I will try to post some coherent thoughts on this later (if I get time) but in the meantime THANKS TO GODDE for this sensible and true move.
Go on, click on the link. The headline says:
I haven’t Blogged much lately. I’ve been thinking about writing things but work just keeps me too busy. But I was on the roster at church this week and managed to throw together a reflection on the readings. I used these first reading, psalm and gospel and added in Marina by T.S. Eliot (an old favourite of mine as regular readers know) as the 2nd reading.
I spoke without having written down my thoughts, because now that I teach and lecture that seems easier than reading…but later I reconstructed more-or-less what I had said. I also used a “Eucharistic prayer” that I wrote back in March but hadn’t had an opportunity to use today. It’s been sitting in a cupboard at church with noone aware it exists. It focusses on the earth.
Here is my “reflection” on the readings:
I grew up with a “face value” reading of today’s gospel which I didn’t (in retrospect) find very helpful. In this way of thinking the Pharisee was wrong for thinking so highly of himself, whereas the tax collector was to be emulated as being humble and not thinking well of himself. I cultivated my low self esteem carefully, thinking it was virtuous to do so. It became self-hate and was quite a toxic thing to live with. I want to be careful today not to repeat the same mistake, to look with a more nuanced eye at today’s parable.
Parables are not simple surface-level morality tales anyway. They are meant to deeply challenge us, to niggle away at the things we think we know and invite us to come deeper, experiencing otherness rather than analysing it from the sidelines. Our experience of a parable should be a long journey of learning not a point of revelation or answers. Today’s section of the journey will be looking through the lens of the first reading. When the lectionary gives us groups of readings it is an invitation to consider them together and in light of each other.
So I will look back on Sirach. This reading is about God being responsive and empathetic to the plight of any who suffer from not being heard or having their needs disregarded. God desires justice and will advocate for the widow and the socially, materially or emotionally vulnerable. The reading also has teeth- although I don’t like the violence sometimes present in the Hebrew scriptures I feel there is a risk when we sanitise our tradition too much. God break’s scepters, acts with anger and destruction toward those who hold unjust power. From our vantage point in a wealthy, overconsuming, exploitative country we would do well not to sanitise this part of our faith out.
But the focus is certainly comfort for the oppressed. God is not neutral is clearly taking sides here. This is consistent with a 20th century Catholic teaching that used to be spoken about more- that God has a “preferential option for the poor”. God is present in the relationships and angry at the inequities of our social world.
So if we take this social justice focus back to the gospel, how to we view the two men in Jesus’ parable? The pharisee is not wrong to think well of himself and his achievements, but he is displaying a faith that is performative rather than relational. His focus is on impressing other people, comparing himself and feeling superior to others who he can pre-judge at a glance. He has filled in all his spiritual KPIs but become separated from other human beings.
The tax-collector has no such shield against the world. He has come to God with his vulnerability, his knowledge of his own failings. I am probably projecting a modern-day understanding onto him if I talk about his awareness of privilege, but I will try to explore that idea in view of what tax-collectors were and did in Jesus’ day. The Roman Empire used to impose taxes on the people- these could be crippling, and the men who collected them added their own fee to the tax they collected. They were hated in part because people hated paying the taxes, but also because many of them may have added on an exorbitant fee and so enriched themselves.
A tax-collector then might be caught between the competing demands of his family (who will struggle or starve without his income) and the injustice and imbalance of the empire’s taxes and perhaps his own added fees. He is caught up in a system of injustice and oppression, not just caught up in a web of dependency but maybe even benefiting from it. We know this too, that although there is much that is wrong with the world these days we are often the ones who benefit from the inequitable distribution of wealth and the exploitation and demonisation of others. The tax collector brings his awareness and his worry to God, not able to find answers but showing a willingness to let God inform and infuse his life for a better future. Jesus says that he rather than the escapist priest is the one “justified”.
What does this mean? How does it help to be “justified”?
What is it that we come to church for?
Dare we be honest and less than shiny before God…and what does this look like?
