Monday, September 29, 2008

on your mark... get set...

When I was little I remember using a variety of procrastinating mantras... all were supposed to be preparing me for whatever I was about to do next. "On your mark, get set, go!" was from track (I think) and of course I never ran a single loop of track in my life. It's probably not even called a loop.

Another was: One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four - to - go! I liked that, you could drag out the inevitable for a long time with that.
The operative word, of course,  was... go

I'm getting ready to go. I leave for the airport tomorrow at oh-dark-thirty, and I'm going through all the preparatory motions of a lifetime of admonitions... don't leave home without clean underwear, don't take a long trip without cleaning your baseboards, never leave dirty dishes in the sink... 

In mid-life I turned those rulings into an art form. I would wash and iron everything I owned and hang it all neatly in the closet. It took days and often a very long night before I could finally pack what I was actually taking with me and leave home. I'm not as compulsive now, but I still have the last load of clothes in the dryer as I write this. Of course I don't have so many clothes now.

My dear friend's daughter is getting married in Florida. My younger son and his family lives in the same city. My times there are always too short, but this time, especially, it will be hard. I'll be gone less than a week this time, and the "wedding of the century" (as it's been dubbed by friends) will take up a lot of that time. I've not seen my grandchildren in almost a year... but I will see them soon.

I have recently acquired eleven boxes of odds and ends, mostly books, from my life before the convent. All the kitchen things have been integrated into our convent or taken to the church pantry where I work. The books are a work in progress... our librarian is sorting through them to select what she wants for the library, the arts and craft books will go to the art room. But some are design and symbol resources, collected over a lifetime, and they are still in my office on a shelf near the computer. Mine!!!! I have to laugh at this reaction, because it's certainly not new. Even though I lived without these resources for six years, I find I still want them for myself. This too shall pass. My suitcase is full, not with my clothes, but with presents for family and friends... from this new hoard of goodies I'd forgotten I even had. It's so much easier to let go of those things. Just not the art resources.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

set up

(Matthew 20:1-16) Our celebrant reminded us this morning, that any time we hear Jesus saying "The kingdom of heaven is like..." (fill in the blank), he really means: this is what the world would be like, our world, if we acted according to God's purpose and not our own. And Jesus' mission, he said, was to bring God's kingdom to earth.

I always feel a little differently about that. Whenever I hear Jesus say "The kingdom of heaven is like..." I know to look out, because he's going to say something that makes no sense, does not seem fair, and will take me a whole lot of contemplation to finally get it. If I ever do finally get it.

Today's Gospel is a prime example. The vineyard manager goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers. After a bit, he sees he needs more help so he goes looking, and hires a few more. And again, and again throughout the day, right up until an hour before quitting time, he hires the last ones he can find. So far so good.

Then he sets them up. Really. He deliberately sets them up, calling them in reverse order to be paid. No sealed envelopes in this company, everybody gets to see what everybody else gets paid. Well look at that! Those guys who only worked one hour just got an entire day's wages. Wahoo! Whoopie! We're gonna get a bonus, nyah nyah nyah..

Only that doesn't happen. The final payout for everybody is one day's pay. Grumble, grumble, grumble. So what's with this? You give those slackers the same as us? And the vineyard owner says, "What? I can't do what I like with what belongs to me? You feel cheated? We contracted for a day's wage for a day's work. That's what you got. Take your money and scram."

Then he proceeds to rub salt on the wound by saying "Maybe you're just jealous because I'm generous." Okay. Intellectually I get it. His money, he can do what he wants. And if I had been one of the five o'clock workers I'd be ecstatic. Maybe feel a little guilty about the other guys with the sunburns, but nevertheless ecstatic.

But what about the dawn workers? I think they have a legitimate gripe. If they had been paid first and sent home none the wiser, wouldn't that have been easier to swallow? Of course word would have spread, but it's going to spread now anyway. 

With my protestant-work-ethic-mentality, all I can think is if I can sleep til noon and I'll still be paid for the whole day, why should I kill myself to get there on time?

Our celebrant told a story from his own experience that helped with an answer. When he first came to New York, he had seen men early in the morning, waiting... They were mostly immigrants, day laborers, waiting for construction foremen to come by in their trucks. A truck would pull up and the driver would roll down his window and hold up two or three fingers, to indicate how many workers he needed. The men would start running. The first ones to the truck were the ones who got the jobs. Jobs were scarce. These men had families to feed. They could not afford to be picky, or late, or slow to move. 

That's a good point. If the whole story is a metaphor for God's abundant grace... and the emphasis is on grace, then none of us can afford to be picky. Or late. Or slow to move. Our souls are on the line. 

If the emphasis is on abundance, though, then gratitude is the only appropriate response. I may have been up since dawn today, but there were times when I grossly overslept. I cannot begrudge another that same grace.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

curve balls

I remember as my mother got older, she would need more time to get herself ready in the morning, more notice when something out of her normal routine would occur. I used to think it was funny. At the time, I could still be ready for work in twenty minutes, and would change plans at the drop of a hat, especially a beach hat.

