The Gospel According to the Convent

I am Mennonite & I love Catholic nuns. I am a nun groupie from way back. In college, I minored in Women’s Studies & focused on the experiences of women in religious leadership related to family systems, mostly Catholic nuns. I have prayed with Sisters, baked, sang, cried, hiked, cleaned, laughed, & more with them. Last week I had the amazing & always illuminating experience of visiting a convent & starting to know another community. Parts of this Carmelite convent were familiar, but there were some parts that were unlike any other convent I have visited. A few observations:

 

Boundaries & Radical Hospitality Must Co-exist

I contacted the convent & they received me as a guest with only a few pertinent questions such as when I planned to come. It was practically a “no questions asked” welcome. This does not mean I had free reign. Certain doors & areas were labeled private. The Sisters did not modify their schedule for me. They invited me into their schedule & routine. This gives the community consistency & gave me a sense of authentic presence as I observed & participated in their natural habitat.

 

This community is semi-cloistered. They know who they are & what they need to do to fulfill their commitments to themselves & to show hospitality to the stranger. Brené Brown says, “daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” See more from her here on healthy boundary setting.

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Sing, Even if it Sounds Like A Train Wreck

Monastics throughout the ages have gathered for regular prayer together throughout the day. These Sisters chant a few Psalms a few times each day as part of their communal prayer time in addition to daily Mass. Every once in a while the rhythm or organist or someone is off, but the chant went on. Part of the beauty of communal chant is when you find yourself off, you are surrounded by other people who carry the chant until you are able to jump back in. This principle of mutually supportive community surely carries over beyond the chapel.

 

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” [Ecclesiastes 4:9-10]

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Accessibility is Everything

I have visited many convents & had great conversations with many different types of Sisters. This was my first time to visit a more progressively minded community. A few times I heard people of other faiths spoken of positively & even prayed for. Other times I heard subtle & not so subtle openness to LGBTQ people. These small comments of gracious kindness reflect a life of prayer & openness to the Spirit’s presence that turns out to not be so small after all. As a result, I have never felt so welcome at a convent.  

 

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” [Romans 13:10]

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Leadership + Follow-ship = Healthy Community

It was not immediately clear to me which of the Sisters was the Prioress or the local Superior. Yet, there appeared to be no need for heavy handed leadership either. The Sister in charge of hospitality was wonderfully thoughtful with no need for the Prioress to insert herself. The community was orderly & connected with a mission & focus beyond the Prioress. There was clear respect for the various priests who visited, though they called each other by familiar first names. There was a clear sense of mutual respect that everyone seemed secure in. Perhaps everyone is following Pope Francis living example of empowering leadership.

 

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” [Hebrews 13:7]

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God Is Everywhere… Maybe

I believe in a theology of place. While I believe that God is all-present, there are certain places where I experience God consistently & profoundly. Convents are 1 such place. Thanks be to God & the Sisters who commit their lives to prayer & hospitality. Find your place visit. Visit often.

 

God spoke to Jacob in a dream, “‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’” [Genesis 28:15-16]

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Blizzard Sabbath Keeping

I don’t know if you heard, but a little storm has popped up on the East coast. So far Winter Storm Jonas has dropped more snow in the DC-Baltimore metro areas than I have ever seen in my entire life combined. Before now, the only blizzard I was familiar with came from Dairy Queen!

The ability to drive or even walk much outside has contributed to me accepting the need to stay home. So I have. I have stayed in, read, relaxed, baked, connected with my sweetheart. After 1.5 days of this externally imposed hibernation, I realized how relieved I have been not to have expectations put on my time.

Business as usual has temporarily stopped.

While I was in seminary I experienced great relief & peace by carefully practicing Sabbath & protecting that time. Not in the Orthodox, kosher, Jewish sense, but in my own adapted yet spiritually focused, life-giving way. This regular practice has since stopped as little by little I allowed other demands, “needs”, & a different life stage/lifestyle to take over.

My mistake.

I truly grieve the lost life & damaged property this titan of a storm has brought, but I am thankful for the reminder that I need this type of rest when no one owns me or my time. When I am reminded that I am only Erica, always Gods, & life is both short & long so plan accordingly.

Sabbath is a reminder that Creation is finite & glorious, our Creator is infinite & glorious, & rest is divine. Sabbath is a reminder that contrary to American belief, work & productivity do not define humanity, or more particularly me. Sabbath is a reminder that what we do individually & privately impacts who we are collectively & publicly.

Sabbath is not leaving reality, but facing reality in a more centered way.

When was the last time you Sabbathed?
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Why I support full LGBT inclusion

A powerful word from my friend & colleague, Marty Troyer, on the importance of loving & welcoming all people, especially LGBT people. I particularly appreciate his insistence on a we rather me approach to church life!

HOUSTON MENNONITE CHURCH

“The wind blows where it chooses…. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).”

