Monday, June 30, 2008

good questions

Our celebrant yesterday always says something to trigger my own questions, my own issues with this religion I profess to love, and have supposedly devoted my life to. She's the chaplain for a prestigious New York University and I suspect her students have plenty of questions of their own to trigger her own internal debate.

Yesterday's readings alone are enough to put a damper on anyone's admiration of a God who asks the impossible... just to test us? I always go back to my own deep-seated belief that I agreed to whatever tests I have to take before I was even born... that God and I sat down and had a conversation and what happens in this life is a result of that conversation and those agreements. (It may be fairy-tale thinking, but it works for me.)

In the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 22:1-14) poor Abraham, after proving several times that he was willing to obey God's outlandish directions, was asked to kill his only remaining child. He'd already thrown out his first-born... left him and his mother to fend for themselves in the desert... Now, God says, "Go kill the only one left, the child of your heart, the promise for your future generations." God does not say: "this is a test, this is a drill, you will be graded on your response." Besides, you have to wonder just how traumatized Isaac was after being tied up, laid on a stack of wood, seeing a knife in his father's hand. "Hey Mom, guess what Dad tried to do to me while we were away!"

And then there's Pauls letter to the Romans: (Romans 6:12-23) He's going on and on about the tremendous difference between being a slave to sin and a slave to obedience. Hey, either way, it's still slavery.

Last, there's the Gospel of Matthew... (Matthew 10:40-42) the end of the passage where Jesus has come to bring the sword and not peace... trying to get some justice into mix. If you do these things you will be rewarded... give a little child a drink of water, for one thing. For most of us that sounds pretty reasonable. In America we carry our bottled water everywhere, whether we buy it new or keep refilling from the tap. In backpacks and purses, you see water bottles of every shape and size.

But in Jesus' time and place, our celebrant explained how outrageous a command that might be. In the desert "Water is Life and Life is Water." In the culture of the day, water was scarce, and only the strong and the useful were allowed just enough to survive. There was no concern with so many ounces a day to promote good hydration and regular bowel movements. You got just enough, no more. Children and the elderly did not work, could not carry heavy loads; they were disposable because they were not useful. It was not cruelty that prompted this outlook, it was survival.

So for Jesus to suggest that you pour out your precious water by the cupful for a child was just as outlandish as God's command to Abraham. (Like Father, like Son.)

In closing, she asked us the exact same question that our celebrant of a week ago asked: What is the Scripture saying to us NOW? What does Christ call us to know/to do in this generation? Knowing the context of the words does help us to make better sense of what was written and why. Knowing that child sacrifice was a common practice in Abraham's time helps us understand that the need for this kind of sacrifice was being overturned, not promoted. Knowing that slavery was a normal part of life in Paul's time helps us understand his language. Understanding that water was more precious than gold helps us understand how important it was to Jesus that a new kind of justice be understood.

But we can't leave it there. What is the Scripture saying to us NOW? What does it mean to us? How will we change because of any new meaning we take away? She gave an example: the things/people we thought were disposable are precious to God. Another thought: The culture of sacrifice is alive and well even now. Scapegoats abound in every walk of life. Why is that? And if it is a part of the nature of God, what must we give up? Perhaps it is only our idols we must abandon? And if so... what are our idols?

As always... good questions. Need time and meditation to grasp the answers.

Monday, June 23, 2008

total mentality

Today is my day off. I slept til almost noon. That is to say I slept off and on. Construction across the street begins early every morning. Last Monday one of those huge dump trucks began backing into place at 6:15... beep! beep! beep! That was it. I was up by 6:30. (Some day off.) But today it was already 7:20 before the clattering and pounding and beep beeping made its way into my consciousness. I pulled the pillow over my head and went back to sleep. Off and on.

Yesterday was a great day. My friend, the deacon's lovely daughter was married in the late afternoon and a huge gala reception was staged later in the evening at Chelsea Piers. It's been a while since I've been to a wedding, and I guess this was my first as a nun. There's not much difference... all the same smiles and tears for all the same reasons. The bride was resplendent and her mom and dad glowed with pride and joy. They have a wide and wonderful circle of friends and it was nice to reunite with people I haven't seen in a long time.