But now that I live with so many older sisters, I see what a curve ball does to their psyches... it just upends them when something unexpected interrupts their schedule. One of our priests will be moving to Canada soon. One of our older sisters is from Canada, and this morning when he announced at mass that it might be his last time with us, he asked to see her before he left. (She often sleeps late and was not in chapel at the time.)

Simple request, especially since she actually was up when I went to check. But she was not dressed, and could not even contemplate getting dressed at that moment. She didn't want him to see her in a bathrobe, so... the answer was no. 

He understood, because he has his own family Alzheimer situation, but I realized how careful we must all be now... not to promise anything that may seem reasonable to us, but will not be possible for the elders to accommodate.

On the other hand, the two of us who are the "responsible ones" this week, are experiencing our own curve balls. First it was the phone system... down. DSL... down. That's finally been fixed. Our Home Health Aid, who helps with both of the two eldest, will be taking one to the doctor, so we'll have to be more vigilant about the other who will be left unattended. I'm on beeper this week, which means I'm not supposed to leave the house,  but I also must pick up milk and eggs from the Farmer's Market and our CSA share. Sister has three directees and I have one, a new one... and I'm supper cook.  We will be running on empty by nightfall.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How many times?

(Matthew 18:21-35) This is the parable about forgiveness. Peter asks Jesus how many times must we forgive someone who hurts us? Seven? And... (depending on which translation you read,) the answer is either seventy-seven or seventy times seven,  which would be four hundred and ninety. Either way, the answer certainly implies a bunch of times. That goes against the grain in our society. Someone who keeps forgiving and forgiving and forgiving is usually seen as a pushover. There's an expression: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me. That puts the burden on the victim to make sure the consequences fit the offense... an eye for an eye and all that.

But today's Gospel has left a bitter taste in my mouth for other reasons. Ever since I participated in a Bible study class in my early years as a novice, I've had doubts that Jesus actually said this.( Not the part about seven times seventy, but the part about the king going back on his word and tossing the "wicked slave" into the torture chamber.

Here's why: One of our group posed the question: If the human king in this parable is the stand-in for God, and God can just take back his forgiveness in anger... where does that leave us? I'd never thought of it that way. I'd always thought it was just a story, an object lesson, like my Nana would say the boogyman would get me if I didn't behave. You don't forgive your neighbor and God will get you.

But her question brought up a lot of discussion at the time. In this particular story, the king has already forgiven the first slave his debt. Period. It's only when the other slaves turn him in for not forgiving his own debtor that the king goes berserk and has a hissy-fit... puts all the debt back and sends him to be tortured until he can pay it. This is nonsensical. If the man is in the torture chamber, he's not going to be working off his debt. It's vindictive. Is our God vindictive?

Our celebrant this morning took a different tack. He opened with the acknowledgement that some things are easy to forgive and other things really test us. As he spoke, I thought of all the people who lost friends or family members on 9/11/2001. How each anniversary brings it up all over again... the pain, the loss. Some have been able to forgive, some may never be able to.

He spoke of "the grim burden of not being able to forgive" and I thought of the expression "carry a grudge" in light of his words grim burden. Of course. We carry it. The torture chamber is one of our own making, even though in the parable the king imposes it as a penalty. Perhaps the penalty has always been in place as part of the human condition, and until we can learn the simple but maddeningly difficult lesson, we will continue to blame and accuse and expect payback. And, when it is not forthcoming we will live tortured lives. And even if there is payback... the death penalty for murder, for example... it will never be enough. An eye for an eye never replaces the first eye.

But he went on... "We should always be forgiving," he said, "because we are always in need of forgiveness." Now that's different. Way different. It's different  because it comes from the heart of who we are, no matter how wonderful we'd like to be. And it's is not a threat from a vengeful God, it's a statement of compassion and hope, instructions from a God who wants to help.

Forgive, not because we have been forgiven, but because we'll need to be forgiven. And soon. He asked just how high each of us rated forgiveness. As compared with justice in a world full with violence and evil. That's a sticky one. Both are two sides of the same coin if we are to improve the human condition globally. But our celebrant believes that forgiveness is central to all of it. I agree. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Memorial

I have a friend who's writing a book about 9/11. Well, I'm not exactly sure it's about 9/11, but it's about depression in the aftermath of great disasters, and she saw a lot of depressed people in the aftermath of that one. She was my spiritual director at the time, and we met every month. 

It's been seven years today. I can still remember where I was and what I was doing when I was rocked by the news. I say rocked in retrospect. At the time I was calm. I am usually calm in crisis situations and only fall apart later. 

The problem with my reaction to 9/11 was I could never fall apart... not in the weeks or months that followed, not when I was finally forced to go down there and look at the big hole in the ground, still smoking. I felt something... horror, I think, when I saw scraps of paper still clinging to fire escapes east of Ground Zero, months after the attack. Last year I actually contributed to another friend's art project with that image... the view of a fire escape from below, with a scrap of debris, the actual debris, hanging from one of the rungs.

Seven years and I am finally beginning to feel something. 

