Monthly Archives: February 2016

Leaners? Lifters? Forget labels everyone is welcome

So here I am late for my last week’s blog– thirsty, penniless and exhaustedly but stubbornly critical of market thinking (also known as neoliberalism, libertarianism, economic rationalism). And yet didn’t I reflect with gratitude all last week on the first reading? Here am I the mighty blog-writer who feels she has a vocation and has committed to writing one each week and I lack time and energy and simply sanity to even deliver on all my commitments, including ones I deeply love, including this one.

If God was like the market, then I might get one warning…however ultimately she would take her “business” elsewhere. And lent would actually then not do me a whole lot of good because the repentance I see I need is always partial in its delivery…I always get distracted or exhausted or just disenchanted by my life’s possibilities and blockages and fail and fall and forget.

But God is not the market and the relationship I have with God is neither exclusive nor conditional. If I am thirsty or hungry I can turn to God, coin to pay is irrelevant there is not price put upon grace it simply abounds for us like a laden table in a grandparents house when you are small. Why do we waste so much of our precious time, resources and labour on things that do not satisfy? I hear God’s exasperation and teary compassion as she asks me this. My answer is not coherent because I do not know. I do not know why I am not wiser to know what satisfies me by now or more committed and courageous about narrowing my focus to it and leaving behind addictions (addictions of thought as well as deed or consumption).

God reminds me to do what I am not good at listen carefully so I will know what is good and fill myself always with that. To debunk the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) that causes all sorts of unhelpful detours in the path of life. To challenge also the fear of others that keeps me so often trembling in my shell or causes the inertia of self-hate and over-questioning. Come, listen, live.

David of course is no sort of a hero in my book, but perhaps from that I can take how truly unconditional and enduring the grace of God is. Even to the ridiculously flawed David. Even to me. The impossible and great can happen through us, our part of the bargain is simply always reorienting toward God. Seeking God. Calling upon God like the child constantly repeating “Mum, mum, mum” until heard. My heart has been heavy with fear and loneliness. But God is there, waiting for me to listen and look as well as call; to forsake the wickedness and even unjust thoughts.

Unjust thoughts, like when I feel judgemental or superior or think being kind is too much effort. Unjust thoughts like resenting small people taking up quite so much of my time and energy. Unjust thoughts like self-hate: which is hatred for one beloved by God and therefore unjust. Unjust thoughts like wishing I was thinner, prettier, more charismatic, cleverer and richer instead of turning my life and my soul toward God. In God I am enough as I am…I may be called to be more than I am but in a way that preserves and respects the integrity of who I am already. Already beloved. Already called. Becoming grace-filled.

Justice toward others is kindness. Justice toward myself: also kindness.

The concluding two verses could seem like bragging and superiority from God if we think in kyriearchal terms, but let’s not!

“My ways are not your ways” says God. “I have super-powers you have not even dipped into. You don’t even need to understand what I am capable of just live to your fullest, reallest and most loving. Just live and trust me. As far as heaven is beyond your grasp, so far is my reach. And I’ve got your back!”

Some parenting tips for God

(yes I am making fun of myself in the title)

This is one of those weeks when the readings are alienating and my tradition seems inaccessible at best and oppressive at worst. I wasn’t sure whether to refocus on something more liberating, ignoring the texts (or just referring to them in passing) or whether even to take a week off as I should focus on job-seeking.

But there is a commitment here. I will grapple. I will read in painful detail as it seems to be that, hoping to glean something…or outright dismissal.

The first reading, Abram’s story begins unpromisingly with references to rewards and shields. These quasi-militaristic symbols are scattered not just through the bible but through all aspects of our culture so that they provoke usually a mild cringe or less, often we just gloss over them, don’t even notice them. I have been glossing over such details for weeks and heading into the main point (as I see it) of a reading. But the main point of this one does not become immediately apparent (not if we assume that it is definitely going to be good news).