The posh reception was something else. I can't remember ever seeing (or eating) so much food in one place. First there were the appetizers... crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, chicken tidbits, watermelon dominoes, wine and beer and mixed drinks of all kinds. But wait, there's more... there were buffet tables with full-course-mini-meals... lamb, seafood risotto, salads and condiments... and the Asian buffets... dumplings, chicken katsu, beef and rice dishes and those styrofoam looking chips... I am a such a sucker for hors d'oeuvres. Even though I was warned that this was only the beginning, that a full sit-down dinner would follow... I ate everything I was offered. Yum. We were assigned tables and once the curtains were pulled and we were invited in, I found I was seated with a table full of friends... some I already knew, some I was just meeting. Music with a definite Latin flavor rocked the room and all those youngsters with all that energy to dance all night were out there in the thick of it.

Each place setting was surrounded by glasses... white wine glass, red wine glass, water goblet, champagne flute... and so many knives and forks and spoons that would have unnerved the most sophisticated diner. But everyone was relaxed and in a mood to party, not to notice who was using what utensil for which course. Except the wait staff. They carefully (and precisely) refolded each and every napkin that had been slung aside as people stopped mid-course and made their way to the dance floor. They continued to do this over and over again, all night. It made me laugh. it reminded me of myself... so persnickety about lining up the water glasses in the cupboard by glass shape and size. Even if another sister has already put the glasses away, I will stop and rearrange them in order. "I definitely have wait staff mentality," I thought to myself.

But not totally. A priest friend on my right, had arrived too late for the hors d'oeuvres. When the first course was served... delicate spring rolls with a mysterious contents that looked and tasted a bit like ham salad, (later we found out it was raw tuna) we gobbled them down in seconds. She was still hungry. So was I. An adjacent table was missing four of its occupants... I just exchanged our plates with two of the no shows. "I'm a nun. It's okay if I do this," I told the folks sitting there. They laughed. Did I mention that the attentive wait staff was also refilling our wine glasses every two minutes? I have no idea how much wine I actually consumed... it's hard to keep up when you take a swallow, look again, and your glass is still full.

By dessert you'd have thought I'd have been stuffed. Not on your life. Four more people at our own table left early so I did the plate shuffle once again for my friend and me... Hey! mini chocolate soufflés with almond ice cream on the side. Who can resist hot and cold together? Not me. Besides, the food was already paid for. I figure we were simply making sure our friend got his money's worth. "I definitely have a thief's mentality," I thought.

Close to midnight the party was still going strong, but my Cinderella genes were warning "pumpkin" so my priest friend and I said our goodbyes and best wishes. With the blessing of the father of the bride we each snagged a centerpiece from two of the empty tables and walked out boldly carrying our spoils. What a hoot. A priest and a nun copping the flowers at our best friend's daughter's wedding. On my way home a homeless man hollered at me. "Sister! How did you know I needed some flowers?" I handed him one. "Just lucky, I guess." And smiled. All the way home.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Here's the deal...

This post is prompted by the sweet anonymous comment of a day or two ago, but even my daughter-in-law sent an email checking on me. Thank you both. I'm here. I'm okay. (Relatively.) I've not posted for several reasons... nothing to say, or... too tired to say it... or too tired to say it without hurting somebody's feelings. I've been told a war with too many fronts is destined for failure. Well, I'd say any war is destined for failure, but I understand the point because that's what's going on in my life at the moment.

First, (and these are in no special order) there's the monotony of same-old, same-old... which plagues everyone from time to time, but especially religious. They even have a name for it: acedia, from the Greek akēdeia meaning indifference. Another way to put it: Spiritual torpor and apathy; ennui.. or to be even more judgmental: sloth, one of the seven deadly sins.

Second, there's the non-stop geriatric-zoo-syndrome which is getting to the few of us who still have functioning brains. There are the "walker wars" (yet another example of a war nobody can win) and the elevator was put out of commission last week when the door was derailed by two walkers trying to cram themselves into the space available for one. Of course that was right after mass and before breakfast, so the two of us who can climb stairs (holding a tray full of food) had to bring them their breakfasts in the library, while we waited for the repairman to arrive. Of course that's not nearly as bad as when the one sister "forgets" her walker altogether and hobbles down the hall on her own, careening off the walls. Please take your pills, sister. Where is your cane? No, today is not Wednesday. To make matters even more hilarious, our four older sisters just started their annual week-long silent retreat. Can they remember they are in silence? Do they care? What day is it?

