Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oregon Associates Retreat 2011 #4

There is a story about a monk who came to Joshu (The Chinese Zen Master) at breakfast time and said, "I have just entered this monastery to learn about God. Please teach me."

"Have you eaten your porridge yet?" asked Joshu.
"Yes, I have," replied the monk.
"Then you had better wash your bowl," said Joshu.

Bowl washing… not the inspiring advice he was expecting. We live in a self-help show-and-tell culture. We want our lives to be meaningful, to make a difference… our faith to make a difference.

We have all the appropriate descriptions for what we want, we know the jargon: we want to practice mindful-living. We want to be fully present. We want intentionality, to be alive in our own skins. We want to live in the NOW. Well NOW for that monk was time to wash his bowl. But because that act had no special significance, wasn’t meaningful, it wasn’t even on his radar.

Of course there are always going to be times when we’re tired or unfocused, times when we’re too caught up and ignore the details.

But in our culture it’s more insidious than that. We quite literally don’t see or notice, or don’t pay attention… to the life that is right in front of us. We’re looking ahead to after the bowl is washed— that’s when we’ll get the payoff. As if there were a payoff.

We don't want to "just" wash the bowl — or whatever small, insignificant, trivial task we may be engaged in. We want to comprehend it. Or turn it into some sort of competition. I washed twenty-five bowls today. How many did you wash?

I am so guilty of this. For me it’s taking out the garbage. We keep our garbage cans in one of the closets. It’s a temporary situation because we haven’t finished landscaping the outside of the building. We need to buy a couple of those garbage can “houses” that you lock up so nobody can steal your garbage, go through the bags and make a big mess all over the sidewalk. (This is New York, even the garbage is under lock and key.)

So for now, the cans are inside the house, in a closet. Garbage days are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and Saturday is also recycle day. That means in addition to the big black plastic garbage bags there are also clear bags with bottles and cans and paper.

I seem to be the only one who can remember when it’s garbage day. We once had a maintenance man to do this work but now we don’t. It’s not a hard job: you pull the bag out of the can, tie it up and put it out by the curb. It just has to be done before 7:00 am. If you do it the night before, the bags get ripped open and the contents strewn on the sidewalk. So sometime between 6:30 and 7:00 am the garbage goes out.

If we forget the closet starts to smell. If Tuesday’s garbage waits til Thursday, some of the contents have been four days in the tomb and they stinketh. The bag is also heavier now; it won’t come out of the can as easily.

I used to do it every garbage day. But there was a worry that if that continued I’d go through garbage burn-out and get resentful. We’ve had some history with that in our convent… one sister will want to play the hero and take on more work than she can handle. The other sisters let it happen. She gets tired, bummed out that no one else is stepping up to the plate to help, then the resentment starts to simmer… it’s not pretty.

So we agreed that since one sister is breakfast cook on Tuesday and another on Thursday, that they would take over those days and I would do Saturday. Saturday. Saturday is our “sleep in” day. Saturday is recycle day… more bags to put out. See how that sense of competition creeps in? It’s insidious.

Each year I come out here and stand up in front of you and talk about something. Some of you say: “Oh, what you said— I needed to hear that.” Or “I’ve been struggling with such and such and your comments put it in a different perspective.” When that synchronicity happens it’s the Holy Spirit. It’s Grace.

Because the truth of the matter is this: with you, I’m preaching to the choir. You are already holy, faithful members of Christ’s amazing Body. I’m really preaching to myself.

I need to hear the words "let go of the old story" so God’s new story can emerge. I need to hear "It’s difficult to be a Christian. Embrace the difficulty." I need to hear going deeper in faith changes everything. So I won’t be dumfounded when everything changes. I need to hear that I am a fig tree with a measly harvest waiting for God and the day of reckoning to arrive. I need to say “yes” to my watershed moments.

Greg Levoy said this:
Wherever our most primal fears reside, our fears of the dark, of death, of being devoured, of meaninglessness, of lovelessness, or of loss changes— wherever those fears reside is good, because beneath them lie gems of wisdom— and maybe a vision or a calling. Wherever you stumble: on a tree root, on a rock, on fear, on shame, on vulnerability, on someone else’s words, on the truth— dig there.
Dig there and be ready to be surprised.

Friday I spoke about Jesus being busy, but never in a hurry. In the middle of his busy schedule (teaching, healing, caring) lots of people clamoring for his attention, the whole town gathered at the door— what did he do? He withdrew to a solitary place to pray.

His disciples couldn’t understand it. They were put out, hunted him down… Jesus! What are you doing here?!? Nothing!?! Don’t you want to be a good Messiah? Get back down there. People are counting on you. What will people think? Jesus, you need a time-management seminar—you could accomplish more.

Okay, so that’s a pretty loose interpretation of Mark’s Gospel. But even the literal translation sounds spot on: “Jesus, everyone is looking for you.”

It’s just another variation on “You have some nerve saying no.” We’ve all been subjected to that kind of thinking. We’ve also more than likely projected it onto others who said no to us. But there are problems inherent with this way of thinking.
  • There’s an assumption that worth comes from what we do or produce. If we believe that then we’re motivated to be indispensible.
  • We assume that withdrawal (whether it’s Sabbath time or R&R) is wasteful. And we should be guilty about it. The inner voice chirping in our ear — shouldn’t you be doing something worthwhile with your time?

