Monthly Archives: September 2015

Walking humbly with…?

I didn’t look at the readings for the week. Instead I wrote about an issue which has been cropping up in my prayer life and the reading I am doing to try to make better sense of my own vocation. It is so time consuming to wrestle with readings while also doing other spiritual work, real-life work, parenting, study, etc. I will continue to try to “preach” properly but I felt that God wants me to really grapple with the problematic idea of humility. Here is an imperfect beginning…

I have long been enamoured with Micah 6:8, where we are told that the only thing we have that can please God is justice, loving-kindness (hesed) and walking humbly with our God. For me I focus on them in the order they are given- I am passionate and full of rants when it comes to justice, I seek to be full of a sincere and tender kindness particularly in the face of anyone who is less powerful than me or vulnerable (which considering most days I feel like a fire-breathing dragon could be anybody) and then….well usually I try to mumble over the third one and let it take care of itself.

Because humility and me have a long and problematic history.

I was raised to be “humble” to self-abase and to self-mortify. Every time I recognised anything good about myself I was (for the sake of my own soul I am sure) warned about the “sin of pride” and the necessity of humility, modesty, obedience, subservience. The problem was the way these things were conflated with femininity and embodied femaleness (my father was certainly not very humble, neither were the priests who preached this). The problem was that this view of great female role-models (such as Mary and all the virgin martyrs) was quite objectifying of females and also trivialised the value of words, actions, leadership when clearly God has called me to preaching, teaching and leadership. My real and God-given (I believe) vocation was constantly at war with this sort of “holy” modest model of proper femininity.

The problem was that no one noticed the symptoms of self-hate, depression, anxiety, toxic underconfidence, anorexia, dysphoria until these habits of thought and action were deeply ingrained and even then did not make the connection between the continuing call to be “humble” to “weep with loathing” over my own shortcomings.

So I broke away from that sort of humility. It was killing me. It was preventing me from God, from even my own self, from relationship with anything or anybody. So I came to hate the very concept of “humility” when I noticed the men who talk about it so very much and maybe practice it in male contexts have a very different unhumble way of relating to women and children (and othered men). When I noticed that women allow and welcome all sorts of abuse from men on the basis of proper submission, humility, modesty.

I had some choice swear words about the huge con that has been pulled by the privileged (white people, males, heterosexuals, the wealthy) over the humble doormats they craft out of anyone and everyone else. I stopped constantly apologising to God for existing and I spent a couple of decades yelling at God furiously about how unfair it all was. “I know” said God tiredly, “I know”. “Humbly fiddlesticks” I snapped, “I’ll walk with you as I am, a hyena in a petticoat, a fire-breathing dragon. I am what you made me I will not shrink down into this fragile petal of submissive humility” God chuckled, “I knew it” she crowed as if this was just what she had been watching for. So that was that. Me and humility were done, we had nothing further to do with each other.

As I grew in this new sense of self, there kept being surprises. I was actually sometimes good at stuff. Sometimes I was naturally good and more often I could gain skills through hard work and confidence. Slowly, tentatively I began to sometimes feel confident and make surprising discoveries about myself. “I knew it!” God always smiled and laughed whenever I achieved, whenever I was celebrated, whenever I didn’t sink back into the mud of self-hate. “Well why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. God just looked me in the eye with that sarcastic look that she gets when I am being unreasonable. How on earth would I know what God was telling me? I hadn’t really learned to listen. My “humble” self-talk took over any sort of listening to anything, to creation, to the heartbeat of the universe, to my own heart. Where would God speak to me if not in those things? I had dreams…vivid God-filled dreams but I used my patriarchal “objective”  self-effacing knowledge to erase and trivialise what the dreams told me.

When the dreams told me that God loved me then I added “even though I am so unworthy and unimportant” to my interpretation, even when the dreams told me God was calling me I added “but I am a sinner so I will fail to reply” and cried self-loathing about being too weak and pathetic to reply, but didn’t consider that God would not set me up for failure in that way. I hated my femaleness, my weakness, my lack of certainty, my desires, my exhaustion, me emotional neediness. God gave me a dream to radical love and faithfulness an offer of partnership with others and with God and I forced an interpretation overlaying what was there.

In the dream God claimed me and called me and carried me, I awoke and sternly rebuked myself not to begin to expect this sort of treatment from God, not to think I was “special” for having dreams, to realise that while God loved me and didn’t want me to kill myself it was not given to me to have God always whenever my desires dictate it. And that of course was partly true, because in fact I do not own or control God and God doesn’t come to comfort me on demand (or by my manipulation). But it was also untrue. When God gave herself to me in scripture, in sacraments, in creation and in human relationships she actually meant it. THERE ARE NO ONE-NIGHT STANDS WITH GOD.

