Monthly Archives: June 2017

Where is the love, the love, the love?

The title for this post comes from a song by Black eyed peas, but it refers to my idea that where we locate and source our symbols of what “love” is and how it “moves”, who owns it and who can rightfully give or receive it matters very much in terms of how we end up treating each other.

“Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.” Literally every single option for prefaces (and there are 26 pages of them and more than one to a page in my missal) starts with these words. This ideology then is not accidental to the mass, it is central to the way we have been told to celebrate it. Since 26 pages of many prefaces is a lot for one short blog post, I will be self-indulgent enough to zoom in on one and look more deeply. I was planning on looking at an “ordinary time” one since it is so often ordinary time, but the address of God as “father” makes me think of the human families we build in the image of the values we project onto God (ironically out of human society to begin with) with hetero-patriarchal roles and so I will look at the preface of marriage II more closely.

About half of the prefaces (including this one) complete the opening sentence with the words “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” If God’s embodiment as Jesus has meaning for us, this clearly states that his identity to us is “Lord” and we could also question who are the “our” who possess (or come under) his Lordship.

“Through him you entered into a new covenant with your people.

You restored man to grace in the saving mystery of redemption.”

Here we have a fallen humanity and a “new covenant” replacing the not mentioned “old”. The word “covenant” will be used as a symbolically significant term within the idea of “marriage” and I have read some very interesting feminist analyses what the concept that marriage is a “covenant” means for women’s rights to leave an abusive marriage (the abuse breaks the covenant so leaving is not only allowed but logical and right, the marriage no longer exists once it has become abusive).

“you gave him a share in the divine life

through his union with Christ.

You made him an heir of Christ’s eternal glory.”

although as feminists/women/little girls we have all been told 1,000 times we are meant to smile and allow the term “man” as inclusive of “all people” the male pronoun is clearly and repeatedly used here begging the question “how stupid do they actually think they are?” and also “can we really keep lying back and thinking of England no matter what?” But interestingly the “man” through union with Christ (this in the context of a marriage service) is made an heir. So there is a queer reading possible here (though not one that does much for women apart from the potential to snigger at why they REALLY want to leave us out).

“The outpouring of love at the new covenant of grace”

“the covenant of grace” lavished upon “man” in the preceding paragraph so I guess women as usual get their crumbs under the table of “man”- a great start to a marriage wouldn’t you (dis)agree?

“is symbolised in the marriage covenant that seals husband and wife and reflects your divine plan of love”

Oh I see. So as God is to man (father all-powerful…lord…active…giving…union), husband is to wife. No use trying to tell me I am paranoid, because we constantly see just this sexual politics played out all over the church and societies that claim to be founded on “Christian values”. God’s “divine plan of love” is a powerful top-down movement, from a “lord” to someone who simply does well “everywhere to give you thanks”

“And so with all the angels and all the saints in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest” This last little prayer/poem often called the Sanctus and at the church I grew up in generally sung in Latin by the choir, signalled that it was time to kneel “for a really, really long time” as I felt it, for the Eucharistic prayer.

I have no good memories of the preface and Sanctus (although the singing is often beautiful), nothing but discomfort about this part of the mass and so instead of trying to reclaim it, I will rewrite it queer (ignoring some questions I have in my head about whether “marriage” is a good idea to begin with…) and see whether I can at least get a different sexual politics by taking it out of the heterosexual matrix.

All dancing, all loving, ever living God, you call us to come and dance with you in your joyful hope for all creation, through Jesus-Sophia your living Word.

Through Jesus you became embodied in the messiness, heartbreak and celebration that is human existence- the desire to touch and nurture and be one with the “other” that we celebrate today. You shared life- human and divine with us and with every living atom of a universe created in your image and suffused with love. You draw near to us in love, you are glad when we draw near to you.

This outpouring of generous love and delighting is symbolised in the desire of these two who are “other” to each other to be united in a commitment to nurture, challenge and learn from each other and to nurture the world from the secure space of their loving. We, their community celebrate and support their love and commitment.

And so with every leaf, stone and molecule of star-dust in the whole of creation, with angels, dreams and human desires we join with you in your dance of love and renewal

Calling us, calling, us calling us always, beloved and loving God of all creation. Seeing your radiance in this beautiful world we are moved to sing, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is our life when we encounter your reality in each other “Hosanna” also in the depths.

but of course like all attempts to pray, it is partial and someone else would do it differently…

 

 

 

“Gifting”, power and the celebration of privilege

I have already written enough about creeds for the time being (and will probably return to this topic), and so I skipped ahead to intercessions. So now I turn to the Preparation of the Gifts -partly to open up the privileged-centre of this liturgical moment to a multiplicity of possible symbols that can authentically be “bread of life” and “spiritual drink”. The particularity we are told we are not allowed to move away from (bread and wine, and then even particular set-apart versions of “bread” and “wine” that are divorced from the every-day materialities they symbolise are Eurocentric as well as having become “owned” and controlled by the male-stream clergy.

