Saturday, April 30, 2011

Oregon Associates Retreat 2011 #2

It's difficult to be a Christian. Looking up, down, out, in, looking at those we love and especially at those we don’t, looking at things ending and things beginning.

Nothing will get better for us until we embrace that difficulty and do the hard work of following Jesus through the specifics. To look for God in daily life, is to open the door, to step into the flood, to see what God sees, and then to decide whether to care. That decision to care or not is a defining moment of faith.

Take Morality For example: It’s sad: we live in immoral times. Not one of the Ten Commandments is widely in force. Graven images are common, especially in church. The Sabbath, no matter if yours is Saturday or Sunday… the Sabbath is the prime shopping day. Murder is carefully defined so we can allow for all kinds of ways to kill each other and still get away with it. And Coveting—well, that’s the heartbeat of advertising. Stealing and dishonoring are common. Bearing false witness is an Internet art form.

It would be funny except immorality hurts real people. At the level of an actual marriage among regular people, adultery can be devastating. Most marriages won't survive it.

And then there's money. We live some no-man’s land between grace and greed. No wonder Jesus told us to “love one another.” We can do it. I know Jesus' commandment – “love one another” – is within our power. We just aren’t very consistent.

Our Creed may encourage generalization, but the way Jesus taught suggests that "I believe in God" isn't enough. It needs to be, "I believe in God enough to submit my will to God today and to make this next decision with God in mind." Or, "I believe in Jesus and will follow his teachings and his model as I greet my family this morning, as I take my part in the workplace today and as I walk home tonight." I keep saying it. Faith is about specifics. It isn't enough to declare a general intention to be faithful. Faith manifests in specific decisions: Decisions about allocating time, managing money, responding to people, dealing with needs, monitoring our own personal morality.

Shallow religion is easy. Go to church, enjoy what you can, make a token commitment, keep your motor running. See God as a friend, Jesus as a kindly shepherd. Buy a cross, put a Bible on your desk.

Going deep in faith… changes everything.

Not only is it uncomfortable because A: we don’t like change, but B: because it takes way more effort and time. As God's fullness comes into view, the old ways of doing religion don’t work. Going deep in faith means that all those rich, deep and troubling nuances of Jesus become pretty disturbing. The real Jesus challenges us, holds us accountable, sets an impossibly high standard for ethical behavior. He demands openness and giving up of control. I don’t know about you, but that strikes terror in my heart.

Deep is dangerous. Shallow may be dull and lifeless, but it’s a whole lot safer. It takes trust to go deeper in faith.

Deep water happens everywhere, and our ability to swim in it comes and goes. We can be capable one minute and incapable the next. We make wise decisions, then dumb decisions. Not even the most perfect, seamless resume can hide the painful reality that we are flawed creatures. We hurt the ones we love, we squander opportunities, we fail.

Jesus told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” (Luke 13.6)

This is our relationship with God. Few of us, not even nuns, spend our days in fervent prayer. Even the most diligent Christians have jobs, families, duties as citizens. Most of us also treasure “down-time.” God knows we are distracted.

God waits in patience for us to remember who we are as children of God or, to use Luke's metaphor, as fig trees called to bear fruit. At some point, push comes to shove. We either live into our true identity or we slip into delusion and spiritual amnesia. We give or we take. We love or ignore. We serve others or serve ourselves. We bear the fruit that God created us to bear, or we take up space and yield nothing that is worthy.

At this point, to follow Jesus' parable, God makes one more attempt to get our attention. If that fails, God moves on. God doesn’t smite us, but God may lose hope in us. We have tried God's patience, and now God will turn to others. It would be a bleak moment when we realize God has finally stopped looking for us to bear fruit.

Jesus said, “So the owner said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'” (Luke 13.7)

Christian leaders were reshaping the reality of Jesus within years of his death, adapting his teachings to their own agenda, concocting words for him to have said, portraying God as whatever they wanted God to be. In their hands, Jesus went from anti-establishment prophet to ultra-establishment figurehead, from peacemaker to warrior, from subtle teacher of disconcerting parables to a partisan judge vowing death to the Church's enemies. The Jesus who loved everyone became filled with hatred, and his open circle became a closed hierarchy.

What, then, are we to make of a parable that portrays God as indignant and determined to hold creation accountable and Jesus as an advocate for patience – not infinite patience, but “one more year”?
If you visit ten different churches, you’ll hear ten different takes on this parable, each one tailored to its congregation. They will range from God's determination to hold us accountable to gentle images of an ever-patient friend.

On the one hand, Jesus' parables deliberately leave room for many different understandings.On the other, we need to hear what Jesus actually said. The distracted shouldn't listen for a God who waits patiently for them to pay attention. The prosperous shouldn't seek a God who rewards the elect. The oppressed need more than a God who is on their side.