If God listens to the poor and oppressed, what is our role in all of this?
There are no answers in the back of the book, but we can reflect on these challenges and share our thoughts with each other.
I am reading Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies at the moment and weirdly they sound like the voices of my mother and grandmother, the voices of faith which could be quite stubborn and sometimes even off-putting but spoke to me of God. Mies in particular is anti-abortion, anti-contraception and I can’t quite see things her way although her critique of liberal feminism in many ways hits home.
But the call from both of these women to treat life as sacred, to treat the human as more than a consumer-producer, to be fair there is a sense of “walk humbly with our God” even if they are not specifically talking to me of faith, or at least not a Christian one.
The part I felt I would share and reflect on is a small section of a chapter called “Liberating the Consumer” by Maria Mies. Mies says that part of the problem is capitalist patriarchy has taught us that we have to buy things and consume them to meet our needs. The fact that humans have needs is undeniable (I have never had much patience with the idea of asceticism and I always saw it as a form of anorexia when all the “virgins” in the medieval period starved themselves holy. I felt resentful for the way faith and popular society, while presented to me as two oppositional things both wanted to control women by starving them into passivity!
So for me I am very ready to believe that I have needs (and wants)and Mies admits that some needs are “fundamental” and reframes to that we need to look at the “satisfiers” to open up that there might be more than one way to satisfy a need (and in fact answers other than capitalist ones might work better).
So if fundamental needs are
subsistence- health, food, shelter, clothing, etc
protection- care,solidarity, meaningful and reliable work, etc
affection- self-esteem, love, care, friendship
understanding- being accepted, studying, learning, analysis
participation- responsibilities, sharing, rights, duties, decision making
leisure/idleness- curiosity, imagination, games, fun, relaxation
creation- intuition, imagination, work, play, curiosity
identity- belonging, differentiation, self-esteem, autonomy
freedom- autonomy, self-esteem, dignity, self-determination, equality
Elsewhere she an Shiva deconstruct and deeply critique a capitalist or neoliberal conception of “freedom” as individual, apolitical (or claiming to be), value-free and without moral duties.
I like these nine needs because to me they make up a rich and worthwhile life not just a life spent labouring. Material/biological needs are acknowledged, but so is the need to belong, to contribute, to critique, to create. Mies goes on to show us that these needs are behind consumerism, that we have been mesmerised into assuming a shopaholic version of these needs.
subsistence becomes- fancier foods, magical remedies for things (including equating health with narrow constructions of beauty), fashion etc
protection- border protections, surveillance cultures, passwords, enclosure of the commons etc. “private” is from the Latin to deprive.
affection is reduced to dating, networking, trying to impress people, social media, beauty products and the weight loss industry (many of these observations are my own extrapolations so for goodness sakes don’t blame Mies for them but read her chapter if you want)
and so on.
How do we look for ways to meet our real, genuine needs (which we should not feel guilty for having) without overusing the world or exploiting others? Because the woman in a slum in India or Africa has the same needs and as much right to have them granted as I, a middle-class white Australian do.
There is not an easy checklist but there are things that fill multiple needs. Communities do a lot of good things. Let’s consider a community garden (I hate gardening, but arguably I need to get over that or find a way to cook or babysit for community gardeners or something). A community garden produces subsistence (food). affection (because friendships may develop), participation, creation…etc. Joining a union we can insist we get freedom, leisure, identity, participation, etc. Public libraries give protection, understanding,identity etc (which reminds me when I finish this book to see if Sophia library want it.
Mies shows though that unlike shopaholism which is geared at soothing but not really satisfying a need; rich, strong communities are able to fill multiple needs and the filling of my needs becomes not a competition against you but can actually make me part of filling your needs too. Other writers like Monbiot and any sensible economist are saying similar things too in terms of sustainable, equitable futures (the only sort of future we will survive).
Dare I wonder if this is quite similar to the message and praxis of Jesus? Actual Jesus not the Constantined version.
