Daily Archives: October 29, 2015

Are you a saint or a soul?

This week’s readings represent the age-old struggle to make meaning and hope after loved ones have died. This is a time of year when I naturally remember my mother and my brother anyway as well as other loved ones that were not as close to me but whose deaths impacted me or those I loved. If we follow the lead of the readings in how to interpret the concept of “All saints”, for me that is more helpful than trying to draw some line between “all saints” and “all souls” (but I will try to unpack that a little…

In the Wisdom reading, we are talking about the “souls of the righteous” whereas Isaiah has an even more inclusive “all peoples”. I want to reflect on both readings in tandem as a kind of “All saints” reading and an “All souls” reading together (I haven’t actually looked to see what the lectionary says for all souls. So if we consider our beloved who have died as “righteous” in any way, as in some way subscribed to the radical justice and utopian vision of the reign of God then we label them “Saints” and that is all that it takes. So really everyone is covered under the idea of “All saints” because there is some good in everyone and God can work with that and call more out of them (this is assuming anything happens after death, although I generally prefer to hedge my bets and try to turn to justice in this life in case it is all my individual soul gets).

“All souls” is not an implication that some people don’t qualify for some sort of entrance exam to be “saints”. Instead it is a move from talking about the “righteous” to talking about “all peoples”. In the end God’s radical inclusivity and hope will challenge all our notions of justice and deserving. Justice is a starting point for aligning ourselves with God but God is everything and can afford to be reckless. God even loves and saves and gives bountifully to those who don’t deserve it. I used to see this as good news when I was young and naïve, but the more I have read about politics and economics in the world the more I wish God would call all the oppressors to account more than she does.

“Even you?” asks God, “will you still like me calling them to account when I show how you are implicated?” We who participate in society, especially we who benefit from inequality must work for the justice we thirst for. The dead are the “righteous” in so far as they worked for justice and kindness with God; but God isn’t ultimately interested in whether we judge them as worthy, before we begin the pious tradition of “praying for their souls” god has already swept them up in whatever hospitality is possible in whatever reality looks like after death.

So then having anxiety about whether God would accept as “saints” my brother, my mother, my good friend who suicided or anyone else is also beside the point. If I can feel this love and feel this loss then that soul that is lost from my presence had value and God sees that value more clearly than I do and welcomed them into Godself with more love and passionate longing than I could ever begin to ask for.

This is not to say that their deaths are God’s will or something that I should celebrate. God consistently has that longing to be one with us, but gives us many opportunities in this life to begin to move into that union. Life is a great blessing, it is not cheap or trivial and even when we think about the meaning of eternity and the “what comes after” we do it within a framework of our bodily and conscious experiences of this life. We simply can’t imagine any way of being apart from alive. We tend to cling to childish hopes of “Another world” or a perfect place called “heaven”. I don’t know what “happens” really, I just hope that God’s love means something and I try to trust that.

The psalm seems at first glance less inclusive than the picture I have just painted. In the psalm it is those with clean hands and pure hearts who haven’t soiled themselves with lies and falseness. This seems to speak into my fear that evil is allowed to simply thrive no matter its effect on others. In this psalm God in some way honours the efforts of those who do make the effort to be sincere and honest. This psalm is less reassuring because in a word of capitalism, commodification, performativity can any of us really claim not to have lied and cheated out way into things? Do any of us have hands unsoiled by market goods that are made by exploited labour in sweatshops and are part of the denuding of the earth for trivial reasons such as to match decorations.

The King imagery at the end puts me off somewhat and I was going to steer clear of it, but what if the “ancient doors” and gates need to brow higher and bigger to let in this “king of glory” because of the radical inclusivity, the infinity of his entourage. Just as recently we had the reading about the eye of the needle, those of us who cannot under our own merit “climb the mountain of the Lord” need to rely on the endless possibilities of the infinite love of God. We seek to be what God wants us to be, but the movement is not one person, it is all of us with God- with the King of glory. To become the radical justice we dream of we must connect with others. Our love keeps those who have died within the reign of God and our love can also reach out to take more of the earth with us into God.

