For anyone who wants this week’s readings in their entirety, please look here. I zoomed in on a tiny verse this week inspired by another (smarter) person’s facebook rant.
Boasting of my weakness. That is actually exactly what I do every week when I dare to post a blog on the readings. I am trumpeting before anyone who cares to read my failures to live, speak and perform in a way that would have resulted in me being ordained, that would have rubber stamped me to lead the people of God. But my “weakness” and “failure” of which I boast go deeper still. Being born female in the church is still a very big failing. Sometimes I feel baptism should acknowledge this reality, there should be some words about “only a girl, what a disappointment” somewhere in this liturgy welcoming the child and endorsing membership of the people of God, to reflect the lived reality of the community we call the church.
Of course people would be up in arms over such sexist and offensive language, but the insidious idea behind it IS embedded in every so-called liturgy (or nearly every). That level of misogyny is commonplace and I think keeping it invisible only makes it harder to fight against. So let’s be honest. As a church we really don’t like girls (except as wives and mothers).
The most popular imagery of baptism (that of rebirth) in itself contains a deeply deficit view of femaleness. Right when we are celebrating something that is uniquely female (giving birth) we have to reject this giving birth process as dirty- connected to earth, the body and therefore chaos and sin and we need to “rebirth” in a more masculine place presided by a still usually male priest, with a very masculine set of words and practices to correct the sinfulness of the birthing performed by the mother and give the child a chance to be allied to heaven, the spirit, order and grace. Women of course are necessary to produce the raw ingredients for these perfected spiritual post-sacramental beings.
When I gave birth to my youngest child, I squatted there screaming and growling like everyone else does and I thought to myself (there is water here, God is with me this is baptism. His real birth is also his baptism) while I also sweated and bled and gritted my teeth in the pain and the glory of it. We were a team- the midwife, the child’s father, the child (beautiful little God-bound soul) himself and I and we were engaged in a great and powerful struggle for life, for triumph so why not also against sin and despair? As the child left my body, slid out to make his own way in the world and into individual relationship with God now unmediated by me I cried out in triumph and I thought of Jesus’ words “It is complete”. Even though noone was crucified, noone died in this joyful moment.
It helped that I had read other people’s ideas comparing Jesus’ work of suffering and struggle with the idea of giving birth- giving life and blood to another-take in nutrition from my umbilical cord, take and eat from my body and blood when you take in breastmilk. Take and eat. In theory my child was as yet un-baptised and as yet too young to receive holy communion. I deliberately put him on the breast every week as soon as I had received communion. Any sacrament that applied to me applied also to my children. This argument will probably not seem strange to most parents. To love is always to be sacrament. It would be good if church recognised this already sacramentality of the family and celebrated it rather than trying to correct it with the “better birth” and the “only real” food.
So weakness equated with femaleness, bodiliness, earthliness is something to brag about. God does not transform our weakness into some sort of patriarchal hardness, despite all the imperial imagery around many of the readings, songs and prayers at church that call to mind the Christian life as crusade rather than as breastfeeding, as holding close, as claiming kinship.
Weakness is always part of any “othering” discourse; it is the sort of language used around people who “lose the struggle” against themselves and return to gay lifestyles, relationships or ways of being. Gay and lesbian churchgoers are supposed to closet themselves firmly in Christian respectability. I did this. I married. I bred. I wasn’t very good at the sort of “good behavior” that was required. Something in me kept yearning and questioning and had to be constantly put down and repressed (repressed so soundly that I would not even become aware of it). I had to find less dangerous ‘sins” and adventures to distract myself with to avoid confronting the truth of what I was.
I did not listen to this week’s reading, I spoke a lot about grace but I did not really trust it. God’s grace was not sufficient for me to leave the safety of what I had been taught and to boast about my weakness. I am weak. I am unacceptable. I am queer. Instead I was dishonest and blocked my “weakness” from being part of God’s power in me and I missed some crucial turning-points in my life, in the career that wasn’t. But God doesn’t call us to give us a comfortable life and a successful career. God gives us nothing except grace. Is grace the persistent and sometimes irritating voice that still pokes and prods at me to remain in God somehow?
But since I was little this reading has been a stumbling-block to me. I don’t want weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. Perhaps I ought to want to bear all that to prove my deep and radical love for Christ. As the offspring told us “the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care, right, yeah”. But I don’t care in that way, if I am being persecuted, abused or belittled in a relationship or because of a relationship I seek to leave it. I don’t find my strength in being trivialised, silenced or judged.
As a gay person therefore, as a woman, I have lacked the courage to bear all the insults (usually disguised as the “proper” language of the liturgy) the feeling of having to choose between believing in all “that” or believing in myself (in a very basic way), the self-persecutions I have been tricked into, the calamities of self-hatred. This weakness never made me strong and I fell and fell and fell away from being ordained, away from church, away from everyone I knew, almost into death (by suicide).
ALMOST. That word. Why didn’t I kill myself? There is no safe way to answer that. If God somehow saved or helped me then it begs the question why not all the others? Why not my very dear friend who did die of rejection and suicide? But no. I was never “content” with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions or calamities.
And now we have the whole question of marriage equality, and once again the church is coming out to “defend the sacraments”. And once again the sanctity that is being defended is a sanctity that reeks of power and privilege, not a sanctity that reeks of manger straw, and fishing boats, and the cross. And all the wise things that could be said on the topic have already been said. All the hypocrisies have already been pointed out. All I can do is add my voice to the more articulate in some way. And I do it with a sigh of exasperation that once again – like birthing and ordination/vocation, once again the church has taken something that is sacramental (in this case human sexuality) and turned it into a bunch of rules and exclusions.
And I say at the end of the day I don’t even need to keep looking for the (obvious) holes in their logic. The fact that the church wants to keep a stranglehold over a sacrament so that most people won’t be special enough to qualify for it already has my suspicious feminist spidey-senses tingling.
Like the boys who build a cubby house for the express purpose of putting a sign on it saying “no girls” and “no pansies” they have built themselves a church. But for those left outside- perhaps God’s grace will be sufficient after all!