There is firstly the “material” reality of “gifts” the bread and wine and the ecological significance of “earth” being named as a donor of those gifts but voiceless earth’s generosity is presumed upon as we often violently wrest wheat and grapes from inappropriate or at least over-farmed soil. Eating of course is not likely to be something we can ever evolve beyond- but our habits of demanding specific foods at will without dialogue with the environment are problematic toward with our (first world) excesses. We are a people who eat too much, drink too much and even when we try to curb our over-consumption we tend to starve ourselves in ways that harm our bodies and fragile psyches without material benefit to the planet.

Then of course there is the invisible labour that goes into producing the real, material food that in an overly religious interpretation of Eucharist becomes mere “symbol” or a privleged “spiritual reality” while the “gifts” of the workers underpaid time, the sometimes starving third-world producers that are behind so much of our consumption do not figure in our celebration of “gifted” blessedness that we thank God for.

If God specifically guided this slice of bread (or bowl of rice or quinoa) into my hand and into my open mouth, then that same God must have consigned the underpaid laborers behind my bowl of food to starve and watch their own children fail to thrive. Thus we construct God as white and relatively wealthy and actually sort of middle-class. We can “choose” ethical things and make our peace with our consciences, but the fact is we don’t really think about the global implications of out gluttony when we say that through “God’s goodness” we have this bread to offer.

To offer?

We offer it as a symbol and then we take it back again and distribute it to people who look and sound like us and make us feel comfortable. Which is a good in some sense of course but what if we were to really offer the bread of our lives to deeper love of the voiceless earth and the invisible human struggling labourer and her family?

“Which earth has given and human hands have made.” What do we then give to the earth and place into the emptied human hands as a true “offering” to a God we say is love.

Even in less extreme ways, I have a feeling there is a classism within most versions of formalised spirituality. We tend to invite into our midst only those who are beautiful in performative middle-class ways, who have as little first-hand experience as possible of being “othered”, even in feminist circles we make light of the difficulties others experience because we blithely trust that the “system” does what it says it does and distributes basics like food, medicine, health-care, counselling, education, etc to anyone who needs it. It is not a perfect system but it is reasonably functional. That idea circulates even in groups that are dedicated to social justice. Real poverty, real suffering happens “over there, far away” and we live in a largely enlightened society. If someone who has less comes to our church then this is an isolated case and we can help them, without opening our eyes to the need in our own society.

Privilege is ignorance of course, always, always ignorance and when we dismiss the claims of people who have been wronged by the system without having time to waste on getting into the whole story that is perfectly understandable.

But like the earth that “gives” and the “human hands” unconnected to voices or faces (or gender for that matter) what is invisible to us seeps into the bread of our lives and the oppressions we casually consent to by our inability or refusal to see and hear them seep into our spiritual drink. After all the “body of Christ” is a crucified, bleeding, beaten body and the “blood of Christ” is flogged out of him in violence and with mockery. Easy to think that he suffered and died “for us” like the endlessly “giving” earth, because our good and ease is more important than any other concern.

When the priest washes “his” hands, this is symbolic of washing away sin. The idea of washing used to seem to me to be a liberating idea. We travel through life, we get soiled, it is all washed away through sacraments of one sort or another and we continue. If “Sin” is a personal failing and a slight hiccough in our generally well-meaning and caring movement through life then this still makes sense.

But what if with the traces of sin, our awareness that something has been soiled, we are washing away only the evidence, and not the fact. Just as overly harsh soaps and chemicals can wash away “good bacteria”, “necessary oils” our own skin along with the dirt we are trying to escape, so our spiritual “washing” needs not to be a brainwashing into an ecstatic “new reality” where whatever we did yesterday or five minutes ago no longer happens.

I want to find something positive in all this, so I will return to the idea that gifting goes with feeding and allow us  a measure of “becoming-ness” like the babies whose meal-times I also help to preside over. The babies begin in the simplest way, by crying when they are hungry or wish to be held, within a few months they are sitting up and looking at each other’s faces at the table, they are tapping their spoons together and giggling and generally reacting to the “humanness” of each other, then they begin to invite teachers to sit and eat with them and gradually they learn that there exists a kitchen from which the food comes and to say “thank you” to the kitchen staff and teachers who make it possible. Over the next few childcare years they learn to participate in cooking, cleaning and even in the kitchen garden, their sphere if understanding slowly widens from just demanding the gifts of the meal to learning how to participate- to receive with gratefulness and to give to each other and to the adults.