At the center is the Jesus who actually was. When we find his authentic words, they sound like “tough love” in Luke's parable. God expects us to bear fruit. Jesus bargains for us, but only for another chance, not for a permanent exemption from accountability.

There is life in that reality. Only you can know where you stand in that cycle of patience and testing. But Jesus' parable assures us all that the moment of reckoning does happen. God comes “looking for fruit,” and either finds it or doesn't find it.

These may be harsh words this morning, but I think we need to be pushed and stretched. (Take exercise. I hate to exercise. I quit at the first sensation of "the burn," and as a result I just get flabbier.) If we consider the pain of growth wrong and blame and punish those who caused it, we make no difference.

If our faith makes no difference, what's the point?

Oregon Associates Retreat 2011 #1

The theme for our time together this weekend comes from a sermon I heard earlier this year. The jist was this: Through God’s abundance we’ve been given so much… and two hands to hold it.

We have received and can continue to receive every day, but only if our hands are empty. If our hands are still holding on for dear life to those blessings, there’s nowhere to put the new ones.

The message of Jesus never much emphasized the receiving part… but he always spoke to the giving part. So we must learn to let go, to give what we’ve been given away. Thus the theme: hands to receive and hands to bless. Simultaneous receiving and blessing… that’s become my personal goal.

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2.3-4)

Jesus made an assumption. In that moment when he replied to his mother, before he acted, he was relying on his preconceived notion of his time and what it would look like. He was tethered to a sense of timing. I can relate to that, can’t you?

We're all tethered to something. I don’t notice it in the always-on Internet world of New York, but I have become totally tethered to the Web. Free wifi in airports and hotels is important to me. Others who are not now, and will probably never be, internet users, are tethered to something else: yesterday's ideas or yesterday's systems.

It doesn’t really matter whether it’s wi-fi, or cars, or traditions, or world-views, roles, privileges – If you take them away, we feel lost. So this story of the wedding is a perfect story for us, to help us let go of our own tethers.

Our tethers don't define us. They might help us function and make us feel useful. But in God's economy, dislocation is often essential for stepping forward. Losing our grip on yesterday's assumptions and assurances is critical for doing what God wants today.

“Dying to self,” as Jesus commanded, isn't just about letting go of bad habits and self-centered ways; it's also about leaving behind those good things we thought we knew, things we worked hard to attain. It means putting aside old stories in order to claim God's new story.

Some theologians believe Jesus knew it all, had a perfect plan for his short three-year ministry, but this passage from John suggests he discovered his purpose and identity along the road. To do that, he had to let go of his own yesterday.

The miracle at Cana was more than magic with water. It was the miracle of Jesus cutting his tether and moving on. He lived his own eventual counsel: let God name the hour.

I think we want faith to be important, but too often it ends up being the ultimate add-on to life. We get an education, get the job, get the family, get the toys, and then we want to get faith. We get everything we want in life, and then we get right with God. Seems like a pretty good deal.

Then we discover the truth. The path to God goes by way of loss and bondage, not by accomplishment… by letting go, by keeping our hands empty.

We enter a wilderness, not a comfortable place. We hunger and then are fed. We fail to see and then are shown more. We feel lost and then are found.

We stand naked before life, not the heroes we wanted to be, not the flawless stars, and then God asks us to come closer to a tomb that is empty. Empty of everything except God's mystery. Our plans for the day are shot. Our dreams for life prove hollow.

Have you ever noticed that when we read the Gospels, Jesus is often busy (as in occupied, needed, pulled, demanded, pushed). But Jesus is never in a hurry. Is it possible that we can change the way we live, not by addition, but by subtraction?

Maybe this weekend we can practice being empty. Take some time to think about the things that clutter your hearts and minds: write them in your journal.

  • Do you need to be in a hurry?
  • Do you need to impress those around you?
  • Are you dissatisied with ordinary days and gifts of grace?
  • Are you preoccupied with all that's left undone?

When our identities are defined by what we do or have, or earn, or strive for, or require in order to impress, we have everything to lose. Maybe this weekend we can work on losing it.

Paul Tillich tells us, "You are accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything. Do not perform anything, do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted." If that happens to us, we experience grace.

His words are a reminder that we can live and choose and commit "from acceptance" and not "for acceptance." I'm not doing any of this (Sabbath, prayer, rest, reflection, renewal) to impress anyone or earn stars in my crown in heaven. Life is full. This life. This moment. This relationship. This conversation. This encounter. The sacred present begins here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

a new commandment

Radical, wonderful, and even more difficult than the original ten that Moses received from the hand of God... because in truth, we don't love ourselves well enough to love one another.