There is more idealistic imagery in the second reading, about a future time of consolation. The caution here is not to use it as an escapism from the immediacy of all that is wrong with this world. It is wrong to read an implication here (as some do) that this life and this earth are disposable commodities and that God will give us a new one just like that. There is something unique and precious about this life on this earth and we need to be better stewards of what we have been given.

Instead this reading is a call to hope that somehow God’s presence will be “among mortals” that the grace and possibility of the reign of God will be made somehow accessible to us. It doesn’t say how and it doesn’t tell us to passively wait for it, but God is the beginning and end of all that we are and strive for and become and love. Whatever happens in this world and in this life God will be with us, reaching out to give us possibilities and solace. I refuse to be a Pollyanna about it, the things that are happening to some of God’s beloved (eg entire families of refugees) are painful and real and hard to find hope in (likely even harder for them than for me). Grief and loss are real. Human sins such as exploitation, envy, bullying, unkindness, greed are also real. We can’t erase that. What we are called to do is stubbornly cling to a radical hope (in the context of Jesus having had to carry and die on a cross…and the real crosses we see and build and suffer on around us).

I am going to consider the gospel separately, because to me it speaks of a completely unrelated issue. But as we remember and mourn and celebrate our beloved family and friends around all saints/souls days let us cling to radical hope. Let us use this life to orient ourselves ever more firmly toward God’s justice, kindness and faithful presence. Let us never let go of our loves (though our mission is still to live fully and with joy).

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Lazarus “comes out”: a rainbow connection

When my mum died I couldn’t bear the Lazarus story and I ran out of church when they read it a few Sundays after and I didn’t come back for a few weeks. I growled at God through angry tears about the injustice and stupidity of holding this story up to taunt those of us who mourn just as much as Mary and Martha (and perhaps Jesus) but don’t get the magical happy ending of our loved one coming back to life. I can’t say I have made much progress in understanding this story since that day a decade ago. I have heard so many pious readings about Jesus’ power and the need for faith and all that jazz. To me it is a painful story to consider when my mother (and now my brother) are never coming out of their respective caves.

Why does Jesus cry in the story? If Jesus’ connection to God and unswerving faith hold so much power, why does he need to grieve? I’ve heard pious (and unconvincing) arguments about that too! I will attempt to look beyond the magical to the metaphor of “coming out” and being “unbound” to go free…which then makes it a story about the living that we love not the dead.

For example, could we read Jesus’ tears here as being for a beloved but judged gay son who gets entombed in family and social expectations? A lesbian daughter who ought not get married but dies to her true God-given identity (or is intentionally thwarted by some families). A person who is entombed within a gender they cannot own, bound into an unhealthy reification of a body they did not choose to express themselves by.

How will this metaphor help me to gain something from the story? What happens when I think of Lazarus as gay or trans (or in some way socially unacceptable) and “his” good and caring sisters cry because they have lost their beloved brother to this lifestyle (many Christian families feel that way, equating the queer identity with hellfire). Jesus is invited into the intimacy of their grief and fear and when he sees the repression of his friend he is moved to tears. All this unnecessary suffering!

Jesus gets judged for not having tried harder to befriend Lazarus and help “him” have a strong male role model and turn out straight, Lazarus is seen as feminized because he has been left to be with just sisters. These sorts of clichés are demeaning and insulting to everybody involved. When communities (often churches) portion out blame for an individual’s queer identity, families rip themselves apart with unacknowledgable guilt and are blocked from loving and celebrating what is.

Jesus tells them to remove the stone, to get rid of the blockage from the truth of the situation. Martha quite rightly is alarmed about publically allowing the taint of this family shame to fuel the rumour and gossip mill. She equates the family secret to a festering smell that is in her community rightly bottled up. Jesus tells her off, tells off all the families that do not have enough faith in God to accept their own child, their own brother, their own kin. If we had faith we would be inclusive and brave and supportive and allow God to act in people.