In the same way, our smug words of feeling “blessed” and “gifted” as the haves of the planet, do need transformation, however there is the beginning of understanding in the fact that the earth and humans are at least mentioned as part of how “God” gives to us. We cannot be more than we are and we must love ourselves and each other as we develop more aware ways of taking what we need and truly “offering” to others (all others) in a more meaningful way.

I return then to an old favourite Proverbs 9:1-6 

Blessed are you Wisdom, caller to the table of all creation. Through your goodness we will learn to build your house and set your table with you. We will leave our toxic ways of being behind along with our ignorance. We will eat your bread (rice) and wine (soup) and we will learn to walk softly upon the giving earth and touch with love and abundance every human hand. Your bread and word are our life.

May God accept our desire to share in the abundance of creation, in ever widening circles of welcoming and gratefulness, may we seek our good entwined with the good of our neighbour.

If God were a superhero

So I went to see Wonder Woman on the weekend. I won’t review the movie here- I loved some things and really didn’t like others about it. But she had this love interest called Steve (many of you probably knew that) and in the movie there is this scene where Wonder Woman (Diana) is battling Ares, the God of war and Steve and his friends are busy sabotaging a nazi plane (long story, see the movie) and someone says “what’s that?” terrified by all the flashes of lightning and things breaking and basically the outward signs of an epic superhero battle (the sort of cheesy thing you can’t not have in a superhero movie).

Steve looks up briefly and says “I can’t do anything about that, so I am going to stop this plane flying.” (or something). That stayed with me. That in the moment of existential terror, where powers bigger than anything he can handle are doing things to the universe and he might just die regardless of what he does, he keeps doing the ordinary heroics of human existence. Maybe he trusts that Wonder Woman will manage the larger battle, maybe he thinks that even if it is all futile he will go out with meaning. He doesn’t spend time worrying about what might be, he plays his own part.

He is also a fictional character.

I am thinking then of something I read in Rethinking Schools’ environmental education edition. That it is not the people who recycle tins and plant gardens that will save the world but that we must stop what the military and capitalism are doing to the planet on a larger scale and I sort of agree- but then it all looks too much and too hard. When I shared my despairing thoughts with a friend of mine, they said “maybe but it makes me feel better to shop ethically and to avoid using plastic” and another friend added “we save the environment at home AND we get political”.

Those friends are real people and perhaps doing more for the earth than I am (though I try too).

This brings me to the part of the liturgy called “Intercessions” or sometimes “Prayers of the Faithful”. I can’t find my trusty old missal at this moment but usually the priest or someone trusted has written a bunch of prayers about the world, the church, the community, specific people who have been sick or died and each prayer ends with: “Lord hear us” upon which we are all supposed to chorus “Lord hear our prayer” to add our agreement, and it’s all about unity or something.

And explanations for why we pray this way range from “because God will do whatever two or three ask of him” (I think that was a misquote from the bible) or other versions of the belief that an interventionist God has some sort of triage system for sorting and answering our prayers and if we perform them well we might win the blessing jackpot, to “give it all to God” that we can pray about the things we don’t like in the world instead of doing anything about them.

Having said that I notice the people in the church I go to (where we all share the prayers in our hearts, sometimes about current affairs or the environment, other times more personal ones) pray about refugees AND THEN take up money and sponsor a refugee, they pray about unemployed people AND THEN they give practical support to the unemployed families present. Someone prays about her cancer AND THEN people hug her and give her a friendly phone call during the week. We pray for tolerance for LGBTIQ+ people AND THEN when I rock my rainbow jumper people make sure to make me feel just as welcome as any other week (I think they make more effort because they want to position themselves as pro-diversity and anti-homophobia.

Seems to me as though at that church “prayers” are a little bit like working with a super-hero (I love using Wonder Woman as a metaphor for God, I really am enjoying that). On the one hand a lot of what is happening in the world is too big for us and we can’t do anything about it. We may not like the leaders of our country, we may not like the corrupt business-people they pander to. We may be appalled by the suffering experienced by families in refugee camps and bombed cities and on the streets of our own city. But prayer lets us stop for a moment, recognise that God is doing something (somehow and we can’t really see how or what) and there is also something we can do. So we just do the thing we can do, we at least do that (Steve’s contribution in the movie was literally a matter of life and death – more than once).