Third is my new job. New jobs are, by their nature, stressful and tiring. Learning the ropes takes time and effort. To my chagrin and irritation, my typically fast learning curve is no longer that fast. Must be old age. Damn. (No wonder employers don't want to hire people in their sixties.) I am getting it, slowly, but it's also taking its toll on my already flagging energy.

And then... there are family matters which weigh on my heart but I cannot confront because I have no energy left to even begin the conversation about "what's wrong?" That limbo state weighs heavy too. I'm too tired to blog. (Except of course this morning... when an especially good sermon sparked the teensy weensy ember left smouldering in my heart.)

Hurling peace

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man's enemies will be the members of his own household. ~Matthew 10:34-36

In his sermon today, our celebrant used the words "not to hurl peace... but to hurl swords" I've just googled all the English versions available on Bible Gateway and couldn't find "hurl peace" anywhere. I found send peace, bring peace, put peace, and make life cozy, but no hurl peace. Our celebrant is a renown Bible scholar; I doubt he made it up, although he could have. It got my attention, (and not just for the multiple meanings of "hurl").

This is a tough passage for a lot of us. At Christmas we sing of Christ as the "Prince of Peace" and make much noise about "Peace on Earth, good will to everyone." Even Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers." Yet here he is, in Matthew's Gospel, saying that's not what he's about?

I love it when this particular preacher asks all the obvious questions and then comes up with the not-so-obvious answers. Well some are obvious, but most of his answers are too difficult to face much of the time. Today was no different. He first explained about context... that Matthew's Gospel was written in a period where the reality of being put to the sword was all-too-common for Christians. To the people of their day they were the lunatic fringe, subversives, a blasphemous sect, a bunch of crazies. They were hated by Orthodox Jews and pagans alike... for their abominations and mysterious superstitions. What we call today "deprogramming" back then meant death, not psychiatric counseling.

As Matthew's Gospel goes on to say in the following verses: He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. In the context of the times, to be a Christian required total commitment. There was no room for conflicting commitments to family, no compromise for someone looking to save his skin.

That was then; this is now. What about now? We are not now persecuted for our beliefs, and we bear the name of Christ without having to pick up his cross. In fact, many of us are quite reluctant to say we "stand with Christ" when it's politically offensive or personally inconvenient.

But the point was this: we (as Christians) are not supposed to be the ones hurling the sword. (Uh oh.) To stand with Christ means to be the victim as He was. (Double uh oh.) I think of 9/11... and our haste to wage war on someone... anyone so we could feel better about ourselves. The few lone voices of reason and compassion and desire for reconciliation were quickly shushed up in the headstrong rush for retaliation. We asked the wrong questions. We went to war for the wrong reasons and with the wrong people. We learned nothing.

Our celebrant concluded: "The Christian message is not to be advanced by killing, but by dying." How many Americans are willing to die? How many Christians world-wide are willing to die? I see plenty willing to kill.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

lines in the sand

"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" ~Matthew 9:11

Our celebrant this morning is not one of our Sunday "regulars". He's a Friday regular. In fact, he calls himself Fr. Friday and will celebrate every Friday he's in town if we let him. (We most always let him.) But since Sunday is unusual for him, I'd never actually heard him preach. His sermon focused on the upcoming Lambeth conference, and he interwove today's Gospel message with the unfortunate fact that many of the bishops are staying away for one reason or another... because they don't want to be associated with certain other bishops, or their constituents don't want them associating with them. At least one bishop wasn't even invited, so others who think that's just wrong are boycotting too. What a mess.

When I was a child my grandmother was worried I "would run with the wrong crowd" and thus "ruin my reputation". It was important to her to have a good reputation. "You should be polite, but don't mingle" was her general philosophy. So mostly I stuck with the right crowd.

When I arrived in college I met someone a bit like Jesus, who was good, honest, loving and quite undiscriminating about who he associated with. He could have cared less about his reputation. He was kind and open to everyone. I was in awe. You can do that? Wahoo! But I still played it pretty safe.

After my second divorce I spent a few years being with people who would be considered "sinners" by most standards. And I wasn't out to change them or heal them either. I was exploring sin, or rather... discovering for myself what really constitutes sin. I learned a lot. As Jesus said, it's not what you put into your mouth that defiles, it's what comes out of your mouth from your heart.

Our Anglican Communion is in a bind. Our bishops are in a bind. Bound by conflicting definitions of sin... and they have drawn their lines in the sand. Jesus drew in the sand, too, but not to condemn.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

what a concept...

