Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ecce Ancilla Domini

We are all in a dither with preparations for Saturday... cooking, cleaning, rearranging the chapel and the furniture in all the common rooms.

Yes, I really meant to say Saturday, not Sunday, Palm Sunday. This year Palm Sunday will have to take care of itself. Certainly we will celebrate it, with the Passion liturgy from Luke, (in fact I'm playing the roles of Pontius Pilate, Peter and whoever else has a cameo part... I get to be them all.) But our focus at the moment is on the momentous occasion scheduled for Saturday. One of my sister candidates will graduate from candidateland; she will make her Life Profession.

It's a new thing for our community. She will be the first to move from the status of candidate to that of fully professed sister. We used to have a First Profession: temporary vows taken for three years. At the end of those three years the sister (supposedly) had a good sense of whether she and the community could stand each other for life.

But times are changing and this new process reflects, in part, that women being called to religious communities (specifically this community) are usually older than their counterparts of decades ago. Time is running out for those who came to serve God in this manner so late in life. Why not speed up the process a bit?

Sister will receive a "girdle cord" the rope belt with the three knots symbolizing her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; she will get a new cross with the community's insignia; and she will receive a ring. The power of the RING is a favorite joke around here... as if that ring confers some invisible status for the woman who wears it. It doesn't. If anything, a woman taking this step and wearing this ring means she willingly gives up any power she may have had as a candidate. That includes the power to walk out, throw a tantrum, be as obnoxious as was appropriate for her secular profession. Hers is now a new profession, one of slave.

You may think that last statement is a joke too, like the power of the ring... but the ring is inscribed inside with the Latin words: Ecce Ancilla Domini. Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. Behold the bond slave of the Lord. I am the Lord's servant, His maid-servant, His bond-servant... the words Mary, in all her faith and gullibility, answered God's Angel when she was asked to ruin her reputation and have God's child out of wedlock. Those words will rub against the skin of her finger every day of her life, some kind of spiritual osmosis will occur, and she will be the Lord's servant.

Our sister is in silent retreat this entire week before she takes her vows. She may be asking herself: Am I ready for this kind of service? Can God just tap me on the shoulder and say, “Do this today”? Worse yet, can God, in the face of a sister I don't much like, tap me on the shoulder?

We say of the Mary who first spoke the words: "Blessed are you among women." But we kid ourselves if we think she got the blessing for free. She paid her dues time and time again... always the stigma of that unusual conception (after all she went back to Nazareth to live after Egypt.) Her son was initially saved at the expense of other mothers' babies... the guilt of that had to have been awful. Raising a child to be "the savior of his people" probably meant something very different to her as a naive young mother than his being executed in disgrace as a common criminal. She paid for her decision in a number of consequences.

Accepting the consequences of her decision will be our sister's next step.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

mystery and perception

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
—Isaiah 43: 19

Well of course we don't perceive it. It's new.

I'm told that when the ships coming to the "New World" crested the horizon, the indigenous people of that world never saw them. Their shamans saw them, but even they did not know what they were.

We humans are so very much a species that understands through perception. And even though (intellectually) we know that perceptions are as slippery and dangerous as emotions, we still rely on them for most of our judgments and decision making. So when God says I'm doing something new... watch out. There is an expectation that we will recognize this new thing and come on board, but the reality is we will probably miss the point entirely.

God (incarnate as Jesus) was misunderstood by pretty much everybody: His mother, disciples, the church officials, the people he healed, the people he rebuked. Not many (if any) got the point. They perceived him through their own filters and so have we who come after.

In the most personal sense, Jesus has always been a big brother to me. That's big brother in the good sense, not in Orwell's. He is an advocate, example, someone to run to when life treats me roughly, to confide in when I have no clue what I'm doing or why. That is my personal perception of the man God became, but then, I am an only child... my big brother perceptions come from my imagination, not real life experience.

Others see Him as a mighty savior... Jesus Christ, the Superstar... faster than a speeding bullet, able to take down Satan with a single stroke. Others know him as the redeemer of all the chaos and confusion of the universe ( I like that image too) and still others see Him as the Great JUDGE.

Who he really is... is mystery still. A new thing. Our celebrant this morning spoke to the image of God, not only as creator and redeemer, but as liberator. Normally we think of liberation theology as a focus on justice for the poor and opressed, and it is definitely that.

But what if it is also a new thing for the affluent, the educated and the powerful? Liberation from this false perception that we know the answers, hold the keys to the kingdom, are living the lives God created us to live? I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

You love that one more than me?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I so love it when a sermon speaks to a new interpretation of a well-known (and beloved) parable. Our celebrant today is one of those preachers who can always find a new twist. He blew us away on Christmas Eve, and once again he has stirred my imagination with his take on the "prodigal son".