This was not in the lectionary, I have not made myself angry or sick by looking at that patriarchal framing this week. I will go out on a limb though and assert that this IS very much the Word of Godde.
Thanks be to Godde.
This week quite a lot of things happened. On the micro-scale… I managed to offend someone whose good opinion I really care about. My most trustworthy and hardworking colleague suddenly chucked a sickie and I got to teach a class I don’t usually get. I realised more about my own privilege. We finally got what felt like some winter weather (and I didn’t like it).
On the slightly broader scale- levels of discontent are rising. One of my friends got a job she really deserves. One of my children applied for an exciting job. Vegan diets and composting are on the increase and people are turning away from plastic bags. But only some people, and this is sad. Extinction rebellion staged a “die in” in work hours and it was well attended (but not by me).
On the larger scale. We have a “Christian” prime minister and a small and beloved Tamil family is being squeezed out of their loving neighbourhood and out of the country. The children are being traumatised even more than they have been. Another “Christian” man is trying to get out of serving his prison sentence for child sex offences. It is hard to believe him innocent given the weight of the evidence and his own lack of insight about sex-crimes within the church hierarchy. I am not reassured by our “Christian” leaders as the sea levels rise. I am stunned that we would “protect our borders” against bright little girls and their parents but open the gate and put the welcome mat out for Adani and Equinor.
I don’t know where to turn for faith this week though, because the lectionary mumbles anachronisms and dogma- dangerous to an aware woman. If I even am a “woman” which is a whole other question. I feel I should make an effort to go “back” to church this week, to recapture something I used to love. I have marking and editing and writing and even a lecture to plan. I have laundry and shopping and cleaning and admin work to do.
I am sitting here drinking coffee and feeling adrift because it is not like I didn’t try the lectionary but it is abjectly failing to speak to me. It’s not reassuring. It’s not challenging. It’s just off-key and sort of smug at me. So where do I take this doubt and this still desire for goodness and love? Where do I take this floating, unmoored feeling? So many psychs over the years have told me to “trust myself” more, but that is hard enough with earthly things. How unsafe, even narcissistic it seems to have the “self” as an authority in spiritual things.
So if not myself, then what can I become aware of? The scrabbling of tiny rodents in the walls when I am trying to sleep? The orange and glorious sunset I can just glimpse from my “hot desk” as I leave work later and later each night? The reed that encircle the shining lake? The student who mentions Paolo Freire before I even do? The paragraph in a paper that I am marking that sounds like it was written by an expert? The bitterness of the too dilute coffee because I am neglecting household tasks like shopping? That elusive reference just outside the reach of my growing but still slow brain? The…(but no some things I should not dwell on even if they seem divine).
Is the net of ripples and circles that I call my “experience” of the world also a sort of lectionary? Can I read the life of God in it? How do I orient myself, in which direction is this “God/Godde”? Is it behind my back in the brave personal battles of one of the other casuals? Is it behind a closed door in an office of one of the “real academics”? Did it leave when we had the restructure? No. It is here. It is always where I am and I am happy to be here even when the hard work almost kills me. I bring it with me, like the roses from my garden that I put in the lunch room, but others bring it with them too. Others I think I know but that have hidden depths. It is in the “care” of teacher for student, senior staff for newer. It is in the enthusiasm of the first-year whose family never went to uni. It is in the ability to quickly understand of the Masters student. It is in the way I thought I was something remarkable, odd or special but everywhere here there are people like me.
It is in the laugh at myself for having been less (and more) than I thought. It is in the student who catches my eye and knows that I know that there is more to life than the four walls of the classroom. It is in temptation (dumplings, mexican food, chocolate brownies and the tavern). The life of Godde is our life.
It is in the fluffy ducklings who do not know the world they have hatched into. It is in the koalas who will be desperate for water by high summer. It is in the brown snakes who wreak such havoc just by appearing. It is in the dying trees and the grapefruit trees, giving their bounty to all and sundry (who can reach). It is in the view of the ocean and the too-blue for winter skies. It is in the library, in the hidden corners and rustling pages and even the annoying blip of someone’s mobile phone. The life of Godde may be beyond humans, but when we touch it then it is here in our lives. If it can be in a cultural text (bible or lectionary) then it can be in other texts too (email asking me to take a class, me trying to fairly word my response to someone asking for an extension).