So then I retreated from God to give her space, and to not be this clingy human needy person that I still secretly hated myself for being and that actually in a way was the opposite of humility. It’s not humble to hate yourself for being “only human”. We are human and God is fully aware and accepting of this. God loves me, the human. God unconditionally, committedly, faithfully and possibly sometimes exasperatedly loves and desires me. Humility is not the denial of the beauty and specialness that I have in God’s eyes. Humility is accepting that as precious, being grateful and responsive to it and also recognising that God has an equally deep and true love for other humans and in fact for all creation.

I am reading Mysticism and Prophecy by Richard Woods at the moment and it is humbling to find myself agreeing with Aquinas (who as a feminist I have been pretty dismissive of all these years). And I see that God is calling me to the humility of coming back toward the tradition that hurt me so much and rejected me so deeply and coming with an attitude of strength and courage to listen. There is wisdom in Aquinas when he talks about how ultimately unknowable God is and yet how fervently we must seek her (please not Aquinas never to my knowledge uses this pronoun for God, but I do)…that is such an exact echo of the dream I had as a confused young woman where God told me that I would never gain certainty, nothing but traces of “truth” but that it was my calling to always seek this “truth” and then after I despaired of what sounded to me like futility God held me and carried me and brought me to her heart.

And to see that these patriarchal writers (as I saw them) were actually in between being wrong about so many things also lovers of the same beautiful Wisdom that calls me, is to be called to a sense of humility about all the ways I could still be wrong and oppressive but also a new appreciation of the everlastingness of God’s love in the walk with humanity. If I walk humbly with my beautiful God I will never hate myself, I will glow in the radiance of her love and I will accept that love. But I will learn that all people and all things are called by her to participate in that love, I will learn to look beyond imperfections to the Truth of Her love for us all.

Seeking justice means continuing to angrily call the powers that be to account. Loving-kindness equally demands that I am uncompromising in demanding that the vulnerable receive what is their due and when necessary stand up for them. Walking humbly, means remembering to hope, remembering to love; daring to forgive and to listen and not allowing those She loves to become my enemies. Walking humbly means forgetting my fear that I am “unworthy” of her and accepting that only beautiful, persistent Wisdom can understand the fullness and apparent foolishness of her love. I am humble when I forgive myself for being “only human”, and bring even the seeming triviality of my human experience and my human fickle love to her heart to be blessed and broken and shared as her sacrament to her beloved world.

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Gentleness born from Wisdom

Written in a tearing hurry by one who has a lot to do…

 

A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” Really I feel I am being mocked in this reading and I can’t help cross referencing it to Virginia Woolf’s Angel in the House. Like Woolf, if there was ever such a phantom, an “angel in the house” or a “capable wife” in my psyche (and of course there was) reproving, blaming, scolding me for my many deficits then I killed her off in self-defence.

So why not ignore this reading and look at one of the possibly less offensive others? Because as long as “the church” uphold this sort of a reading as sacred, and Godly and proclaims it from churches or endorses it being proclaimed, then it is naïve to pretend that this is not part of our tradition. To shut our eyes from the ugliness and misogyny of the church is to remain in that place of privilege, related to those who are colour-blind and refusing to believe that racism still exists, “tolerant” and refusing to allow queer people to be seen or heard, we are the church but we take no responsibility for the parts of tradition we don’t like.

Instead we need to criticise these at all times, to wrestle with any text of terror or trivialisation that could be mobilised against us even if we are too wrapped in cotton wool to feel the abuse. But there are more interesting readings to focus on so I just remind you that a “capable wife…husband…partner” is not a commodity and that rejoicing in your comfortable house or comfortable car or comfortable and efficient wife is a bit sick. This is not a milk cow we are discussing!

Pfft….I move on.

The psalm tells me I will be “happy” if I refuse the path of the wicked. So I will try to remember not to commodify people in the dehumanising way of the first reading as I look at James’ advice for good living. The symptom of a Wisdom filled life here seems to be “gentleness”. I like the idea of having a “gentleness born of Wisdom” after the way I have been pursuing Wisdom and trying to respond to her week after week through reading after reading I like the thought of birthing with her a child, gentleness.

It seems to me (reading between the) that the key to a good life is not over-focusing on things you can’t have (like perhaps the paragon wife of the first reading) but settling down in your own lowly little life with wisdom and bringing gentleness to birth for the purpose of transforming all your works (and relationships?) to peace and justice.

“Peace” does not mean continuing to allow people to oppress us; and certainly doesn’t mean silence where others are being oppressed. It means weeding out motivations such as greed, envy, boastfulness, falseness and turning again and again to beloved Wisdom only allowing deep love for her to motivate us (and I don’t pretend to be at that ideal state at this point in my life; assuming a human is even capable of loving so perfectly).