He invites Lazarus to “come out” (yes those were the words that prompted this reflection). Lazarus tentatively takes the first steps to be “out” among his own family and friends. Jesus demands that they “unbind him”. Jesus is not calling the families of queer folk to acceptance/tolerance only but to full and enthusiastic inclusion. Lazarus must be unbound to follow his heart and bring his boyfriend to meet the folks. He must be unbound for a fullness of life and love in God and his family must see this happen instead of burying his true identity and mourning him as if he were dead.

Feast begins soon and I thank God for my late in life call to “come out” and to become “unbound”. I acknowledge my family who came to quickly see and understand the reality and non-negotiable quality of this part of my identity. With Jesus I cry with my whole heart for those whose families bury them, attempt to repress, change or deny them and their partners. Unbind your rainbow loved ones and let them go free!

Fix You

Trigger warning: There are some awful themes in this story which some people might find unhelpful to think about (PTSD, rape, torture, depression) Please look after yourself in your choice whether to read on. I think I steer clear of anything graphic

After it happened I was alone in the dark and felt nothing but my wounds. I wondered if I was weeping tears, or maybe blood. I wondered if the thing that had been taken from me was my soul. There was an emptiness, soulless…something was missing.

“I am a worm and no human,” I knew the words. Suffering was meant to bring me closer to God. I heard them laughing, feasting, the hum of their machines and the clink of their coins but I was spent. I had no energy. I was dryer than the most barren wasteland. I lay there, trembling with anger and disgust, unable even to swoon into a sleep. They kept the lights on all night.

The doctor of course tried to help me. He said I needed to stop talking about it, or thinking about it. I was dramatising instead of forgiving and healing. I had to give the tablets a chance to work, after they had fixed me so that I could speak without all the hysterical crying then he would let me talk – in a controlled and therapeutic way that didn’t encourage all these self-indulgent tears.

“This’ll do the trick!” he cheerfull prescribed six of the gigantic, lavender coloured tablets, “This is much more than an ordinary dose, but sometimes if a patient is very resistant to the therapeutic effect, that is what we need to do. I will just ring up to get permission to prescribe the overdose.” My stomach felt like it sunk into my feet. Even for a deeply depressed person I was “abnormal” and difficult.

Even though I wasn’t to talk about “the event”, the doctor did ask me a lot of questions and drew charts about my parents, my children, my relationships to the ones who had raped me. All my history came out – that time in Pompeii… “Sounds like anger management might be a good idea once the medication kicks in..” he pondered.

I really didn’t enjoy his manner, but what I hated more was the determinedly cheerful and infantilising television shows I had to endure in the waiting room, especially once the medication made me too dizzy to read. It was unfortunate that I hated the experience so much, because I founf I had to come back even before my three week appointment was due.

“The pills give me a stomach pain,” I explained

“You’ll get used to it,” he said heartily, “it’s worth it to feel better!” It was easy for him to deem my pain “worth it” for his goal. I sourly told him I would not continue on the pills. He talked section 2, said I could be detained for 28 days if I didn’t comply. I nodded obediently, intending to do the opposite in the privacy of my own home. He must have guessed because he talked me into trying another medication to minimise side effects.

I left with a prescription for 2 small, round, white tablets to stop the stomach pain caused by the 6 large purple ones.

I did try going off the purple tablets, but I found I couldn’t do it without support- the voices came back and the intense fear. I couldn’t sleep. I took the purple ones again although under them I felt dull, drowsy as if I had to fight even the simplest movements through a heavy ocean of cotton wool. I took the white tablets to control (not completely eliminate) the gut pain. I felt like I wanted to die, but now I was so drowsy that I lacked the willpower to act on it I guess that is how these things save lives.