I thought all this focus on “reality” would go somewhere that I would talk myself out of this spiritual dryness into some sort of “relationship” or some sort of ability to “believe” but the world appears to be dying and my children are in it. I am lost. I do not know how to find Godde or faith in any of this after all. I do not know what meaning any of this has apart from the twisted and difficult pleasure I get from my work. Am I becoming a workaholic? Maybe. I am pursuing this academic dream partly because it gives me joy but also because I cannot see Godde. Can Wisdom be here somewhere? I miss feeling like I knew where she was.
I will wash my clothes as early as possible and take the bus into work to do marking and other things. I love this. I want this. But I feel I ought to understand or touch something bigger in it all. Right now this is all I have.
“The time has come, the walrus said to talk of many things,
of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings
and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings”
A few things happened this week to call me back to my blogging, but similarly I had a look at the lectionary readings and found them a particularly uninspiring bunch. See, the first reading seems so colonial and militaristic. It’s hard to read it any other way the week I had to teach a whole lot of undergrads about the colonialism in our (Australian) history and the subsequent racism and how as privileged (white) people we may be unaware of things…like we take for granted that “skin coloured” bandaids will be a good approximation for the skin we have. Bigger things too!
The psalm tells me to tell the “good news” to all the world, which would seem to me to be liberation. Something like “you can keep your language and your identity, you can keep your sexual orientation and your food security. You can keep your meaningful work and your butterflies. There will be no more billionaires and we will all be kin to each other”
That’s my idea of a “good news”. The good news to me more personally is the work I do, I have a job which is teaching, it is about sharing good news – that we can make a difference, that what we do matters, that the content of learning can be engaging, that young people are worth our hope and our labour. I love my job. And I am not finding the gospel in the lectionary I am finding it in my work. How can this be?
The second reading continues with the same old power differentials that have got the world into this mess. Fathers “scourging” their children. How is this to be heard by a church with a whole bunch of old, insensitive men who have crowned themselves “Fathers” and perpetuated a whole lot of abuses on others? As someone who used to work with children and raised my own without hitting them this is unrelatable. As someone who reaches students through showing my love for teaching and my care for the world they will influence this is almost unthinkable. Where has scourging got society? I am reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as well as Ecofeminism by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva. I just can’t reconcile the toxicity in these two readings with what the world actually needs.
I am having trouble having faith (and yet here I am writing).
The gospel talks about a “straight and narrow way” an exclusive banquet and many to be rejected by God. We are not told here which values are the accepted ones and which rejected. I would read the whole of the text as preaching love and neighbourliness and justice to all but this text is also used by others for narrow obedience. I don’t feel that with the readings it has been selected it is of much help to my Spiritual journey at this time. Hence the walrus and the carpenter.
Why shouldn’t I talk about things other than the lectionary? If Godde is present to me at all she is present in the every day world of a burning Amazon forest, of a tonne of assignments I will need to mark next week (without ceasing to teach all my classes…I am not sure how I am supposed to do that). She may be present in a huge disappointment I suffered this week and in me having to try to explain my queer-trans identity and faith to a researcher. She is present in the joy I feel in the classroom, that grows whenever any of my students catch it off me (and they do!!!).
Shoes and ships and sealing-wax: the ethics of consumption, the difference between needs and distractions, the responsibility each of us has. Who makes our shiny goods? Where are they from? What sufferings and transport emissions do they conceal? We could talk of those things, there are no easy answers but there is joy in the small things I can do, like buy my coffee in a real ceramic mug (not a disposable paper thing) or bring my produce bags to the shop. Planting trees and eating less meat are things anyone/everyone can do. One thing won’t change the world but we must talk of the “many things” and do what we can.