I'm almost finished with the book Three Cups of Tea. If you haven't read it yet, (It's been on the Best Seller List, for goodness sake!) It's about one man's passion to bring education to the poorest and most remote villages of Pakistan. Greg Mortenson was in Pakistan when the towers fell. He'd been traveling to and from there for years, building schools one village at a time. He had first hand knowledge that it was not Muslims, nor the people of those countries who were the extremists who had done this.

I was sickened by a lot of what happened after 9/11... fundamentalists crying Armageddon, politicians swooping down on New York City, suddenly their city, to wave the flag, promise retaliation and justice for this heinous crime against our people. I couldn't help thinking: what about our own crimes against the marginalized people of the planet? Wasn't this act of deliberate destruction a symbol that we were not especially innocent? That somebody felt they needed to get our attention regarding our increasing wealth and comfort at everybody else's expense? But that was certainly not a popular opinion then, and is still not. This is America: Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

Except it's the white race that's been free and the other races expected to be brave. For the first time in history a black man has the opportunity to become president. If some crackpot doesn't try to kill him. Crackpots abound. They do not all wear turbans.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

not now and not me

...Moses said to God, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"
and then again: "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" (from Exodus 3:1-15)

Our celebrant reminded us this morning that the whole idea of meeting God face-to-face is not necessarily the pleasant and profoundly uplifting exchange we (naively) think it will be. No, she said, encounters with God happen in unexpected places, at unusual times and in odd ways. The story of Moses and the burning bush can be a paradigm for us: God's will for Moses was not an easy job. And Moses' conversation with God was mostly argument. I think of the line in the Lord's Prayer Thy will be done and my own subsequent response, just not right now, and just not by me

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 12:26) Jesus tells his disciples the hard truth about discipleship: What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? In most of the versions the word soul is used; in some it's substituted by life, meaning the true life. In the Contemporary English Version it says: What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself? 

Your soul, your life, your self... these are called forth in encounters with God. Difficult. Uncomfortable. Because God recognizes qualities in us that we cannot recognize. Don't especially want to recognize. Whoever thinks that believing in God is the easy way out of this life is mistaken. But definitely worth the effort.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Book Review

I'm reading a book called 36-Hour Day. Called "the definitive guide to Alzheimer's", it should probably be required reading for all baby-boomers, and their children who will end up watching them deteriorate. It's actually fascinating reading... not only because it helps me understand the odd behaviors of my aging sisters, but also because I recognize myself in the early stages of this process, even though I still function on a reasonably high level. I forget things now. I have to use spellcheck more often. It takes me longer to learn a new task, and I do things on my computer the way I've always done them, not because I can't learn new key commands, but because there's a certain satisfaction in going up to the menu and clicking "save".

I still say Alzheimer's, even though the official designation is Alzheimer Disease (without the 's). I learned Alzheimer's. It would take a lot of energy to learn it without the 's.

There's a cultural more in religious communities that explains why we do certain things the way we do: Because we've always done it that way. It confounds new sisters testing their vocations. They think it's a joke. But it is and it isn't. They cannot understand the stubbornness with which the community expects certain duties and tasks to be performed, certain rituals to be observed.

When this culture clash occurs (and it always does in some form or another) the new recruit will respond in a number of different ways: She gets angry. She argues that there is a better way. She argues that it doesn't matter. She tries to change the community's perception of how it should be done. She does it her own way in spite of the conflict. She does it the community's way but resents the hell out of it. She learns the value of doing it the way we've always done it.

Getting to that final stage... acceptance is one of the necessary steps in a sister's vocational test. Her ego must surrender to the community's established way of life. Many cannot make the leap. It's just too counter-intuitive for a normal 21st-century-conditioned woman.

With our elders, we see them less distracted and upset when they can continue to do things the way they've always done them. There's a certain security in recognizing a cup on the bathroom shelf where it's always been placed. Routine and ritual take on new meaning. The book explains all that. I recommend it.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

toot toot

It's been so long since my last cartoon post (way back in January I think) so I feel the need to let those readers who used to visit that site, know that the boys are back.

If you liked the first two series, you might like the third. (Nothing like tooting my own horn.)

Monday, September 01, 2008

what goes around...

My best friend is leaving town in less than a month. She's moving across country to San Francisco, a place I once thought I would be moving to... I was going there to live with a boyfriend. (Who actually turned out to be married.) I didn't move there after all. 

I've visited, though. It's beautiful. Just like my friend. As much as I will miss her, I am so happy for her. She's going to a new job, where it looks like they might actually appreciate her, unlike the sorry excuse for a boss she has now. She has slaved for this guy for years... saved his carcass on many occasions, made him look good to the board of directors, to his constituents and colleagues, to the public and has he ever shown her one tenth of the respect or acclaim she deserves? Of course not. 

She is too capable and even-tempered to be a prima donna, too much of a self-starter and a problem-solver to be a squeaky wheel, has too much dignity to play into his stupid political power ploys. And... in our society it's easy to take advantage of honest, hard-working loyal employees. He did.

But that scenario is about to change. What goes around comes around.

So... Best wishes, bon voyage, good luck and happy trails... I hope I can come visit you in your new digs by the Bay...