The reality, of course, is that any time people gather to deal with life, especially suffering and unfairness, the context is profoundly religious and political. This is where God will be found, "working the crowd" of victims and mercy-givers, helping people to connect despite a world bent on division, helping God's beloved to see the holiness of life and to venture outside self-interest. —Tom Ehrich

I think this is a piece of the puzzle that many who have no faith in God (and many who profess faith in God) overlook in their understanding of the human connection to the sacred. "Religion" cannot be a title that means the same thing to all people, just as "mother" does not mean the same thing. I am a mother by definition, both by choice and accident, and I raised two sons who have differing views of the world and differing understandings of who I am... as their mother, as a nun, and as a female human being. My own definition of mother doesn't match theirs, either of myself or of my own mother. So what?

So nothing. Just an observation. Communication seems to be the major bugaboo in every relationship, whether person-to-person, group interaction, or conversations with and/or about God. Listening is more key than speaking, and many of us just won't make the effort to listen. It's too exhausting. It's too annoying. It's too easy to stay in our heads with our own interpretations of the perceived reality. It's one reason the internet and blogging are so popular... you can stay in your head, or hit delete, or make anonymous comments that further your agenda without any fallout. The internet, by that definition, is not an especially sacred space. There are sites devoted to prayer, to religious discussion and learning, of course, but in the end it is still one person browsing and gleaning, utilizing or pooh-poohing. Still, it's a start.

The kind of interaction Tom describes is a whole lot messier. People coming together to join forces for a purpose... whether for social justice, feeding the hungry, bringing aid to natural disaster victims... or running in a race to raise awareness about a particular disease. The agendas are many but they are set aside for the time it takes to get the job done. What a concept. How come we can't apply that to more of our activities?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

physician, heal thyself

"Telling other people how to live can be as intoxicating as leading an army into battle or basking in applause at a political rally." —Tom Ehrich

That's certainly one of the pitfalls of spiritual direction. Talking too much is another... that's one I battle with constantly. I see several people for spiritual direction now... it's one of our ministries here, especially in the city where there's easy access by mass transit. Our two oldest sisters did it for years, but they have pretty much retired and some of their directees were passed on to others. (Me included.)

Most directors come to the session with their calendars, and schedule the next month's appointment. In the beginning I just decided not to do that. "Call me (or email me) when you're ready to come again." I say. One reason is: that I think the spiritual journey is not as neat and timely as the calendar page, and I remember having to think things up to say to my own director. (Not that that's necessarily a bad thing... but it seems to me if you feel a need to talk, then that's the time to do it.) The other reason is selfish. I don't want to waste my own time listening to someone else trying to think something up to say to me. My time may be free, but it's valuable to me, and there are a gazillion other things I could be doing.

But back to Tom's quote. I was thinking about it in relation to the passage from Scripture about removing the log from your own eye before you point out the speck in the other person's. (Even though it always seems easier to see another person's situation more clearly.) But I was also thinking about it in relation to my dealings with another sister. I have a nasty habit of correcting her when she goofs up. She gave me information she thought would be helpful yesterday... information I was already aware of, because I had just finished doing the job. I snapped at her in a way that was totally unnecessary, telling her I already knew because I took that particular job seriously. The implication was, of course, that she did not.

Oh for heavens sake. What's that about? Well, partly it's about my evil "oneness"... expecting everyone to do things the right way, which of course, I always know how to do. Except when I don't. I don't know the right way to do my new job at the church. I constantly have to ask for assistance in the correct procedure for this form or that qualification, or some report I'm supposed to file. I'm so uncomfortable with not knowing what I'm doing, I come home with a headache every day I'm there. That will eventually even out, I think, but not before I've consumed a few bottles of Excedrin. But I digress. So... it's partly the oneness. But more than that, it's the hangover I feel which is the direct opposite of the intoxication Tom speaks about. I can't feel the buzz because this particular sister doesn't listen. Or... more correctly, she may listen, but she does it her own way anyway. Ha ha on me. I've been here before, haven't I?

As they said in my first year here, "welcome to community living."

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

sinking sand

Our celebrant Sunday had some interesting things to say about the lessons, and in particular about the sticky business of discerning God's will. "Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord... will enter the Kingdom..." —Matthew 7:21 He believed this passage was a warning to those of us who are really sure we are doing God's will. Because, as the song proclaims: it ain't necessarily so. He went on to quote Lao Tsu on the subject of emptiness... "that it is only the emptiness inside that makes a vessel useful, that's it's easier to carry an empty cup than one that is filled to the brim."