If you think I have made a theology that is a lot different from my usual view of God as vulnerable and among us instead of as a super-hero then yes I guess I have. I have entertained an idea I usually try to steer clear of that God is somehow going to be powerful and “fix” things. I have entertained it carefully however- God is doing whatever it is that God does and we must do whatever we must do influenced by God.

Coming back to Wonder Woman, it was enchanting in the movie how her view of things was both bigger “It’s Ares behind it, the Germans are good people inside” and smaller “oh look a baby” or crying over each individual hurt soldier than the views of the humans who’d been living in the “real world” all along. She influenced her friends to see the aim of the game as peace rather than victory. Her way of working was not what they expected and really challenged them but they found that their yearning – like hers – was for peace.

There are some problematic aspects of the movie that I have deliberately ignored but at the end of the day I want to acknowledge that Wonder Woman is not Godde.

We bring our prayers to Godde because we want to come together as a team with the others at church, with Godde herself- to be close to her and be influenced by her. We bring them because in articulating what troubles us we might find inspiration about what to do next, or let it go for now for our sanity (not as escapism but as rest and trust as part of the dance/struggle toward justice)

Wonderous Godde hear us,

Wonderous Godde hear our prayer.

Playing in the closet of Scripture

I have been thinking lately about my habit of writing what I sometimes refer to as “fanfic” for the bible – imaginative retellings of bible events or parables where I add feminist or queer concerns into the mix. Of course they are not “right” (as in objective, factual or historically likely) but I feel it is a valid way to “speak back” to our friend, Scripture, who frankly sometimes seems to drunk-text us odd things at inopportune moments and therefore is not the sort of friend we ought to blindly follow.

I think about how as a little teen-aged undergrad back in the 90s, when I started the Heretics Society (I was one of the founding members and possibly the most loud and irritating one…at times more than likely the only member) it seemed so funny to make jokes about, for example “the disciple Jesus loved” as if to put homosexuality in the same sentence as “Jesus” was hilarious and daring. And then later…a lot later came queer theory and suddenly you couldn’t just blindly accept the “common sense” that Jesus was heterosexual and celibate because anything else is BAD. But that idea of the queerness within God and within salvation history is in the closet- anything that would unsettle church-goers exists in a vast closet of all the unspoken things in scripture, or the hints (such as Wisdom being so clearly female in the old testament and then embodied as male in the new…God’s own trans experience).

I learned happily that there is a really old tradition of people elaborating on what the text actually says with imaginative pieces of what might have happened and homiletic stories. I began to do my own creative writing and re-interpreting of the dark places around scripture (the unspoken things, the possibilities lurking in the shadows) and initially I worried a lot about getting it “right” and trying to find some sort of “truth” (this was before I read Foucault and all those post-structuralists and I only had my gut feeling beginning to tell me that any “truth” is always partial, partisan and constructed.

Because if we are going to re-imagine a liberative possibility sometimes I am torn between rejecting the (unbiblical) idea of Mary’s virginity to give her and the lovely-seeming Joseph a healthy, happy relationship of equals with sensuous joyfulness together; or on the other hand upholding her “virginity” as an anti-patriarchal possibility (endorsed by God) where a woman can be a mother without being penetrated by a male and without her primary relationship being with a male- also where people can co-parent without being sexually connected. The first celebrates the rightness and beauty of human love expressed in a bodily way and the second reifies all the families that don’t fit the heterosexual matrix in some ways and also honors non-biological parents.

Another example goes back to how we interpret “the disciple Jesus loved”. I have seen the disciple assumed to be the “beloved” disciple in an erotic sense or in a non-erotic sense. They are carefully not named which to me implies that Scripture itself wants us to try out various possibilities and finally put ourselves in the story. But sometimes people like to assume the “beloved disciple” was Mary Magdalene- the advantage of which is it puts a woman back in the centre of the story, always in the action and words and thinking of the gospel…the disadvantage of which is that in most interpretations she is then seen as just the “love interest” for the real hero Jesus. Then other people do run with the idea of the “beloved” disciple being John (as we were told as kids) or theorise it is Lazarus (for example)…this can then be read in a homoerotic way which breaks down the presumed homophobia of the text (and needs to be done) but then again all the characters are male (let’s face it, the bible barely passes the Bechdel test). But then the traditionally non-erotic interpretations of “the one Jesus loved” also to me are interesting. So many asexual and demisexual people find themselves marginalised in a world were sex and love are read as synonyms. So many faithful and committed relationships (between friends, between mentors and students, between the people we parent or look up to for no biological reason and ourselves) are not made visible or celebrated in any way because they fit outside that old heterosexual matrix more so than simple homo-normative dyads. When I say I “love” my best friend (who I have celebrated, nurtured, been nurtured by and quarrelled with for 30 years now) people assume I want to sleep with her unless I add “like a sister”, so I like Jesus having all these love relationships (lots of them if you read the text carefully) that may or may not have to do with sex but quite likely not in all cases.