How would we ask “rightly” for what our heart desires?

I won’t agree to the idea of “submitting” I don’t see Wisdom as asking for that; maybe for a playful yielding where we have been stubborn and neglectful of Her. But we needs must draw near to her, to cultivate that gentleness that will spring from within us and wear Her face.

The gospel frightens me again foreshadowing the extreme consequences of true commitment to God. The kingdom of this world does not love those who overthrow it…the rich want to keep their privilege and radical justice is always seen as fomenting rebellion. But here Jesus is not necessarily asking us to step into his shoes and be the one who suffers and dies, only to let go of ambitions for “greatness” and to turn back to gentleness. To behold the child (Jesus has a theme of focussing on the littlest and the least) and to “welcome” the child. I have heard persuasive preachers argue that the child in this story would have been a street thief, not a nice well-brought up, polite child at all. It is whatever is vulnerable and not nurtured- the refugee child, the single-mother’s child, the silenced child.

Jesus, behaving maternally, asking us to treasure and be gentle with his little beloveds. Jesus, Wisdom, begetting gentleness within us.

Who needs that impossible poster-wife of the first reading when we have Wisdom? She invited us in and gave us wine some weeks ago. Then she called us back and called us to account for our unfaithful ways. Now she offers closeness, and wants to beget gentleness- gentleness the great healer, gentleness the transformer of worlds, gentleness the tenderness of humanity turned toward wisdom. When this world makes us despair, then we are in danger of miscarrying that gentleness, or of suffocating her by giving her too limited a sphere.

Surrounded by the love and strength of Wisdom who is a co-parent and a midwife and a refuge, humanity can learn to nurture deep within itself gentleness, to grow it, to set it free. Thus through the relentless love of Wisdom, gentleness acquires both human and divine features, blended in staggering beauty. Now there is a higher purpose for drawing near to Wisdom, for following our yearning hearts and our deepest desire.

Wisdom is at the end of her tether

If my tongue is like a rudder and far from flawless in its steering (and I accept that) then the voice of the bible too pulls us this way and that, not always moving in a God oriented direction partly because it was designed to compensate for social currents that have changed but also because created by people as flawed as ourselves in a flawed time and a flawed society it is in itself the flawed instrument. The miracle is that God’s magnetic pull is somehow strong enough so that even with our flawed instruments and flawed selves we somehow can orient and correct and recorrect and attempt to return to the place where the buried treasure is.

My tongue is capable of great evil, I may well be inept in speaking God’s good news, but lately she has let me feel that she can speak through me in a range of ways to a range of people. Imperfect, flawed but not useless. In the same way the bible always attempts to respond to the pull of God. As I travel toward God, the boat I am sitting in is my place in society a whole lot of social expectations and created needs and desires and subjectivities that can obscure the Way. My boat is patched together with bad habits, assumptions, unhelpful thoughts, self-loathing, apathy and escapism. God’s siren call comes to strike terror in my heart and capsize me and that is my only salvation from drifting past the true centre where the treasure eternally is.

I had drifted into the doldrums of an apathetic half-life but again I feel irresistibly attracted to an unsettling God. When I breathe in this reality I feel truly alive.

Meanwhile Wisdom has her nagging voice on. Last time we heard her she was seducing with wine- sending out her maid-servants to invite but I guess by now she has realised (as the refugees are also forced to realise) that we are slow and unresponsive, selfish and stubborn. Now she is threatening to laugh at us when it all comes unpicked and I can’t blame her. But I don’t want to be one of the fools who cannot find her- I don’t want to be left alone without her. How do I convert sufficiently to her Way not to lose her? How do I offer more than the reconciliation that is part of the cycle of abuse, but genuinely listen to what she asks and change my life?

I do not yet feel beyond the pale, at least I desire to respond to Wisdom. Will that be enough?

But I look to Jesus and he tells me about Wisdom’s way in an unjust world and the radical commitment to Jesus, to Wisdom is a commitment to be a threat to society. It comes not just with risk but for a true follower of Jesus there is, or will be a cross. Is my faith enough for this? I am reading Dancing with God by Karen Baker-Fletcher and she talks about God transforming the world back to good constantly and calling us forever to turn aside from evil. But she is quite realistic about evil, when she portrays lynchings of black people and similar hate-crimes. It’s naïve in a time like this (perhaps in any time) to practice a feel good Valium of a faith and ignore the hard path to Calvary that is built into the liberative preaching of Jesus.

The way of the cross.

If you don’t like what I am saying, I don’t blame you. I don’t much like it either. But imagine if the crowd at the crucifixion had been lovers of Wisdom, not cowardly Christians like ourselves? Imagine if they had spoken out, if they had all put aside fear of the oppressive regime for a minute and together DEMANDED that Jesus and his two friends not be crucified. For the lone activist Christian the end might be crucifixion, but what of the courageous community? Can we grow a Christ that is bigger than one of us? I am not trivialising resurrection, at least I don’t think I am but like Baker-Fletcher I think Jesus died to say “enough with the crosses, love one another with a radical and courageous love”.