Abram is whinging about his childlessness- not from the point of view of wanting to nurture (although even this has aspects of selfishness) but purely from resentment that all his property and acquired wealth and privilege will be inherited by a slave. Where do I even start with that? Slaves? The non-entity of the women of the household? The patriarchal preoccupation with fathering children you then don’t look after…and the way it plays out in modern anti-abortion movements?

So you’d expect Abram’s selfish and immature whinging to get short shrift from God who elsewhere claims to be an advocate for the downtrodden- slaves and women surely? I want God to say “Get your hand off it you privileged, wealthy male.” But God seems to see a need to soothe and pamper the already spoilt brat Abram. I really want to give God some parenting tips here for Abram’s own good!

God makes outrageous promises based on a sort of arrogance “I am the one…” a bit like “Who’s the man?” Even then Abram asks for surety and the (imperfect) vegan in me really wants to skim over the wasteful killing that happens next (yes that was a different time but nevertheless). God then gives the land (currently inhabited by other people but you know…Terra Nullius) to Abram’s descendants. This is such a significant part of our cultural thinking, and sadly we have to blame our Judeo-Christian heritage for it. God gives land to specific people- this thinking leads to nationalism, xenophobia and lack of compassion for others.

We fear relinquishing land to another nation, another faith, another God. We feel that we have some rightful claim to the land God has “allowed” us to take away from the others. Look at the sorts of things American’s were saying about God’s favour in the wake of 9/11? Look at how reluctant we are in Australia to “let them stay”.

But this is supposedly God’s word. The privileged and powerful shall be pampered and inherit the earth. Onward to the psalm!
The Lord is my light and salvation. I can be a fat-cat basking in the kyriarchy and see myself as above reproach. God is a stronghold for me to protect my wealth and privilege. I need not think of others

When those I oppress say “eat the rich” I can laugh because they will fail.

When war breaks out (incited by me?) I can rejoice in my protected status while other people suffer and die.
But then as the psalm continues, what if the less privileged…Abram’s wife or concubine or slave seek to live in the house of God and enjoy God’s beauty and God’s favour? What happens then? What if little refugee babies seek to be hidden in the shelter of God’s grace in their day of trouble?

If our head is lifted up above our “enemies” then it suggests that there is not equal treatment, not equal favour…that curse of “chosenness” is back and in lent too when we ought to be examining our way of life not creating smugness over it!

And my heart really and truly does seek her face. Desperately! But it seems these readings are determined to hide it from me. Within tradition I feel God has forsaken me (a mere woman) and has even more forsaken those that need her even more). This is a grave charge to bring against tradition, so I better keep sifting the evidence hoping to be proven wrong…

“27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.” But for many the issue is not their loving, impoverished mothers and fathers forsaking them, the issue is that the world is an unjust, racist and hurting place for whole nations of people!

“27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.” Because of my enemies? Not a Lenten idea at all. There is no repentance here, no attempt to seek justice, kindness and right relationship. All that is here is a sort of spiritual pride, a vain excellence like the horrible teacher’s pet who hides behind their goody-goody status to oppress and bully others. Like the worst excesses of abuse we have witnessed (as a community) from the clergy.

27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

I wish I could still believe

27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

I am mindful of last time I went to church and one of the thinkers and key people of the community reminded us to try to avoid the metaphor of “Lord” for our loving and equalising God. Who shall I wait for? Can I rephrase a better message to myself?

“Wait for liberation; be strong and let your heart take courage, hope in liberation”
“Wait for Wisdom; be strong and let your heart take courage, hope in Wisdom”

“Wait for transformation; be strong and let your heart take courage, hope in transformation”

There is something of God that we be strong and hope in…even now…even when the tradition is so oppressive and excluding!

The second reading, which at first seemed to self-righteous to me, now that I have put into words my distaste for many aspects of the tradition, seems to seek into that. Because once again (like the Philippians did) we are living in a decadent age.