His lead in was typical and hooked me immediately: a certain sympathy for the older brother's resentment. (Any of us who fall into the judgmental category can relate... Hey! what about me? Haven't I been good enough for you? Haven't I been the one who stayed put, slaved my heart out, and what did I get? Zip, nada, zilch... not even a stupid goat to have a party with my buddies?)

While Jesus continually stresses that the lost sheep found is cause for more rejoicing than the ninety-nine who did not stray, it still rankles somehow. How come? And then the unspoken question comes to mind: is it possible that God loves his lost sheep more than his faithful sheep? What's that about? And just when do the ninety-nine get their reward?

As long as we look at things from this perspective, the answers will fail us. Because we're asking the wrong questions. As the sermon today pointed out, we're focusing on our relationship with God as if we're in some competition for His love.

When the elder son says to his father: "But when this son of yours came back... you killed the fatted calf for him!" (Translate: You love him more than me!)

But the father re-sets the reality of the situation in his own perspective when he answers: "But we had to celebrate... because this brother of yours was dead, and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."

Well of course. I knew that.
Or at least I always know it on some deep cosmic, and spiritual level. Yet I do not reside in that deep spiritual world much of the time. I am made of matter and I am dense... dense to the deeper meaning of who God is and why I am. It takes hearing it again from yet a slightly new perspective to get my attention. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ah St. Patrick...

Ah St. Patrick, are ya rolling in yer grave?
(Everyone: repeat that last sentence with a bit of a brogue.) All those stories about you and the snakes... and now some megamammoth country in the West celebrates your feast day as the biggest drinking holiday of the year. Whadda ya gonna do? as my friend's ex-mother-in-law used to say.

Well, in my community, we were celebrating too. We sang your first vespers last night and this morning and noon extolled your bringing the faith to the Irish people.

However, since we are Americans (and Episcopalians) and not to be outdone by our secular counterparts, (or only to be outdone in the sense of no moderation) we also celebrated your feast day... with corned beef, cabbage, Irish soda bread, and wine and beer. Killian Red to be exact... none of that green goop for us.

We ate in silence and drank to your health (or at least your spiritual health) in silence, and in absolute moderation. Except... I had poured a glass of red wine for one of my sisters who really wanted white. (It was corned beef, but she is a vegetarian... white must be the preferred color for vegetables, sort of like fish or chicken. Anyway, I had to pour her a glass of white , which left an extra glass of red that nobody wanted (since we were drinking in moderation) so... not wanting to waste good wine (waste not, want not, as St. Patrick used to say... or was that my grandmother?) Never mind. I drank the aforementioned glass (actually chug-a-lugged it since sister was waiting to wash the glass.)

All that said, I should probably not be blogging... except I haven't mentioned anything outlandish or derogatory about anyone except myself. And I will certainly sleep well tonight. Sweet dreams, St. Patrick.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

seasons of the soul

That's seasons with a small s... don't expect anything too profound...

It's just that I go through "phases" (as my mother used to call it), and I find that these phases or seasons are as predictable as the seasons of the year, as regular as my hormones used to be. Now that I have no hormones, there's extra energy to devote to other endeavors, and one of them is as simple as noticing.

I notice that as I age I procrastinate less. Perhaps that's because my body now assures me that my life span is not immortal. "Do it now or it may not get done" seems a good mantra these days. That is not to say I never procrastinate... case in point: a small package with Christmas gifts, never mailed, has been under my bed since December. It's now March. The Post Office is two blocks away. What's that about?

I finally asked myself that the other day as I busily attended to other things and kept skirting the box. Ah... it's about not being enough. Of course. The childhood message, reinforced over the years, comes back to haunt me at the weirdest times. Because the gifts are meager I have not sent them.

When I lay it out on the table it seems a little silly that I'm letting some chocolate go stale and a book which could be enjoyed sit under my bed because I'm feeling wanting. It's so lose-lose that I'm embarrassed, yet it is what it is.

So the season of: finish it up-unless you're afraid it's not enough-then don't do it at all, is upon me. What other projects fall into that category, I wonder... do I really want to open this can?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cameo appearances

John 5: 1-18

Today's Bible Study was bizarre. I was in one of my "I know what you need to do" moods. (Always a dangerous thing...) I had overheard a conversation earlier where one sister was upbraiding another for something not done correctly, or sufficiently, or something... and I had heard the sister on the receiving end offering excuses, and the sister on the giving end not buying them. So of course I knew what both needed to do. One of those sisters was in my Bible study.

We sometimes take a moment of silence before we begin, and it was only by the grace of God that I asked for help to speak... not what I wanted to say, but what the Spirit wanted her to hear. (Imagine that.)