As he spoke, I immediately thought of one of our sisters who seems hell-bent on a path she truly believes God has chosen her for. Not all of us in the community agree that she has heard this call straight from God, some of us may even believe she has an unhealthy obsession about it. But we are not she. As our celebrant so eloquently said: Each of us is a unique and unrepeatable turn of God's creative love. We are not spiritual clones, and each sister must follow her heart and be true to her own understanding of God's will. The rest of us can only pray that if it turns out not to be (God's will or call) that she will not be left disillusioned and in pain. It has already been painful enough for us to allow her to follow this dream.

But it's so much easier to see what we perceive as the speck in someone else's eye, isn't it? I caught myself in the middle of my musings about her, and asked: What if this is about me? What things am I pursuing that I'm too cock-sure are from God, and not my own personal agenda?

Ouch. Too many answers to that one. My cartoons, for one thing. Even though I haven't drawn anything for ages doesn't mean they aren't on my list to start up again once we have a little more help around the place. I love thinking up humorous conversations between the three entities of the Trinity, drawing God with the shape and mind of an inquisitive child. But are these ideas from God? When I get on a creative roll with my cartoons, do I empty myself of all need for recognition, for applause at my witty little turns of phrase? No, I do not. I cannot wait to show them off. So what about that?

I've also been asked to serve as a spiritual advisor for the governing group for Cursillo in this diocese. Is that what God wants? Or is it a way for me to get out of the house once a month, or a way to make our community more visible to the larger church? And... is that a bad thing?

The next warning from Scripture was the familiar one about building your house on rock rather than sand. Our celebrant had a new twist to this passage. He had just recently buried a good friend and was freshly aware that everything we have from God is on loan. While we have the abundance of family, friendships and any material possessions, we must celebrate them and be thankful... but we cannot hang on to them. He likened the hanging on to a perceived identity to building a house on sinking sand. Of course.

Relaxing our hold on any and all things in life is a form of detachment often confused with not caring. Of course we care. But care and reliance are not the same thing. Reliance on God is the rock we must build on... and for that we must empty ourselves of everything else.

Monday, June 02, 2008

catching up

What has been done has been done... what has not been done has not been done... let it be.
That is, until tomorrow. (They don't mention that in the night prayers.)

Yesterday we celebrated Sr. Mary Christabel's 50th Anniversary of her Life Profession. Already overtaxed to our physical limits, we took on yet one more big bash... inviting the world to a little tea party yesterday afternoon. It was a lovely affair: all the Melrose sisters came, laden with a large crudité platter and little cucumber sandwiches. We had our own offerings already assembled: three more kinds of sandwiches, baby quiches, baked brie, champagne punch, and a large assortment of cookies and sweet things. A fair number of our guests stayed on for Evening Prayer and our little chapel swelled with music like we haven't heard since "the old days". To say Sister Mary Christabel is much beloved would be an understatement, and it was evident as many eyes misted on the final hymn... our "Life Profession" song.

Since we are short-handed these days, planning and preparations for much of what we do is left to the last minute. There was a time in my past life when this would have driven me up the wall. Now it just seems to be the way of life. Don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34) As with many of the familiar Bible quotations, that particular passage has taken on a whole new meaning.

Friday night and Saturday were my busiest days: a zillion baby quiches, preparing chicken salad, egg salad and cream cheese & olives for sandwiches... chopping, shopping, organizing, cleaning up. On Saturday I had some unexpected help all day (Thank you, Joanna), and as I look back I doubt I could have done it all alone.

I rally well in crisis situations; it's one of my strengths/weaknesses gifts/curses... there are always two sides of every coin. But I collapse hard after the big push. Today is Monday, our rest day. So why am I not resting?!?

Because what has not been done still needs to be done at some point, no matter what the prayer says. I missed my best friend's birthday yesterday. I have thank you notes to write, a grocery order to figure out, my to-do list from last week still has to-dos... my to-be-filed basket is overflowing...

All in all though, the undone things are few. I may take a walk, see a movie, even have a nap this afternoon. Tomorrow will be another difficult day. As Matthew and Scarlet both would say: I'll worry about that tomorrow.