Friday, November 8, 2013

GTS Alumni Reward Remarks November 7, 2013

I was supposed to receive this award last year, but it was one of the casualties of Sandy. It happened without a hitch this year. They presented me with a beautiful silver bowl!

What a pleasure to be here tonight; many thanks to the Alumni/ae Association for this Award! To say I was surprised would be an understatement. Stuart Kenworthy had to convince me it wasn’t a prank call. This year the evening is tinged with sadness as I remember the death of Don Sullivan our former Franciscan brother and alum and member of the Alumni Board of this Seminary who was to introduce me last year if Sandy hadn’t spoiled our plans. May he rest in peace.

When you rattle off 25 years of accomplishments and activities it sounds so much more impressive than it was plodding through it all (thank you Br. Jude for that introduction). I think at the heart of this event is the Seminary’s recognition of the value of the Franciscan vocation in the Episcopal Church. By recognizing me you are recognizing all of us who have made the decision to become Franciscans, and tonight I want to hold up for you to appreciate the beauty and joy of that life choice and commitment.

But maybe I should be honest and tell you I nearly turned away from it. October 15, 1989 Bill Harper (also GTS ‘84 was driving me out to Little Portion to join. I’d been living and working in Tacoma, WA, then attended language school in Mexico. He agreed to deliver me to the Franciscans with my two suitcases of belongings. At LIE exit 63, where you turn off to go north to Mount Sinai, I shouted “Stop! Stop!” I wrenched the car door open with the (fortunately) dry heaves. I told him we’d better forget it, it didn’t feel right anymore. But Bill said no. We’d come all this way and I had to spend at least one night. So many people need to be recognized for their part in getting to this evening.
Let’s be frank.
To choose to become a religious is an oddball choice.
However, as I have said elsewhere:

The Holy Spirit
calls us,
moves us,
helps us
to be brothers and sisters
in religious orders.

But the Holy Spirit
never forces us.
We are called, not pushed.
Everything
happens
in freedom.

To profess the vowed life
is to step through
a gate,
to set out
on a journey
led by the Spirit.
As one brother says:
“We go looking for trouble.
We go looking to be disturbed.
We go to change the world.”

In retrospect, I think the vocation lurked there thirty years ago as a seminarian when I wrote about the church, the community of faith, the liminal witness of church in society—all the sorts of egghead-sounding topics seminarians write about. I longed for a radical kind of Christian life and witness; I was one of two students in Dr. Hood’s seminar on the Christian Marxist Dialogue in 1984. I took a course at Union with Dorothee Soelle. I also opened a shelter for homeless people for the Metuchen-Edison Clergy Association and later I was part of a parish effort to open a shelter in Times Square at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin. And I lived in it—that was glory! After I left New York I became part-time Chaplain at The Annie Wright School in Tacoma, WA, a private, independent Episcopal school. Soon, I knew I wanted a rougher life! And as the years went by I wanted to find a resolution to the on-going psychic drama of sexuality and spirituality. I harbored the na├»ve hope a vow of celibacy would take all that out of my life and leave me serene and calm. Go ahead, laugh! But many people have recognized in the call to the religious life the opportunity for radical ministry and for personal healing. As one of our senior brothers once observed, “God uses whatever we offer.”
As I have learned, the vows are not just a “no” to something, but heartfelt affirmations of a much bigger prize:
For instance,
…chastity is not just about sex.
Chastity teaches us
to pray for pure hearts,
not to say mean words,
not to laugh when others hurt,
not to fight,
not to tell stories against people.
Because chastity
means shaping our lives
around the gifts of the Holy Spirit:
“love,
joy,
peace,
patience,
kindness,
goodness,
faithfulness,
humility,
and self-control “ (Galatians 5:22).
It is about truth and faithfulness
with gentleness,
in all things.

For me,

The vows protect
in us
deep down
the courage and strength
to live for God,
to help God
create a world
we want to live in,
a world of love.
Our world
is full
of violence,
poverty,
no education,
sickness,
pollution.
Either we can live
with all this,
or we can choose
to change it,
doing whatever we can
to shine the light of Christ
all around us.