We read the lesson. It was the passage where Jesus meets the man at the pool of Bethesda. The man had been afflicted (with something) for thirty-eight years, and Jesus cured him. It just happened to be on the Sabbath. The whole controversy over healing on the sacred day of rest, and the subsequent retort by Jesus that "My father is still working and so am I" got him into even more trouble.

But that wasn't the thrust of the reading for me. I was onto something totally different. I remember one of our celebrants mentioning that the "cameo" appearances by so many of the bit players in the stories of the Bible can tell us more about ourselves than the plot line.

If Jesus was the star, then the man at the pool played a cameo role. His dialogue and actions shed light on a bitter truth about us... this guy was invested in his identity.

Jesus asked him: "Do you want to get well?" Instead of answering, the man went to great lengths to explain why he hadn't been able to get well. He had nobody to help him down to the pool; somebody always got there first. He identified with his own martyr complex. Jesus cut straight through the excuses, didn't bat an eye, said "Pick up your mat and walk."

At that point the man was immediately healed. (This was not one of the cases where someone's faith set them free, this was Jesus' work. The man had no say... one minute he was ill, the next he was well.) So off he went with his mat and was soon accosted by the Sabbath Police. "It's unlawful to carry your mat on the Sabbath," they said. So what did he do? He blamed Jesus. Except he didn't know it was Jesus at that point, just some guy who had healed him.

Later... Jesus found him in the temple. What was he doing in the temple, I wonder? Was he thanking God for his miraculous healing, or was he wondering how he was going to survive with no excuse for sitting around the pool? Jesus then said something very strange: "You are well now. Sin no more, or something worse may happen to you." That implies (to me) that Jesus knew something about this man's past that hit a nasty nerve. Because what did he do next? He ran and tattled to the Sabbath Police that it was Jesus who had healed him.

Too much too soon. The man had an identity. If not comfortable, it was at least familiar... he was a martry. Poor man, waiting at that pool all those years, nobody to help him... Along came somebody who cared enough to cut through the bullsh*t and ask a straight question. "Do you want to get well?"

I think of the identities that I'm so attached to. What are the restrictions of those identities that I'm not willing to see? Not willing to risk giving up, because what would be left is too far out of my comfort zone?

We can be the voice of Christ to each other. But it's so hard to hear. It's easy to think that if Jesus Himself spoke to us we'd listen. I don't think so. I am able to take the truth in bits and pieces, but too much too soon makes me bristle, just like the man at Bethesda.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

God's will... not!

"It was God's will."

I hear that sometimes from people who think they should somehow be thankful, or if not thankful, at least resigned to some tragedy they have endured, or some calamity they are facing. Poppycock. God does not will us to suffer. Suffering happens. It seems to be an integral part of our mortal lives. Just as there is darkness and light, joy and sorrow, life and death, salt and pepper... there are variations in our physical and emotional experiences and responses that go hand in hand with the whole mystery of being.

This is, perhaps, my biggest beef with the Old Testament... that strong image of God as jealous and wrathful and punishing... that He gets mad at us and makes us pay. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." And when I die I may very well find out that parts of that are true, but for this mortal life, the idea gives me no comfort, no reason to love, and certainly no reason to worship such a small-minded, hateful deity.

We can offer thanks to God, not for being the cause of our troubles, but for being the promise beyond our troubles. Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The dreaded "m" word

What are those things? some might ask, and some will know only too well. For the uninitiated, they're stickers, band aids, attractive little markers that point out to the lab technician just where the nipple is when she views the indescript area of flattened tissue on her film.

"Just remember, the more compression, the better the image" said my technician as she began the smashing process. A few minutes earlier she had yelled down the hall "I only need the small plates!" (Thank you so much for announcing my shortcomings to the entire staff of Westside Radiology.)

Most of the time I'm glad I was born a girl. One of the things that does not make me glad is my doctor's insistance on yearly mammograms. My daughter-in-law just sent me this joke... a list of exercises... any of which will prepare you for the exam:

1. Open the refrigerator door and insert one breast in door. Shut the door as hard as possible and lean on the door for good measure. Hold that position for five seconds. Repeat again in case the first time wasn't effective.

2. Visit your garage at 3 AM when the temperature of the cement floor is just perfect. Take off all your clothes and lie comfortably on the floor with one breast wedged under the rear tire of the car. Ask a friend to slowly back the car up until your breast is sufficiently flattened and chilled. Turn over and repeat with the other breast.

3. Freeze two metal bookends overnight. Strip to the waist. Invite a stranger into the room. Press the bookends against one of your breasts. Smash the bookends together as hard as you can. Set up an appointment with the stranger to meet next year and do it again.

A couple of weeks ago was my turn to have the car backed up so I too could be "sufficiently flattened and chilled." We can put a man on the moon but we can't find a better way to check for breast cancer?