I lacked willpower for other things too, like answering the phone. My beloved called but I was heavy and apathetic and distantly felt an anger for her anyway. Where was she when it all happened? But I didn’t want to talk about my anger, the purple pills had dulled it into a distant feeling of complacent despair. Whatever. Hives broke out on my dry and colourless skin. Whatever. But they were pretty itchy so I realised I better make another appointment with the cheerful poisoner, my doctor.

He prescribed three yellow tablets to counteract the side-effects for the two small, round, white tablets which I was taking to manage the pain from the six purple tablets. Even with government subsidies, the pharmacist demanded nearly all my measly pension. I had to give up breakfast and just eat toast for lunch and dinner (I had to have two meals as the purple tablets needed to be taken with food or I was told I wouldn’t keep them down.

I couldn’t sleep now. The yellow tablets seemed to get my mind stuck on a repeating track that kept me awake. Seeing the bags under my eyes and hearing my monosyllabic answers, the doctor prescribed two long white capsules.

These gave me an intense headache so he prescribed two green little tablets.

He kept asking impertinent questions, such as how was my sex drive. I told him impatiently that even though I didn’t have one, I didn’t want one that I was more concerned that I couldn’t even summon up the energy to answer the phone. He was angry, said I was being unfair to my husband by not having or wanting a sex-drive. I told him to look at his stupid little charts of my relationships. I didn’t have a husband. He said no wonder I couldn’t get a husband if I didn’t even take my lack of a sex drive seriously.

He tried to write a prescription. I tore it in half and shoved it in his not-any-longer-cheerful mouth, gave him a glass of water and patted him on the back gently to help him swallow.

Of course he had me detained for that and God only knows what they medicated me with when I was “away”. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t cry. I had nightmares, reliving the rape…or did that actually happen?

I am told I was loud and badly behaved and that they “had to” sedate me. I remember cruel voices and even the odd laugh, cold faces and a spark of will deep within me which they didn’t quite extinguish.

Within the spark of will, I wandered until I heard a bird singing. I smiled and pretended to agree with them so that they discharged me. Once out the door I closed my eyes, hearing a rainbow parrot’s friendly scolding. I remembered my beloved, still faithfully trying to track me down. I opened my eyes and fixed them on the red, green and every other colour plummage of the bird and walked off the edge of the tiny contsricting world the medical people had built for me. I wrote a song about my beloved. I kissed a rose petal and it released fragrance and softness.

My beloved sent me a parcel, she had been keeping my hopes- shrivelled little things- together for me. I tucked them into the folds of my skin, between the cracks in the corset they had stuffed me into and welded shut. I refused despair and grew tiny grass blades, exploding through microscopic gaps. Incredible saplings shot up where the despair had a fault line.

I heard my beloved’s voice, carried to me in the breeze.

“Beloved,” she whispered, “I want you to be free. Why do you still let them move over your skin and take what is not theirs.” They were her children and mine but she was filled with anger at them.

“They said they will fix me.” I told her, “They will do more research. They will find a way.”

“Is that really what you want?” my beloved spoke a cloud of endangered butterflies onto the flowers she and I had just tenderly grown in one of the few places where my skin was still mine.

“It hurts” I was ashamed to admit it, ashamed of my tears which the doctor had said were nothing but weakness and manipulation. My beloved had not listened to the doctor and she bent her face to me and kissed my tears.

“All of this must stop.” she set her stern face against them, “no more talk of fixing now or in some later time. You are not one of their machines, you are a body and a soul. You need to rest, breathe, heal rather than this mechanical ‘fixing'”

“I want to rest” I admitted

“My Gaia” the beloved’s face was kind to me but I fear that they do not listen to Her. They have fixed themselves with new gods- Scientific Fact, Reason and Efficiency. They are accountable to the greatest god the Economy. Mere lives and souls are as nothing before such gods.

And so the pain hasn’t stopped…