I am scared of my call some days, because I know it is something bigger than me and will never lead to comfort and ease but will swallow me up. But not to follow it is another sort of death, it is to force myself little by little to exist a little less. We do that so easily in the first world, we sit in our “sty of contentment” and we forget the next part, “meaning death”.

And Wisdom may be out on the streets, haranguing me and threatening to leave me but at least she has not yet given up on me. What would it profit me to gain the whole world, and lose her who authentically is my life?

Healing wilful deafness

Is 35:4-7         James 2: 1-5             Mk 7: 31-37

I actually had the opportunity to “preach” this week in a real church in front of real people. So I haven’t doubled up, I’ve used that as my blog for the week. It’s a bit different than the more dialogic usual stuff. This is more of a presentation than a dialogue.

 

What does it mean to be deaf?

There is real, physical deafness, and I don’t want to be ableist, by conflating it with the sort of deafness that I want God to heal in me and in my world.The physically deaf person, may already be very relational, may be very engaged and sensitive to all sorts of others in the world. So I want to leave aside questions of physical deafness and “miracles” in the material sense because

…there is also a willing and wilful deafness called “privilege”.

The danger as soon as I think about what is wrong with the world, with the oppression and exploitation of the earth and all sorts of othered people is that I will see my own powerlessness, my own lack of energy to sustain any sort of meaningful resistance and I will get angry and depressed. Along with this goes the self-knowledge of the first world, comparatively well-off person. I am caught up in these meshes of oppression, I benefit from them I am at times wilfully deaf and complacently mute. The guilt can paralyse me, the toxic negativity can overcome unless I (of the fearful heart) look to the encouragement in the first reading.

Isaiah here gives us impossible hope- personal and ecological renewal in an overabundance of healing, but darkly also a “terrible recompense”. What power we have needs to have an orientation toward that reality undermining hope, the possibility when we connect with others in God of gaining a momentum that unstops wilfully deaf ears for real change.

Wilful deafness is also present in James where favouritism and inequality are built into the culture of a church or a society. In our own privilege we fail to even notice the otherness we have never experienced. How often might I hear nothing but the echoing powerful voice of those who have seized for themselves the right to define how we relate to God and our neighbour, who silence anyone who is not the same as them. How much more do my deafened ears refuse to hear the oppressed when I am not one of “them”, when my voice too echoes with self-satisfied privilege and hegemonic wisdoms.

In my privilege, I am deaf and there is an impediment in the way I speak. The love that I am called to speak, comes out as judgement of the weak; the call to repentance toward the powerful becomes appeasement. I like my status and my peaceful life. That is no way to preach the good news.

In the past, I have had a very passive way of reading the gospel. I have read it as though I were a princess, chained to a rock waiting for a heroic Christ to ride into battle to rescue me from my own weakness (whether I use the word “sin” or try out some more compassionate term). What a negligent way to half-respond to God’s call! We have no gospel stories where Jesus says “I am here to carry your cross while you be my cheerleader and then faint into my arms.” Instead we have “Take up your cross. Follow me. Become me. Be me.” Yes we eat the body of Christ, like babies taking in nutrition and learning from their mother who they cling to and watch closely. But why do babies do this? To grow and learn and move on their own two feet, to take up the business of living and being in themselves, on their own behalf.

As we eat Christ, we watch Christ. Then we are set free to be Christ. In every Jesus story we must jump in and be Jesus.

So much for passively waiting and hoping for God to undeafen us and iron out our lack of eloquence and wisdom. We are called to jump into the deaf and mute world ready to be the ones who unstop ears that have failed to hear the poor, willing to untangle and liberate tongues whose unique God-given gospel may not yet have been heard….not even by the church. Not even by us!

Jesus himself was a powerful speaker. His words here are minimal. He is intimate, private, touches, encourages, listens. He asks the disciples to tell no one, the deaf man is not being exploited by God for glory or kingdom building- his story of liberation is his own, it happens apart from the gaze of the crowd (ironically someone has watched or imagined and reported and even more ironically if the disciples had been more obedient we would have had fewer of these life-giving stories).

Back in the second reading it was the poor who were rich in faith. We can share in this wealth of faith when we set free the silenced voices, just as we must be poking and prodding and unblocking the powerful in our church and in our world when they fail to hear Jesus calling us all to a more just and sustainable way of life.

Who do we need to allow to speak to us?

How do we make the world listen?

What does this story mean for the Christ each of us is called to become?

Let’s take a short moment to use our tongues and ears in sharing meaning-making.