Over a week ago I celebrated a milestone: my 40th birthday. In the days since, my life has been a whirlwind of joy, labor, celebrations and commotion. I drove hundreds of miles, celebrated my younger biological sister’s 35th birthday, celebrated my Franciscan Sister Meg’s first profession of vows and her birthday, helped empty a house of furniture, loaded a truck, drove a truck to Chicago, unloaded the truck and rearranged a house. In the midst of all that activity, I hosted some women who were discerning their vocation at our motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and did all the typical things: attended mass, said prayers, wrote emails, took care of office tasks and tended to self-care. (If after reading this litany you still are thinking that life as a Franciscan Sister must be boring, I don’t know how to convince you otherwise.)
In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims that he has come to give an abundant life. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” he said. (John 10:10). When I was in formation and preparing to profess my vows as a Franciscan Sister and trying to understand how I was meant to live the Gospel, this was a Scripture passage I prayed with a lot. Honestly, it stumped me. There was a time when I wasn’t sure what having “life abundantly” meant. I had caught whiffs of the “prosperity Gospel” and was squirming. I was confused.
Then one of my Franciscan Sisters taught me that “life abundantly” means “the fullness of life.” A good marker of a Gospel life is when a life is interwoven with highs and lows. Bliss right along with burdens. Oh great, I thought, you mean that following Jesus doesn’t mean that everything will be great all the time!? Right. No more Pollyanna Christian-living allowed. I must be realistic and suffer right alongside others, like it or not.
When a community is responding to the signs of the times and living a life in the Spirit, one of the main skills required for all involved is adaptability. Many of us have developed our adaptability muscles in recent years, as we pivot and switch and then change our plans again due to the coronavirus pandemic and political turmoil. Theology develops and science unfolds and teaches us new information, so we must keep learning and relearning the Truth. Change is constant, after all. Yet, we tend to cling to traditions and expectations, to try to settle in and be comfortable. Where does this part of human nature come from? I suspect it’s cultural and conditioned into us from an early age.
Christians, though, have been practicing the adaptability dance for centuries. The whole point of our faith is being on The Way, about thriving forward and reaching in and out with Love. We respond to the cries of the poor; we go on pilgrimages and missionary trips; we serve on the margins; we pray and listen and discover what changes God is calling forth from us personally and socially. We march the streets and petition the powerful. Again and again, we learn and discern, strategize and act, relearn and react. This is the pastoral cycle: see, do, act, repeat.
In the past year, another Franciscan Sister that I admire has talked about the times we’re in as being VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I have learned that this term is used by those in management and administrative circles as they consider how to steer organizations. How, though, could our spiritual lives be transformed if we all grew to expect life, even the abundant life, to be VUCA? Is flexibility part of spiritual health? I suspect so.
Part of following Jesus — of having life abundantly as Jesus offered — means we must retrain our brains. No more remodeling our homes to match the HGTV trends or keeping up with fashions. No more “do what makes you happy and feels good.” Following Jesus means carrying a cross, a torture instrument. Following Jesus means leaving stuff behind and heading out to share the good news as we grip walking sticks, love enemies, and shake dust from our feet. This isn’t like the success we learned in school: good test scores, great accomplishments and positive outcomes. It doesn’t feel good a lot of the time. But what if faithfulness is more about relational trust and striving onward, no matter how chaotic things may be?
Jesus doesn’t offer us a comfortable life, but an abundant life, after all. A life of suffering and joy together. I wonder if the desire to settle down, to get comfortable and have things our way, is one of the ways that capitalism eats at our souls and our ability to go with the flow of the Spirit. “Expectations are premeditated resentments,” those in recovery from addictions know. But how about the common Christian: do we tend to think we are entitled to being comfortable just because we’re loved? When we’re following Jesus, we need to be heading towards crosses, not comfort zones.
Here’s what I am coming to in the midst of this wonderful, abundant life. No matter how much chaos and commotion swirls around or how hectic or VUCA the times may be, Jesus has offered this life to us with love and now we get to decide how to be with it all. We get to notice how God is with us and offering love to us too.
Gripping the steering wheel when I was driving the truck full of furniture from Wisconsin to Chicago the other day, I was surprised to notice that I was feeling overjoyed, alive, peaceful, and grateful. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and knew a mountain of work was ahead of me. Along with concern for those impacted by natural disasters, poverty, racism and COVID-19, grief and shame swirled in my heart. Yet, God was present in the midst of the mess and this put me in awe. I think I get it now, I think I am living it now. This is “life abundantly.”