purpose."  "I don't love Trump voters to change
them.  I love them so Trump doesn't change me."
"When it gets harder to love, love harder."
I arrived at Middle Church early Friday afternoon, just in time to hear the indomitable Valarie Kaur introduce and outline the three kinds of love we'd be exploring in our time together: love of others (in the movement for justice), opponents ( "we refuse to hate them because we refuse to be like them") and ourselves ("joy is an act of moral resistance").  

Later that night, Van Jones spoke.  I spent 90% of the speech being completely swept up in his message and 10% admiring his style.  He truly held the whole room in the palm of his hand as he detailed the moral challenge of all civil rights movements to love even, or maybe especially, those who hate us.  I admired his humor, his intelligence, his clarity of vision and his quotable one liners.   I guess that last one can sound kind of snarky, but I do mean that.  I'm not much of an elevator-speech-er.  I tend to "on the one hand..." this and "on the other hand" that, when I could say what I  mean in a short and easy-to-understand way (ahem, thisblogpost, ahem) and I'm always trying to learn more about how to do that.

Traci West: "I'm here to disrupt the assertion that
the assertion of love does not need disrupting."
You can see videos of Van Jones and Bill Moyers here and they were were both great of course.  But what made the conference so truly inspiring for me was the leadership and power of women.  Leadership especially by women of color too often seems like an afterthought in events I attend, but here it was clearly anything but. Jacquie Lewis Traci West.  Yara Allen.  Tracy Blackmon .
Tracy Blackmon: "If blackness is my weapon, how
can I ever be unarmed?"

I re-met Ruth MacKenzie who I knew  decades ago when I worked as an intern at Red House Records and she was one of the label's artists with the band Trova. Since the election, I've been listening regularly to their song Si Mi Voz, which just seems like the right song for right now. Anyway, when we went around in our breakout group and introduced ourselves, I recognized her voice right away. Also, she looks exactly as gorgeous and glamorous as she did 25 years ago and I almost shouted out loud. But I waited until the end and re-introduced myself and we had a sweet conversation about Red House, where we started, and ministry, which is where we both somehow landed all these years later.

So the inside of the church was rocking, was a peak experience pretty much every moment, connections were flying, it was (as someone said) like "drinking from a fire hose." And every time we had a break for an hour or two, Manhattan was RIGHT THERE out the front doors.  New York turns out to be a great biking city, so every chance I could I got on a bike - they are for rent everywhere.   And everywhere I was seeing examples of what we were learning inside Middle.  That our commonalities are much greater than our differences. That connection is moral choice and joyful connection is a spiritual one. That the way to love the Other is just to love every Other you meet, and there are lots and lots and lots of Others to practice on.  (Even if you are minding your business in the bike lane and a taxi is turning left in front of you?  Yeah, maybe I have some work to do on this one.)

Sunday morning worship was...well, I don't even know how to describe it.  Except to say that there was Gil Scott-Heron and dancing and Michael Jackson and prophetic preaching and West Side Story and a greeting time that went on and on and I was pretty much in tears for the whole thing. Sunday night, we ended with a rousing sermon from William Barber, who is a giant in every possible way.  

And I was feeling a little deflated that it was over and thinking maybe I would try to catch a show at the Gotham, but ended up instead drinking strong Spanish wine with a new buddy, and humming I Love New York In June all the way back to my room.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


I was away for eight days and those eight days were stuffed with experience. Here is the first of three parts about the experience.  

First I should say that I love reading about other people's travels, but am abashed to write about my own. But I'm stepping out in trust that other people like reading about travels too, and if you don't you'll just skip this.  

Obligatory Bend riverwalk picture.
I wish a picture could show
how very extremely cold
we are in this moment.  
On a recent Tuesday morning, but not nearly as early as I would have liked, Jeff and I piled All The Things into our van and headed southeast toward the conference's clergy-and-spouse post-Easter retreat.  We took the long way through some parts of Oregon we have not seen in our ten years here. East from Albany, winding up past the beauty of the Santiam River, through Detroit Lake which is not a lake after all (to my Great-Lakes-bred way of thinking anyway) but a wide spot in the river, that is nonetheless breathtaking. Through snow, through the little western town of Sisters, and on into Bend which we have heard so much about as a fantastic destination, but which on this windy day was mostly deserted except for a surprising number of young men in blue blazer jackets.  (Maybe we should try it again, since we were too cold to see much.)

Desert in springtime.
After that, there was some stopping for junk food and some cut flowers for the retreat (no, the cut flower game in Redmond, Oregon's grocery stores is not strong, in case you were wondering), some getting a little lost but found again. And in every direction the desert in spring, green and rolling. And finally, coming around the hill and down into Kahneetah Hot Springs.

The next couple of days were some rest, some inspiring conversations about everything from the book of Revelation to how to be a sanctuary church to the merits of fry bread, some singing together and a whole lot of gratitude for the smart, passionate, talented, and faithful people that I get to call colleagues. Thursday, heading back home through the green desert, another new but not nearly as long way.  Some more junk food.

And then, home to do laundry, re-pack and put up a clean shower curtain. In the beginning of our marriage, I used to always scrub the entire bathroom before I left town. Now I put up a new shower curtain and call it good, which I guess tells you all you need to know about the best parts of being married for a while.

I called an Uber car and I was back on the road again around the time I'm usually tucking into my jammies.