Thursday, October 23, 2008

quotes that cut the mustard

"And when we would make much of that which cannot matter much to thee, forgive us." ~John Elbridge Hines

I came across this quote in one of Bishop Spong's newsletters. Somehow I got on his mailing list even though I have yet to read any of his books. We just acquired Jesus for the Non-Religious for our library, but another sister has been hogging it is still reading it.

A conversation earlier this morning caused this quote to jump out at me. (Really jump out.) Judgment is probably my worst stumbling block in my personal search for compassion. I realize I'm not alone in this, that I was taught from childhood that judgment was a good thing: it was how I compared myself to those around me, to what was expected of me, to what I expected of others... a simple formula to see how we all were doing.

But as I deepen into this new life, I keep finding that judgment, in and of itself, is like quick sand: You step in it and it's not that easy to step out.

What really matters to God? Does God really care that the Epistle candle be lighted first and snuffed out last? I was taught that those little details were important when I was trained to be the sacristan. When I see someone doing it backwards, or snuffing the candles one-handed while they reach for the books on the altar with the other hand, my first response is irritation, not gratitude. I do not think, "Oh thank you for putting out the candles," I think, "You are doing it wrong."

I am working on this, but it can't be from the outside in. Nothing will change if I continue to judge myself as wrong for judging someone else as wrong. It doesn't work that way. Forgiveness is the key. And as I am finding out, again and again... it has always been the key, will always be the key. So, thanks, Bishop Hines. (If you've not heard of him, he was Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1965 to 1974, championing ecumenical and civil rights changes, and women's ordination, to name a few.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

profound platitudes...

"The hurrier I go, the behinder I get." Someone said that in conversation the other evening, and I had to smile. I don't remember the first time I heard the expression, but it stuck with me, the way an irritating jingle from some old commercial will pop into your mind... and stick there. forever.

It doesn't fit me exactly (at least not right at the moment.) I'm treading water pretty well. Every so often I gulp a mouthful, but for the most part I'm still breathing. Still there are lots of things I'd like to do that there's no time for, and lots of things I'd like to do that I'm carefully carving out time for. Balance never was my forté and probably never will be, but with the help of a daily "To Do" list and a schedule that allows for small blocks of time between prayers, cooking, doorbell, and my work outside, I'm managing. I'd like to write more often, but am finding I have less to say, or at least not enough time to say it properly.

I was at a friend's profession Friday night. She and I actually joined this community as postulants together and we were comrades/combatants our first year. We were clothed in the same ceremony and then split up for three months when I went off to Wyoming on a special project. When I returned, we had a few more months together, but then she left us and went to another order. This happens a lot in the religious life. People move around. A Vocation is not just a call to serve God, it is a call to a specific community, and that's not as easy to discern as the God-wants-you part.

My friend and I have kept in touch sporadically, which isn't always easy either. She has her life and I have mine, but for the big celebrations it's always important to be there, for each other, as a witness to friendship, to commitment, to celebrate the joy of new directions and new growth.

The best laid plans of mice and men... another expression that sticks, and in the case of her Profession ceremony, was definitely on target. A traffic accident in the city caused two (of an expected three) associates-to-be to be stranded somewhere on the highway, so they missed their reception ceremony. The one who showed up was received. The next plan-gone-awry occurred when the preacher was likewise lost in transit, and the Gospelor was asked to preach an impromptu homily. He did an admirable job, reminding us that God is spontaneous, and probably not nearly as serious as we package Him... that we should be more playful when we approach our lives of service, because a sense of humor will get us through a lot. The evening's lesson from Ezekiel concerning the water flowing from the temple was a case in point: he explained that in the desert, water is power. But if we think of water instead as blessing, a blessing for all, not just those in control of the resource, we will approach our ministries in a whole new way. He spoke of my friend as a wonderful reminder to him that God is playful, and urged her to continue to remind us of that truth.

The service moved along and we were just starting communion, when the preacher arrived. My friend stepped out in front of the altar and said, "Wouldn't it be playful... if we heard two sermons tonight?" Everyone laughed. And so we did. Finally at the end, one of the other associates-to-be had also arrived, so we went through the reception ceremony again at the end of the service.

Spontaneity. They lived it Friday night and it was a blessing and a reminder to me. So much so, that when another friend, who lives with my sisters up in Brewster, asked me to ride back to their convent instead of staying overnight, I said yes... and surprised them with an impromptu visit.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hard lessons

Last Sunday I attended mass at my old church in Jacksonville, Florida. The new rector, who I'd just met two days before at the rehearsal dinner, sidled up to me and said "I don't really like today's lessons. Why don't you preach the sermon?" I laughed. I actually hadn't read Sunday's lessons yet, so I was curious to hear them, and then to see how he preached them. 

Ah yes ... the vineyard owner, both versions: the original from Isaiah, and the one Jesus told as a parable. It's always good to hear his source material in context with the Gospel reading. I often forget Jesus drew from Torah for many of his stories. He didn't operate in a holy vacuum, making up everything he said from scratch.

The preacher began by talking about prescription drugs and their possible side effects... how Madison Avenue has made a killing with advertising for prescription medications of all kinds, (not just the ones to enhance your physical abilities in bed.) The theory is you'll go to your doctor and ask for the drug. If the doctor prescribes it, then you'll also get a large piece of paper with all the possible side effects: nausea, headache, diarrhea (he didn't use that word) and muscle pain. It comes down to the fact that you're betting that the meds will do their job without you having to deal with the side effects. His analogy was that everything in the lessons for Sunday dealt with choice and the side effects of those choices.