Just how we shine that little light is where it gets interesting.
Foremost the Franciscan life is about God. We are called into celebration and penitence, to take great risks for the Gospel’s sake and to protect and comfort the most vulnerable among us, following the example of Jesus Christ. It can be done, St. Francis proved that, the alter Christus of his day and age. And many of us are doing it today in every walk of life, not just friars.

The Society of St. Francis has 139 brothers in five provinces. We have an incredible breadth and depth to our apostolic witness. We care for the poor, the sick, for children and the elderly, prisoners, the environment and the earth’s creatures. We try to forge bonds of respect and understanding across religious and cultural divides of every sort. We stand alongside outcasts whether they are migrant workers, or LGBT people on Long Island, in California, Canterbury or wherever, or lepers or wayfarers in the Solomon Islands, or refugees in Leeds, England, juvenile delinquents in Oro Province Papua New Guinea. We walk the streets at night in San Francisco, visit the sick in hospitals in Brisbane, Australia. We offer retreats and days of quiet and reflection in all our friaries, take leadership roles in helping people think about and commit to living more lightly on the earth and caring for the environment. The friaries and churches we run are safe places for nearly everybody who can find their way to us. Sometimes it is exhausting. But all of us wish we could do more. There is joy in ministry. You know that! One skill our leadership has to master is not freaking out at the financial picture and reaching deep into spiritual reserves to do the next right thing.
As Minister General, I support the brothers. I travel on average 85,000 miles a year to be with them (yes, the Order pays a carbon offset tithe and wish I didn’t have so much air travel). I travel to be in relationship with the brothers, the local people and clergy. I meet with Bishops, attend all of the provincial chapters: network, network, network! I am supposed to be the guardian of the rule. Sometimes when we reach an impasse I can look at things from a different perspective, informed by conversations and experiences from the other side of the globe. I preach whenever they ask me and sit on every Chapter, so I have a chance to speak my piece though I don’t have a casting vote. Sometimes I have to talk to them like a Dutch Uncle, as my mother would say. I am not sure exactly what Dutch Uncles are about, but she always uses the term when delivering a few uncomfortable home truths. But I work alongside them, wielding a machete in the South Pacific, shuffling cooking pots and washing dishes, windows, walls, toilets, typing and re-typing the statues, norms and policies of several of the provinces. It helps to forge fraternal bonds that enable great intimacy when one is covered in sweat and grime, swatting flesh-eating fire ants and mosquitos. Nothing gives a tongue-tied novice greater confidence than teaching the Minister General to kill chickens and to pluck them quickly and cleanly—or sharing any of the menial tasks we encounter on a daily basis. Life in SSF, anywhere in the world, is “really real” as one woman said after one of our more eruptive liturgies at Little Portion Friary, NY.

The Franciscan vocation and our community life is evidence of God’s creativity. The sum of our life is so much greater than what you’d expect from the parts. Even though in many instances traditional life-vowed religious life is declining, and we are no exception, Franciscan spirituality continues to convert and fascinate and inspire. There are a variety of movements, new monasticism among them that are seeking to renew the religious vocation for a new time. I am very happy about that. But I find myself praying this vocation pioneered by Francis and Dominic--of being a life vowed consecrated celibate religious living in community with active ministry [friars!]--will endure. It won’t out of sentiment but it might if we pray and love, love, love. That’s what’s got to inform our thinking and action. And if it doesn’t endure, I have already entrusted my life to God’s care and keeping, so I have to accept what comes.

Thank you, thank you, thank you my sisters and brothers of the Alumni Association for this really great honor. This has been a beautiful couple of days!! I have only one favor to ask of you: keep your eyes peeled for likely prospects for the religious life among your parishioners and encourage them. We want passionate pray-ers, spiritual adventurers, hardy souls. Everybody deserves a chance at it. It’s not a disaster if it doesn’t work out, but who wants to wake up at 80 years old and say “Damn, I wish I’d just tried it!”

God bless you my friends.


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