I believe the Spirit of God is alive and well today. It’s the only way I can describe my journey, and the journey I see happening throughout the Body of Christ today. Having shared this with our church leaders, I’d like to share my journey with all at Houston Mennonite Church.

You see, at a point in the not-too-distant past, my thoughts about sexual orientation mimicked the thoughts I had inherited from church, culture, and family: godly sexual orientation was opposite-gender attraction only, and therefore marriage was only between a woman and a man.

I believe it was nothing other than the Spirit of God which led me to full inclusion of my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) brothers and sisters in Christ. My repenting toward this position did not…

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Saffron in Jerusalem

I am excited to guest blog for Space for Spice this week! Check it out!

Space for Spice

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Today’s post comes from a dear friend of mine who took a recent trip to Jerusalem and brought back a delightful gift—saffron!  I invited Erica Lea to share with us about her experience in the market at Jerusalem, and you’ll find a treat at the end.

As I walked through a stretch of market stalls near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, I couldn’t help but sense that all or at least most eyes were on me, an Anglo American woman shopping alone. My group of seminarians had quickly spread out to do their own shopping and exploring.

Jaffa Gate is 1 of 8 gates in the Old City walls, and was a major entrance for pilgrims. The gate also includes bullet marks from the War of Independence. The Old City is divided into Armenian, Christian, and Muslim quarters. I saw some intermingling, but most groups stayed in their designated…

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In the Spirit of Mary Magdalene

Today is a momentous day. Tuesday? Sure. July 22? Try again. Today is the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene.

 

Read a main passage of her story here in John 20. If you have ever seen an icon or sacred painting of Mary Magdalene, she was probably wearing red and/or holding a red egg. Read stories behind that tradition here. Bishop Hipolytus [2-3rd century] called Mary Magdalene an “apostle to the apostles” because she was a disciple sent out with a message & mission. An apostle is a disciple in action. She had a message to share, & she did so faith-full-y. 

 

Whether you support women in formal religious leadership or women as Christian ministers/pastors, there is wisdom to receive from these particularly faith-full women who live in the spirit of Mary Magdalene. These women write, speak, preach, & lead in various ways so that the hope of Jesus Christ’s life & messages reaches deeper & wider. In no particular order I present 10 diverse women in Christian ministry we need to listen to:

 

1) Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastor, House For All Sinners & Saints, Denver, CO

2) Amy K. Butler, Pastor, Riverside Church, NYC

3) Dorisanne Cooper, Pastor, Watts Street Baptist Church, Durham, NC

4) Angela Yarber, Artist, Preacher, Author, Winston-Salem, NC

5) Helen Prejean, Catholic nun & Activist, New Orleans, LA

6) Kyndall Rothaus, Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio, TX

7) Allyson Robinson, Activist & Transitions Pastor, Calvary Baptist Church, Washington DC

8) Vashti McKenzie, Bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Nashville, TN

9) Erica Evans Whitaker, Pastoral Resident, Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, TX

10) Rachel Held Evans, Author, Speaker, Dayton, TN

 

“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” [John 20:18]

 

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Transitions & Thresholds: The Sacred Plate

Edited from a sermon delivered at the Academy of Preachers Texas Festival in March 2014:

 

It’s that time of year again… the seasons are changing from winter’s ice to spring’s life. Christians have transitioned from Ordinary Time to Lent to Eastertide. It’s that time of year again… teachers anticipating summer, graduates asking what’s next? It’s that time of year again when couples prepare for summer weddings, and life will change for many people in many ways. I wonder what kind of transition the Hebrews anticipated as they painted their doorposts with blood. Life was changing pretty quickly for them. Even so, God’s care for God’s people is sometimes most clear during times of uncertainty & change.

 

If you have ever experienced a Passover Seder or even seen a Passover platter, you know there is a particular order and liturgy to remembering the story of Passover. The platter has sections for remembering the story- there are spots for the bitter herbs remembering the bitterness of slavery, a shank bone for the lamb, the charoset. If you just sit down to the meal, you will get something out of it. But, if you go through the longer process of preparation, then you will get even more out of the process. A few years ago I did a presentation on Passover for a class. I brought in a few traditional dishes, including charoset. The charoset represents the bricks that the Hebrews made and hauled under slavery. Preparing this dish of dates, apples, and nuts requires a lot of labor. Peeling, chopping finely the apples, chopping sticky dates. I already knew the meaning of charoset, but it wasn’t until I went through the process of making it- feeling the stickiness and the density of the mixture, that I understood more deeply the meaning. Sometimes we want to blow through times of transition, because we are so focused on what’s next when being fully here, going through the difficult process, could be the most important part.