Enemies of the cross of Christ might worship the belly, seeking to pursue “bucket lists” of pleasure and novelty and sumptuous food while we arrest people offshore for the sin of wanting basic food and education. Glorying in “shame” a society might build bigger and better buildings, technologies, arts and consumables all for the benefit of those who can afford them…might pursue excellence in education (for the elite few) and immortality through cures from everything (for the elite few) and beauty of environment and the individual human body (once again with a price-tag that not everyone can pay) and say “too bad” to the many who labour and are exploited or are cast off as useless by a profit and novelty-seeking world. Out glory is the shame of “consumer choice” in all things even education.

Earthly things that the Christian churches glory in (to their shame) such as opposing Safe Schools Coalition and defending Cardinal Pell. Save us God who has any more wisdom than this, the flower of our civilisation! Transform the body of our humiliation into something that does not dazzle with glitter and sequins, but glows with genuine goodness to overcome all obstacles to love.

But here again words of the great Lord coming to save and conform and subject us to “himself”. The language itself makes difficult faith in liberative intepretations. How to stand form in a faith that is so riddled with kyriarchal, exploitative and power-abusing metaphors? Is not the tradition itself partly responsible for many of the things we want to be saved from?

How to stand firm?

In the gospel Jesus wants to gather us together like a hen gathering the baby chickens under her wing. I used to play this game with my children when they were little, in winter when they were all shivering I would put my coat over them and say “under my wing”. Recently when I was feeling cross and sad my youngest put the corner of his hoodie over my shoulder and said “under my wing” to remind me of the love and comfort we can give each other.

If Jesus yearns to have that sort of maternal, nurturing relationship with the hurting world, how do we enter into that relationship? How do we put under our wing all the poor and vulnerable and anyone who needs us? How do we find the safe wing to hide under when we are lost little chickens and there are predators about? “Under the wing” is the place of nurture, mentoring and closeness to warmth and a beating heart.

Perhaps the only vaguely hopeful direction for this week is looking to see who is in my life for friendship, who has emotional needs that I could help with and who is offering the hope I crave. There is that, and there is widening that circle to make a safer world that is more like under mother-hen’s roomy wing and less like a competition.

Mother-hen hear our prayer.

Dust and remembering

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I don’t think they say that on Ash Wednesday anymore and in many ways I guess the change is progressive. I do remember the first time I came across that particular statement. I was new to English speaking and there was a very tall priest in a red chasuble (I am sure it was red though usually they seem to wear purple)…he looked like a scary wizard to me standing there so aloof and severe looking with his little grey bowl and I had to go up to him, it felt like all by myself though considering I was 5 or so years old I am sure my parents would have accompanied me.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” he said, he sounded utterly forbidding, even angry. I felt “told”. I knew lent was all about thinking about how sinful we all were and how much we deserved God’s punishment and I was already feeling unworthy. But he could dismiss a little five year old girl as “dust” without even eye-contact. It shocked and frightened me. Now of course I know he was telling the truth because that is exactly what this world does to little girls. They are dust, stripped of a name and identity and incarcerated in Manus. They are dust, targets for marketing practises that clearly see them as less than boys and potentially always less than men (but pretty), or as nonentities. The patriarchal church was quite honest in reminding me that I am always and necessarily dust and to dust I shall return.

So what is dust?

I was interested some years ago when my children got into this series by Philip Pullman. He had one interpretation of the possibilities in “dust”. Going back further I remember bus-rides to Broken Hill and the willy-willies, the little spinning pillars of dust. Dust there was something that could dance. Dust is dry earth, being material, being here, belonging to this planet. We live our material lives and our bodies decay and return into the earth- rich dust, plant food, the stuff of life. The star-dust that our earth was originally made of, transformed into living, breathing, hoping, loving but transient beings.

Remember then that you are stardust and to stardust you will return.