But Jesus did not say love one another as you love yourself... he said love them as I have loved you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Holy Week feels long, maybe the longest week in the year.
When I think of my own sense of foreboding, the helpless waiting... I can't help but wonder how much more painful it would have been for Jesus those last days before his time finally came.

What, it's only Wednesday? Tomorrow the downhill slide begins... with a feast. We've been in silence, keeping a vegetarian diet this week, but tomorrow evening we'll have meat again, and talk at supper... in honor of the last supper Jesus ate. Then we will all attend the Maundy Thursday ritual at one of the nearby parish churches.
And Friday we will fast. Feasting and fasting... living and dying... joy and sorrow. It's almost too much to bear.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Explain the glory, God.

Every year it's like this. I get closer to Good Friday and my doubt overwhelms my faith.

I am not big on pain... mine or anyone else's. I am especially not big on unnecessary pain, and this whole Jesus died for my sins thing puts the blame on me. Me... and you... and every other sorry member of the human species. Yes, I understand how amazingly mind-blowing it is to worship a God who stooped to endure human form... to live and die as a human being. But some human beings die peacefully in their sleep. (At least that's what we tell ourselves.) Or they die quickly. Most of us do not linger for hours in agony, with other people watching our every sigh and groan, waiting for us to die so they can be "right".

I really do hate this week.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Two Gospels tell the story of the anointing of Jesus.

In Mark's Gospel It is two days before Passover, the host is Simon the leper, the woman is not named and the oil is poured on Jesus' head. In John's Gospel, it is six days before Passover, the host is Lazarus (recently raised from the dead,) and it is Mary who produces the expensive perfume and pours it on his feet.

This is the kind of inconsistency that drives Bible scholars crazy... conflicting versions of what is apparently the same story. The truth will always lie somewhere in between. The point of the story, of course, has nothing to do with head or feet or when or where... or maybe even who.

And the point can change for us with each new reading, depending on what we need to hear.

This is the difference between the living Word of God and words on a page that are chiseled in stone, with one point, one interpretation.

Living with elderly sisters gives me a new spin on this story. Jesus said "You will always have the poor." He might just as well have said "You will always have emails to answer or dust bunnies to sweep." For NOW, be kind in the moment. Honor the interactions that express love, patience, service. You will not always have these opportunities.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

palms and thorns

Palm Sunday again...
and again we take the roller coaster ride of Jesus' last days on earth.

The older I get the more it means, maybe because I have loved more and lost more, loved more and won more, been beaten up and betrayed, and yes, on occasion resurrected. I have heard the call of a God who makes no sense by earthly standards and yet in every natural way... from the creation of the cosmos to the fresh shoots in spring to the dying of the stalks in autumn... makes perfect sense.

We are here to live and die, to be joyful and to suffer, to win and to lose. I have come to believe that those things are not two sides of a flat coin but integral parts of the multi-dimensional whole. Join me in the wild ride.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

vocation vacation

I've been on vacation. In Lent no less.

So, can a person truly take a vacation from who they are? (or in my case... who I have become?) Yes... No... I don't know. Maybe.

Yes, because when I'm away from the convent I only think about the building and the people I left behind occasionally. I was in a Publix supermarket, marveling at all the new products I'd never seen before... and stood in front of the yogurt case thinking "Sr. Leslie would love all these choices." But there are too many ounces in even the smallest container to get through airport security with a carry-on bag. Shoot.

Yes... because I have a tendency to use more four letter words (as in the four letter version of shoot) when I am in conversation with old friends who knew me when. Yes... because I don't always follow the Rule of Life specifics about the morning and evening prayer requirements. Yes... because when my friend says "Do you want to get a pedicure?" I say "Oh my! Absolutely! Thank you!"

Are there any nos to counter all those yesses? I have to think about that.
Okay, here's one: Church is necessary. Communion is necessary. I attended my grandson's confirmation on Saturday night, but since I am an Episcopalian, I could not receive the sacrament from his Roman church. I was so happy to attend my old parish on Sunday... to hear the glorious music, listen to a decent sermon, receive the Body and Blood of my Lord. There was a time in my life I would not call Jesus my Lord. I believed in a Jesus who was God's son, but that didn't necessarily make him my Lord. My big brother, maybe, my friend... what a friend we have in Jesus. But LORD? Puleeze.

That's definitely changed.

And His call to service apparently still sticks. I washed a lot of dishes and cooked a bunch of food while I was away. I made my bed every day except one. I worked on three and a half Lincoln Center programs that came across my email. Some work goes on. Prayer is constant, even when I don't do the prescribed ritual, and reconciliation comes naturally (most of the time.) I guess I am a nun after all. Who knew?