I am talking about sex more than I intended to, probably because the idea of “closet” gives us ways of being that redefine and challenge simple rules about sexuality. But “closet” to me is also synonymous with “wardrobe” a word that calls to mind two images that I find very helpful in my attempt to relate to scripture.

Firstly (here is my amateur theatre experience coming through) there is the idea of “wardrobe” as the place where all the costumes are. I think it can mean just boring old fashion, but to me I prefer costumes so I like to think that my imagination invites me into the closet/wardrobe of scripture to play among glittering ballgowns and shining chain-mail and unicorn onesies and fairy-wings and wicked witch long noses and goodness knows what other fantastical creations that might not always be practical in the real world, and the glitter of which may well be paint, the iron of which may well be plastic. We find meaning in theatre not by some sort of narrow claim to “truth” and “accuracy” in what happens on the stage (and anyone who has ever spent much time in theatre knows that the dramas in the dressing rooms and wings are usually even more compelling than someone’s latest interpretation of a well-known story). We find meaning in theatre through the way we rub up against people (Why am I in the audience? For whom or with whom did I come to see the show? What is my role on the stage…or behind the scenes? Who makes this worthwhile for me and who challenges me and the way I fulfil my role? Who is the performance ultimately for? Whose role in it is most important? What do we do when we disagree with the director? How do I write up my critical piece gently?). The meaning of theatre is not in assuming that the armor or makeup is REAL it is in recognising that the people and humanness is the real and energising part of it.

So when I rummage through the wardrobe department (closet) of scripture and find some outlandish possibilities in there, I am performing to find my humanness and to evoke the humanness in anyone who chooses to collaborate, or receive (passively or critically) my performance. Scripture like an aging drag-queen at times may be pathetic or grotesque but then rallies and is magnificent one more time after all…ever in the limelight and never silenced or still.

The other image I play with when I think “wardrobe” (I bet everyone has leapt to it already) is the idea of Narnia. Scripture’s closet/wardrobe is more than a row of coats and the wooden back; it is row, after row, after row of costumes which slowly become trees, and a whole world of possibility, threat, and temptation.

I lay awake thinking of the temptations in Narnia. I first thought I suffer from the temptation of Lucy- to lose myself in Narnia/scripture and make it my escapist haven from the real world so that fauns/metaphors and suchlike are more real to me than ordinary old things like doing the dishes or paying my bills. But then people who criticise a feminist, queer, or ecological reading of scripture suffer from the temptation of Edmund, especially when they go along with the idea of exploring the text to some degree and turn around and stab people in the back. This all seemed clearer at 3am, and I hope the thought comes back because it was detailed and meant something then. I will come back to this some time (I hope).

Susan is a complicated character, certainly with temptations but she is portrayed by CS Lewis in such a misogynist way that I would want to spend more than a couple of sentences on her (I don’t think all things femme are automatically to be dismissed and trivialised). But the temptation of Peter (portrayed very sympathetically by Lewis) is the temptation to rule and lead and always “know better” than the others, for all that he magnificently apologises to Lucy when proven wrong (which the actual church ought to learn from) he then blames and ostracises Edmund thus contributing to the betrayal. The temptation of Peter is to ignore how toxic and dangerous hierarchies are (even when the person at the top is well-meaning and caring). Instead imagine if the Peters of the world and church listened to the Lucys and acknowledged the flow of power that led Edmund to want to ingratiate himself with Peter at the cost of Lucy. To come back to my point about entering into scripture’s wardrobe (and the worlds behind what we know in there) we need to stop controlling how other people experience the wardrobe/phantasy that is faith, although we can debate respectfully to try to reach understanding.

I enjoy a good theatre experience. I love to enter into a fantasy world and suspend disbelief in order to reach deeper meanings. I don’t think any of that is disloyal to the idea of faith (for me faith means not a place I can stay or a set of rigid beliefs constraining or reassuring me but the wild-chase in pursuit of Wisdom and a lot of scraped knees and bumped elbows as I trip and clamber along the way).

Why are we subjective beings after all? Why did God give us capacity (and overwhelming desire) to weave and reweave stories?

Someone has said it better than I can

I want to share this powerful preaching, this painting. It is so good I felt I had to share it here (and in several other places)

 

http://mysteriousearth.net/2017/05/31/this-artist-painted-god-as-a-black-woman-and-got-a-lot-of-people-mad/

 

I find in this painting the Word and good news of Godde

😉