So there is star-dust also gold-dust. We dust our cakes with sugar or cocoa for sweetness and to make them look prettier. Are we dust in any of those ways? Can I choose what I am “fine, dry, particles” of? What if I can be God-dust, little particles of a greater reality? What is the dust that is my true essence and to which I shall return?

What sort of dust I am will affect how I begin and keep my lent. If I am a meaningless entity, “dust” in the sense of useless or waste matter (like I used to think) then I should probably ignore lent and just be as hedonistic as possible, for the short time I am. A willy-willy is no good for growing things in, so it doesn’t weigh itself down with water, it simply dances and dances without care for the others it is useless to.

This I think is the path many despairing people have gone down in our first-world “sty of contentment”. There is no longer any sort of certainty or meaning to be found anywhere so we may as well eat, drink, be merry and keep our “different” people. You make yourself pretty unpopular if you ever say anything that is biased or political. Being “apolitical” means living in unexamined privilege, it is a luxury we have convinced ourselves we can finally afford. There the authentic Christian becomes dust in a different way, we may have a conscience that clings to the surface of things and makes it impossible for the luxurious escapism to be pure and gleaming. Our dust is the awkward questions we bring to our society, not “can we afford the refugees?” but “what gives us the right to even consider not taking them in?”

As Isaiah has pointed out, there are a lot of very religious people caught up in this wilful ignorance. We can all spend one more Ash Wednesday “humbling ourselves” but not noticing.

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

So it’s not just a case of giving up chocolate for a slimmer waist-line (worst luck). God is actually holding me responsible for the state of the world. This is where it would be easy to give up because it is all too big and too hard and anything grandiose I attempt is doomed to failure.

So in all honesty, I will break it down and make a lenten commitment that I hope I can actually stick to.

  1. In my leadership positions at work and elsewhere to consider “my” workers and be a consultative, considerate and nurturing leader who shows a lot of patience toward the children and adults I work with. This includes being more careful not to let my frustration against them turn into nasty talk about them.
  2. I will actually give up buying books and takeaway coffees for lent AND USE THAT MONEY for an organisation that tries to redress imbalances, particularly imbalances of race, class or gender. I will also attend at least 2 protests or send at least 2 emails (it is all too easy to make excuses)
  3. I won’t give into the temptation to think badly of myself and adopt a sackcloth and ashes attitude toward my failures, incapabilities and weaknesses. I will seek more constructive ways to redirect myself into a purposeful life (I have been so depressed lately but wallowing in self-hate is NOT what God asks of me)
  4. I will share as generously as I can with people who are in my life who can benefit from my generosity especially if I discreetly help them without them having to feel grateful or indebted. I know how that is done because I have had people do it to me. At least once a week I will contact either my great aunt or my grandmother both of whom I neglect.

I won’t do any of these things because I feel guilty, or because I am a “bad” person or because I link the way I am “dust” to worthlessness. I will do it because it is a way of empowering myself to repent from my unhappiness and be filled with life again. I will be happy at the opportunity to give these gifts to God knowing they are really appreciated. This is my light breaking. This is my ruins being rebuilt.

So publically “bragging” about my Lenten discipline, not such a good thing to do in light of the gospel? But I hope it is obvious that I am not attempting to be particularly holy or try anything too immense. I hope that by being open about the weaknesses I struggle with and my attempts to move back toward God, I will be kept honest, I will feel I have to follow through and actually do these small things.

I am dust, I am fine particles of earth I am embodied and dependent on my physical substance. I return to dust, constantly, to the small interactions and physical moments of every second of my transient embodiment here. Perhaps there is something in me, a “soul” dust also of God. My body will return to the dust of the earth, my soul yearns always toward reunification with the star-dust of eternity, of meaning, of right relationship. Omnipresent dust which calls me to return.