 

Sometimes change is sticky and labor intensive. Change doesn’t happen as neatly as Seder platters are organized. They get messy. As a kid, I remember seeing Bible pictures of the Hebrews putting blood on their door post & it looked like kind of scratchy crayon. As an often times practical and detailed person, I thought was strange that it looked so neat in the picture. I remember wondering even then if the blood dripped and made a mess. Sometimes when we look at other people’s changes and transitions, we think wow! They really have life together neatly. That really may not be the truest reality, though. Anne Lamott says that when someone has their Christian act together, they have just that- an act. No one really has it all together. Change is messy, there will be discomfort, there will be uncertainty. There will be faith involved. This is part of the joy of change. How vulnerable are we when our routine is out of place and the future is unknown? What an opportunity to renew our sense of connection and trust with God.

 

I wonder if this is part of why the Hebrews were commanded in verses 26-27 to tell their children what happened, so that the Passover generation’s faithfulness would inspire and encourage generations after them, as they told of their obedience and God’s faithfulness. Maybe the commandment is also to avoid communal amnesia. Have you ever walked into a room, crossed a threshold, & wondered now what did I come in here for? Wait for it… no, it’s gone. J There is a phenomenon in cognitive psychology that when people have a thought, then move from one room to another, as their context changes, their thoughts change. When moving between rooms with different purposes, such as the bedroom to the kitchen, our minds sometimes move on without taking past thoughts with us.

 

Even when the Hebrews’ scenery changed, their context changed, the people who made up who the Hebrews were changed, God’s faithfulness and this story must still be remembered.  Why? Because we need to know and remember God’s faithfulness, all of the time especially during stressful transition times. I don’t think we can be reminded too many times about God’s faithfulness. We can’t be reminded too many times about God’s liberating work. We can’t be reminded too many times that God will provide. At least I can’t be reminded too many times.

 

I wonder if this is part of the purpose of mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a tiny scroll with verses from Deuteronomy written on it, that goes inside a plaque looking box or case that is affixed often at an angle at doorways. The text written inside is the Shema- “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One” and the great commandment to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.” The Lord your God is one- during joy, during challenge, during changes, during stability. Love the Lord your God- when you feel like it, when you don’t feel like it, in and out of season. We need reminders of these truths, especially when opening doors and moving through thresholds.

   

If Exodus 12 and the Exodus story says anything, it is that change, big or small, is communal. As we change, our situations change, for better or for worse, that impacts our families, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues. Earlier in this chapter, when God gives instructions for how to prepare the lamb, God says that each household should have its own lamb, but the lamb should be shared with a neighboring household if is too small to have its own.

 

Contemporary celebrations of Passover are very communal. I can’t imagine trying to go through the Seder liturgy by myself because it is not intended to be done alone. The proper word for this Passover liturgy is Haggadah, which means “telling”. I guess you could tell yourself, but that would be odd & misses the point. Passover could not have been done alone. Managing the stress of changes and crossing thresholds cannot be done alone. God makes a way with community.

 

Verse 11 says, “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” I have to tell you, I don’t hurry very well. I hurry a lot, but I don’t hurry very well. Here’s the thing with change- we don’t always get to pick the timing or the speed. Sometimes change happens and we just have to do our best, with a staff in hand, sandals on, scarfing down the lamb chops, in order to be ready for the morning. Sometimes we don’t have time to let the bread rise, to get everything in order, every detail worked out, before change knocks on the door. Of course the Passover was a crisis moment and not all of our changes are crisis moments of this caliber, but I don’t think God, Moses, & Aaron had a little pow-wow. Hhhhmmm, does next Tuesday work for you? No, Miriam’s got a tambourine recital. What about Wednesday? No, the time came, and God moved the people to a new place, to a new situation. Ready or not, here it comes. That’s how change is sometimes. Instead of ready or not, let’s go with ready.

 

There’s an old saying that luck favors the prepared. I wonder if faith favors the prepared. We cannot be prepared for everything, but here’s what I mean- if we are spiritually prepared, in the ways that we can be, through slow and steady connection and prayer with God, with healthy connections to church community, then when doubts or challenges or changes come, we will be better equipped, with stronger faith to manage it, to trust God through it. Paul compares sin to leavening in 1 Corinthians 5, and like preparing for Passover traditionally requires getting rid of foods with leavening, I wonder if letting go of sin, letting go of what holds us back from full faith and trust in God, will lighten the load we have to pack on our back when it’s time to move.—–

 

It’s that time of year again. Time to ask what’s next. Time to discern where to invest time and energy. Time for changes. Whatever changes or challenges you are facing or will face, remember God’s past faithfulness in order to increase faith in God’s future faithfulness, live into the experience of transitioning, call on community for help, and do what you can to prepare yourself. Most importantly remember God is with you, even through the end of the ages. Amen.

 

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On Baptism & Peace

Published through Associated Baptist Press: http://www.abpnews.com/blog/theology/on-baptism-and-peace-2014-05-07/#.U2wkqIFdUxE 

 

 

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Jordan River, Israel

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