Of cabbages, of gardening (which I do not do well), of vegan recipes, of food-miles and community gardens. Of kings- outmoded systems of power that bear examining and gently (but not over-generously) pensioning off. We do not need the billionaires, but we do need the butterflies and bees. And why the sea is boiling hot? And the icecaps melting? And the forest burning? And our government approving more coal mines? And we have “island-hopping” advertised to us but those islands will be underwater soon. “And whether pigs have wings” and whether our species has a chance of survival. I love my children.
I wanted to write on Wednesday night but instead I went out with my middle son to talk about vegan food and politics and his work and my work and why he makes ethical choices, and what his former tutor said to me.
I wanted to write on Thursday night but instead my youngest son wanted to tell me how angry he is about injustice and about the government selling off the trains and trams. He wanted to discuss economics and ecology while eating three serves of the vegan food I left on the stove. I lied to him and told him I didn’t need it for a work-lunch the next day and I thought of all the vitamins in his growing young body. He washed the dishes anyway.
I wanted to write on Friday night but it was noisy at work so I came home expecting and empty house. My eldest who never comes out of his room came and sat down and asked me about my work and looked over my draft (very unusual) and started telling me about the public health system and how important it is and how we should not erode it. He mentioned the environment “everyone has their thing” he said “and mine is the Great Barrier Reef. I just don’t know how to go on without it”. Of course I told him I love him and need him to keep on even if things are very rough for the earth. He talked about animals going extinct and he didn’t weep, but there was unvoiced weeping between us.
My children. The loves of my life. The only thing I consistently put some positivity into even in the bad years. I can’t let go of this planet and I can’t let go of hope. I don’t care about people believing things or paying tribute to some “Lord” in fact I think that way of conceiving God’s sovereignty is counter-productive. If Godde must have sovereignty let it be the sovereignty I witness from Aboriginal people. “We know how to wait” says Vincent Lingiarri in Kev Carmody’s song. These are a people who have unfairly suffered much but survive and hope and nurture. This is sovereignty and I can see gospel in it the good news of Godde even though I want to cry at the colonialism and put it in the bin. I can’t see Godde’s “love” in punishment, the less I punished my children the more they developed into ethical beings. I don’t know where the narrow gate is but if it is not wheelchair accessible then we need to pick a different venue (my campaign manager last election taught me that).
So thanks lectionary, but no thanks. I am going to get an expensive haircut to restore my queer aesthetic and I am going to finish my article and submit it. I am going to handwash clothes. I am going to buy food for the week. I am going to make an anti-plastic video. I may go to church for the beautiful people not for the readings. Godde is in the ways we mean well. Godde is in the way we orient to each others needs and wellbeing. Godde is in the earth herself. Words can be good, but must be used with care.
If you don’t like my words, you are free to find your own. If words don’t cut it, you might dance a prayer instead. Happy surviving 🙂
You made us like this. You gave us the capacity to think, to reason, to debate, to examine evidence.
You gave us the deep desire to love, to connect, to communicate, to share ideas and feelings. You instilled in us a potential to build our empathy, to understand complexity and contradiction, to examine standpoints, to listen and to learn.
As far as we know we are the only species who can do this.
As far as we know.
are we the species who plunder and loot, who exploit and overuse, who use escapism and denial to hide from our responsibility to be that “higher life form” our art and philosophy used to tell us we were?
are we the species who fear our neighbour and lock up CHILDREN to feed our own fear?
has human history consistently been full of war, abuse, terror, greed and squabbling over things that are not ours?
Creator was this inevitable? Did you know we would be like this? Why did you not know? Why did you make us? Have we ever been better?
Can we be better?
Can these dry bones live? Is there a hope that is not just denial? Is there a joy that is not just excess? Is there a love? Any real love? Not desire or neurosis or need or charity but just that pure and redeeming thing…love?
At church today we talked about Dominic asking us to contemplate the good, the beautiful and the true. Help me to find that in my species. Help me to find it in myself.
The good. The beautiful. The true.