God has touched us

Ah those moments of transfiguration! Those fleetingly eternal moments when our faith is an almost tangible reality, when we feel at one with our family, our world, our God. The times when we don’t have to rationalise or believe or understand anything because we experience some sacramental reality. Are we going to live for those times, to try to make choices that bring us into a cosy proximity with an incandescent transfigured Jesus?

It’s tempting isn’t it? To make religion into a sort of ecstasy pill that can dispel the pain of reality! To give up striving because God only will achieve all things and to loll back on the cushions of a contemplative (and somewhat disengaged) lifestyle. The people who have this full reliance on a loving God- is it any coincidence how often they are white, male and/or middle class, living in privileged societies and whether they acknowledge it or not relying on the labour and anxiety of less “holy” others.

This is not an argument against prayer, contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, self-care. Going inward for peace is vital just as sleep and food, friendship and exercise are vital for our bodies and souls. Significantly Moses takes the veil (interesting imagery) off his face to speak to the people of Israel. You cannot lead the people by being other or more than they are. If only our church leaders would enter into the lived realities that most of us cannot escape from. If only there were some women priests who have to bleed and perform household tasks and deal with everyday sexism and can show us a Christian life in that real-world. But more than that, because we are all priests. We are Moses, we are the apostles.

We have experience of standing in the presence of God, awash with the ecstasy of God’s proximity. We can have a sort of “boldness” about this according to the second reading. Yes it is real!

When I was in my mid-twenties, or even before in my teens I suppose; I first came across feminist theology and it challenged, frightened and empowered me. I wanted to have “all the answers” about God and the problem with feminist theology was that it complicated everything, problematised easy answers like abject humility. I wanted a new set of “all the answers” and frustratedly I prayed, went to mass as many times a week as possible, read everything I could get my hands on and tried, tried, tried to know where God was in my life, in the women’s subjectivity that I had never asked for or wanted but was stuck in.

I had a dream then, which at the time seemed like a confidential thing that I shouldn’t talk about too much but it was a long time ago now and I feel I have “permission” to be more open about it. I think I have posted about it before, but I only once had such an experience so I do return to it quite often. I dreamed I was in the church that I was brought up in, where my brothers were much valued altar-servers. I dreamed that I remembered that time I was eight years old and dragged to a mass praying for more vocations and I really clearly heard the call right there in the service and I first had angry words with God about the futility of making me female AND calling me to priesthood. It seemed that God ought to have been smarter and made me male to begin with.

In my dream that came up again, but I was stuck in the porch of the church and couldn’t get the doors open to go into the actual church. They were stuck closed even though my brothers had got in. I was frantically looking for any sign of God’s “femaleness” because everywhere there were forbidding male statues and pictures and icons of God. And I had a frantic thought that if only I could find “proof” that god was also “female” I would be able to get back into the church.

There were sort of blinds I could pull down with pictures, each of them turned out to be bearded and severe looking when I pulled it down. In tears with sore hands I checked every single one more and more frantically and finally one came down and showed a divine face as female for a split second before rolling itself up again. I cried out in frustration and tried to grab it again but it was stuck.

“What are you doing?” God asked

“I saw it” I said in tears, “I know it was there. Show me”

“It’s not that easy” God said “This is how it is for you. You are always going to bother me with your questions and your insistence in seeking answers that can’t be found.”

“So it’s pointless then?” I asked in despair

“There’s no end to it” God said “But you’ll always do it. You will never find it for sure but you will always almost find it and it’s your quest to always keep looking.”

“Why?” I asked. It seemed pointless. I don’t think my question was answered. If it was then I didn’t hear it. Then God caught me up in loving arms and we flew through the air, out of the church and over all sort of spectacular landscapes.

“Why?” I asked again, this time in enjoyment of the experience.

“You need to know I love you” God said, “But knowing you, you will expect this all the time and it doesn’t work that way. It’s just this once. You will have to be stronger and remember.”