In the Isaiah vineyard story God built, planted and took great care to tend His vineyard. But instead of getting a nice crop of grapes, he got sour ones. In that version it's clear that Israel, the people, are the grapes. They've entered into a relationship with God based on a covenant, where both parties have made promises, have responsibilities. God keeps His side of the covenant and expects His people to keep theirs. But they don't. Instead they are wild grapes, a people who rebel and don't honor the relationship.

While the imagery is the same for the Gospel, it's now a case of vineyard owner versus tenants. Still, there's the underlying idea of covenant: it's his vineyard after all, and the owner expects to collect his share of the harvest. But... when he sends his servants to collect, the tenants beat them up, and some servants are actually killed. After all this, the owner says to himself, "I'll send my son. Surely they will respect him." But they don't.

Let me stop right here and spin off on a tangent. Am I the only person who's ever thought the owner is naive? These tenants have just killed his servants. He did nothing. They think the place is theirs. Why would they even hesitate to kill the son? I must be missing something historical, contextual, huge... because I don't get it. 

Except of course, I do. 

The analogy that God is patient and forgiving and loving and full of mercy, giving us the benefit of the doubt time after time is clear. But both these lessons have a warning. In both these stories, there's an end to the mercy. In the first, the vineyard is trashed and allowed to be overrun with weeds. In the second, it will be given to new tenants. In the early Christian movement, they probably thought they were the new tenants. A lot of us probably still think that's the case. But the truth remains that Christians behave with the same rebelliousness, greed and self-absorption as Israel did in Isaiah's time.

Our priest said, "These are hard lessons." 

Why? Well, first of all nobody likes to admit guilt. "Not my responsibility" or "I didn't know." are two of the standard excuses when a catastrophe occurs. Take your pick... the latest debacle on Wall Street will do. "I'm not greedy like those guys. I'm just trying to get along in this dog-eat-dog world, make a decent living, give my kids a better life." 

Except... we've all bought into some pretty lame substitutes for a better life. Our kids sit in front of TVs that tell them they'll be prettier, more popular more in... with anything and everything from designer jeans to the latest Barbie, and adults will be happier, more attractive, more successful... with a bigger house, a cushier car and prescription drugs to enhance our physical abilities in bed. We didn't have to buy that story. But we all did (and do) to some degree. So here come the side effects.

"The Kingdom of God will be taken away and given to others." In our day and age, how does that work? On Sunday, the priest had his own idea about how it happens. He thinks it won't be a drastic thing... more like erosion. Certain things lapse and ethics become lax. He wondered aloud how many people ask themselves "What does God want from me?" rather than "What do I want?" Not so many. I know that even in the convent it's an issue. We, who have given our lives to God are still plagued with the "I wants" instead of the "God wants" or even worse, we pretend that God wants what we want. 

And yet, in times of disaster, it seems to me easier to hear the hard lessons, to swallow the medicine that will make us well again. We are a greedy people. Yet when that greed is paying off, who wants to hear it's wrong? Only when the house of cards begins to tumble do we buck up and get clear about our priorities. Maybe now is the best time to hear these lessons.

Monday, October 06, 2008

coming home

They say you can never come home. Depends on how you define "home". I've had many homes in my lifetime and some were harder to come back to than others. 

My home now is the convent. But that's not exactly accurate... my home now is a group of women who have chosen a life that's off the beaten path... a much simpler way of living than what I've found on this vacation. 

Specifically I'm referring to the act of living and moving and being in a complicated world. My world now is way less complicated than it was before, not just in not having to decide what to wear in the morning, but in the intangible emotional choices. 

I find I can no longer hold together the various strands of subtle innuendos and personality quirks, hostile grudges from past wounds, constant struggles to carry (and manage) the baggage of childhood. I say the wrong things in the wrong places. (Well, actually that's not new for me.) But it's different now, because for the most part, it's unwillingly and unwittingly done. 

The women I live with have quirks in their personalities, of course. But we are more transparent. In the convent there's no need to posture or impress, no need for lots of words to describe the indescribable... and as a result, there's no need to posture or impress the outside world either.

So, for the most part, I have little or nothing to say. Except when I open my mouth to make an observation... and experience the backlash that it was the wrong thing at the wrong place and the wrong time. Then I'm awash in guilt for not knowing better, not remembering some topic was taboo ground, not discerning that one person needs assurance, while another needs to hear a truth nobody else will tell them. It's a complicated world and I no longer live in it.

So... I'm at the airport, waiting for my flight to my less complicated world. They have free wireless in this airport, and I'm taking advantage of the novelty of being plugged into my email (and the internet) in a public place. I've just experienced a hectic week of wedding preparations... parties and receptions and rehearsal dinners, the wedding itself, and the reception and another party yesterday. Each individual event was carefully planned and lovingly executed, the bride and groom are delightful people with a wonderful array of friends and family. But when you put all those events and people together, it was exhausting. 

This coming week I'll be doing some of it all over again as my sisters and I prepare for another Life Profession next Saturday. Not so many parties, but certainly the excitement of the preparations will be the same. They've just announced my flight has been delayed another hour. More time to enjoy the novelty of free internet and airport cuisine.