What did Jesus say when the disciples said “everyone is looking for you”?
He said: “Then let us go somewhere else.”

Today we would say Jesus needed a “spin doctor.” But the bottom line is this: For Jesus, withdrawing is not optional. It is intentional and essential.

We may enjoy the adrenaline rush of being needed, but when we give in to the should of being all things to all people— when we give up the need to withdraw or rest or renew— we lose the rhythm of life that feeds our souls.

Jesus is saying to his disciples: Do you see that clump of people? Do you have any idea why I have any power in that clump? It’s because I regularly say NO. I regularly withdraw to a place where I listen to a different voice, my Father’s voice— about my identity.

What happens is… if we don’t say no when we need to, the no will come by default. And then we will end up saying no to the ones we love the most.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Oregon Associates Retreat 2011 #3

I was talking this morning about Faith — how it is always about choices, but more importantly, about how those choices are specific.

For Jesus, for the first disciples and for all the brave souls throughout the ages, faith is and was a courageous choice for God. Today that’s us. We are the brave souls of our own age. Faith changes our lives, and our changed lives make all the difference.

I would be lying to myself and to you if I didn't say up front, transformation hurts. Some choices will limit our movement and require dying to self. As much as we may fight this notion: Faith was never intended to be easy or casual.

Our retreat this year comes on the heels of Easter. Something truly “magical and revolutionary” happened that first day. It transformed maybe what? At the most, say 100 lives. Then those believers told others, and pretty soon… a movement began. That movement sent evangelists to the far reaches and that produced a wonderful array of gospels, letters and stories.

Now it also produced a steady and tragic stream of power struggles, scheming bishops, beheadings and burnings, The Inquisition, heresy trials, European history marked by warfare and torture, and now, today in our own time, church wars for our right to declare other people wrong. For many denominations, even ours I’m afraid, Religious Content is what we fight about. God didn't call us to be consumers of religious content. And even though Mt. Angel has a lovely gift shop full of wonderful things, Christianity isn't about consuming religious products. And Christianity is especially not about consuming content that someone else created.

Christianity is about transformation of our lives. It’s about sitting with a blank screen of your own life and creating something, as best you can, and offering that something to God. It is about dreaming and imagining, working and worrying, serving and loving – making a difference with life.

Faith isn't something we can download to watch or to play. Faith is something we have the audacity to embrace, knowing it will compel us to become a “new creation.”

So as we come to the end of the Easter Octave we must remember: Easter Christianity is about people submitting their lives to the love and will of God. It is about receiving and giving mercy. It is about putting down weapons, or tethers, winning each day some small victory over greed, learning fresh each day to love our enemies, (and if we have no enemies at hand, to love those who annoy us.) It’s about showing up each day to join God's never-ending push for justice and peace.

Easter Christianity takes courage.

Courage, like love, is a decision, an act of the will. It’s not the absence of fear… no, Courage sees all the reasons to be afraid — from bad numbers in our checkbook and our parish enrollments, to bad leaders to bad enemies to bad luck. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it — courage decides to "walk through the storm with our head held high."

John’s Gospel says: The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1.10-11)

We can choose to be like that… not to accept him. But rather than reject Jesus’ radical call, I think we want to go deeper. We want to know the Word that has come into our world. We want to accept him. We want to know why Jesus came for us and what it is, if anything, we should be doing about it.

We want to submit to God — first by discovering what those words mean.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded, change-affirming believer, and yet I sense that the Word is way more radical and disturbing than I allow for, not to mention more enlivening and focusing.

In Luke it talks about John the Baptist’s willingness to submit his own agenda to God’s:

John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. " (Luke 3.16)

Life is filled with sadness. We don’t admit that to each other very often. Beginnings require endings. Within the joy and zest of life is always the salt of tears. The stories about John the Baptist speak of a fundamental truth:
Much had to pass away for Jesus to emerge. His coming brought watershed moments to a battered yet proud nation, to a religious establishment that probably was a lot like ours today, to people in one village after another, to a group of followers and family, and to himself.

For Jesus to emerge, much had to end, and those endings were difficult. John's situation epitomizes the trauma: think of it: he had the brass ring almost, people from all walks of life responded eagerly to his hard work, some even hoped he was the messiah… and now he must step aside for another.

Can any of us really know who or what died in us yesterday in order for today to arrive? Or the joy that we haven't yet fully accepted, for fear of the watershed it signals?

We think of faith as a supplement to life, something new and wonderful that we add to what has gone before.

But in fact, faith is a watershed.
(Watershed: an important point of division or transition between two phases, conditions)

It is an ending. It is a time of things passing away. It is roads diverging and our having to decide. While that choice might bring great joy, it also brings much sadness. Our willingness to accept that sadness says something very real about our faith.
It’s difficult to be a Christian.

John said Yes in his watershed moment. Many say No. (Not only no, but hell no.) No more watersheds, no more change, no more pain of loss, no more sadness.

Still, the watersheds keep appearing. For there is no other way onward. Life always requires death.