I felt immense grief and panic at the idea of the experience ever finishing and not being a regular and predictable thing. I knew there was no point trying to bargain with God and to be more “good” or more “holy” like when I was a child because it wasn’t about whether I was or wasn’t good, it was sort of God cutting me a break because of how close to suicide my depression had got me and I wasn’t called to kill myself, I was called to struggle on for the sorts of fleeting moments of happiness that I hadn’t yet learned to believe in. Even writing about it makes me cry…but it was a happy experience.

Then God said, “There is more” and drew me into the base of a mountain, deep into the heart of a mountain in a dark place with a warm fire and female figures dancing about the fire and they welcomed me into the dance and I became one of them. I knew they were somehow of God but they were outside the church in my dream they were simply being female and dancing, I don’t think they had clothes on but in my dream that wasn’t a big deal.

It was sort of a primitive scene, hard to describe without using cliches and stereotypes. But it was all one, the frustration and inklings of meaning in the church and the flying through the air in the arms of God and the community of wise dancing women (they were wise and they spoke but I don’t remember the details of that) and God said “remember I am everywhere. When you are searching and when you are just going to people who welcome you. It’s not about answers it’s about searching and flying and being in darkness and dancing.” But I don’t remember the exact words. It was comforting and frightening at the same time.

Not long after that I went to church (in the real world where I was able to open the door in my new church) and it was transfiguration Sunday and I had to “preach” to the children that week and I played them a song: Permission to Shine and we stuck gold stars over ourselves because children don’t need to be brought up with quite the same fear of their own sinfulness that I had, it needs to be balanced with a sense of call and of being loved.

But I thought of the apostles wishing they could create a tent to live in the transfigured reality forever and I shed some quiet tears over my dream, although I was grateful too. But I tried to focus myself on the humility of “not expecting” transfiguration in the every day. And this reflection this week started with that too, because really when people think they are so special to God that nothing matters apart from maintaining their spiritual high; that is an awful thing for the poor of this world who Jesus actually called on us to serve.

Our vocation is not to stand forever radiant on a mountain top but to come down and suffer and die and walk with and transform through our labour and our patience a world that needs our embrace as surely as we need to be embraced.

But in all these years of struggling with the “quest” of ever more questions and doubts and a real measure of despair at the suffering not only of myself (which I could try to rationalise) but people I love, in all these times of trying to “not expect” the consolation and solace of my dream again I have missed the point.

Those moments in our lives- the mystical dreams but also the first time our child smiles at us or the day we realise someone fantastic loves us, or the time we get acknowledged for a talent or the favourite hymn after a particularly connected experience of communion or even just a sunset or piece of music that moves us to tears at its beauty. They are our moments of transfiguration and they are not for always, they are not repeatable but the point of them is also not to cast “ordinary” moments into shadows.

We are called into radiant connectedness with God’s creation for a fleeting moment only (like the apostles, like Moses shining) and then we come down from the moment and become “ordinary”. But were Peter, James and John ever again “ordinary”? Can we ever again be “ordinary” once we have been touched fleetingly and forever by a loving God? Isn’t there somewhere in our lives, our thoughts, our possibilities and our relationships still the thumbprint of God, the teasing possibility of a more-liberating icon, the memory of radiance and intimacy. Because Jesus is not an ecstasy tablet, it’s not for us to get depressed and lost in the “morning after” coming off some unsustainable high, into real life.

In the darkness, we are called to connect with other believers and to dance, to share wisdom and to know God’s presence without having to be constantly spoon-fed. We don’t follow our call perfectly, just like Peter will post-transfiguration deny Jesus and James and John won’t believe the women who see him risen. Transfiguration isn’t an “always tent” of all the answers and security. But it’s not beside the point either to have bathed in the radiance even fleetingly. God loves us eternally, in transfigurative moments, and in returning to our lives and in the trial and burden of the cross and through the deaths that happen as part of the human experience.

God has touched us.