Category Archives: Reflection/Sermon

Forget the weeds, nurture the wheat.

This is a reflection i will deliver at church this morning. These are the readings .

“The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness”. May the Spirit bless this attempt to say something.

The parable of the weeds and the wheat seems to me to be a very relevant one for our time. We live in a society that seems intent on punishing people we deem weeds, without worrying too much about the incidental damage to any wheat in the equation. Many examples spring into my mind, but two in particular, because the newspapers whip up fear and hatred for these groups of people almost daily. The first is the fear of “terrorists” and the willingness to exclude and imprison all refugees in order to protect ourselves from some terrorists who may or may not be in the mix. The second is the assertion that many or most welfare recipients are cynically milking the system for money while neglecting their children. As someone who lives mainly among welfare recipients (and yes some of them are very troubled people, especially after years of hardship and broken hopes) I feel pain and despair at the hatred and judgement currently being directed against people who have the same desires as any of us, to give their children an education and to live life connected to other people.

It’s interesting that the gospel makes no mention of proportions of wheat to weeds. I’ve generally assumed that the weeds that contaminate the field are in the minority, that most of the field is wheat, but we do not know that. Either way it is not for us to try to judge, sanction or weed out the “bad people” in a group we are nurturing- we simply nurture and God does any sifting that is necessary- after the event. I wonder how many people who appear to be weeds, become wheat given enough nurture?

I wonder if I have started to look like wheat yet, for I surely was weed for most of my life.

Taking the same metaphor and bringing it closer in, each of us is also not purely wheat, or purely weeds but a complicated, impossible to unravel mix of both. Often we have been encouraged to be self-critical and try to “weed out” of ourselves any sins, impurities, smallness of heart or lack of faith. Often I despair that I work so hard to be a better person and all I get is compassion fatigue, or the mesmerising complexity of a world where I simply don’t know what is safe to believe or want or do.

What if I stop trying to “weed out” the parts of myself that I think are flawed or unacceptable and trust God that she has planted beautiful golden wheat in there, grains destined to become bread of life, along with Christ. God insists that there is something wholesome and good in me and you, something that can generously feed the world with beauty and truth. Sure there are weeds there too (once again we don’t know the specific proportion in each of us) but my job is to nurture the good and trust in it, and let God eventually sort the rest if it needs to be sorted. That’s not a cop out. If I believe in the wheat of myself then I will act out of the generosity of the swelling grain- I will know that I am not depleted when I love and trust other human beings and seek a gentler, more compassionate world.

The kindom of God is not to be found in the act of judging and weeding, of keeping out unworthy types and outsiders. It is the tiniest mustard seed of possibility inside each of us. Mustard when it grows is a tenacious bush, even a weed- it gets into everything and the same birds that nest in it scatter the seeds far and wide. When I see a person who appears to my limited and prejudiced view to be a weed, then perhaps all the understanding I can summon up within myself is also tiny and insignificant like a mustard seed.

With God’s grace in my life, my mustard seed version of God’s love can grow into a real involvement in the lives of my neighbours, a genuine commitment to their well-being without patronage…the seeds spread also into their life, people can be transformed. As with a mustard plant we have little control of the process- growing things requires a measure of faith and hope.

My sister is a baker so I love Jesus’ third metaphor. I also have many memories of my mother staying up all night to bake bread. With her sourdough she made her own yeast, leftover from the previous batch of bread. It looked flaky and unassuming. In the same way the small generosity we can have toward each other can be small and initially almost powerless- maybe only the power of recognition to begin with.

This recognition is grounded in God’s great recognition of the wheat within us, the growth toward loving-kindness. Small and unassuming like yeast it begins, touching the flat, basic wheat and water of another person’s life; thus it swells into loaves. The bread of life.

It would be easy to focus on what we as individuals or as a society ought to do better. There is a place for critical reflection and for seeking to improve how we relate. But perhaps the call today is a more difficult one. Perhaps we can sit and become aware of the wholesome wheat that we are- in some significant proportion, each of us within ourselves. Forget the weeds for now, forget how you think you could or should be better and be joyful to be God’s wheat for a hungry world. Try to feel the joy of this being and ripening.

Then, when you are ready, I invite you to briefly share your own perspectives with the people sitting nearby.

Burdened: Of flesh and spirit

I was able to share this reflection/preaching at church this week. The readings are here. My wonderful community as usual helped me in myriad ways and I am left feeling extremely grateful to be part of it.

They call it “catholic guilt” that feeling that the whole world is on your shoulders, crushing you and that you are always a frivolous and questionable human being that should be doing more, sinning less, always loving, always giving, always more and more good. To me it sits easily with the second reading’s scorn for all things “flesh”. I know I eat too much, sleep too much, lust too much, waste time and get distracted too much. I can get paralysed in labyrinths of self-loathing.

Historically the weighty, worldly, inferior “flesh” has been equated with women and those of us who are women tend to have taken that on especially strongly, hypercriticising ourselves about everything we do or don’t do, even how we look. Our bodies seem to let us down at times, for a large chunk of our adult life they have a cycle of sensitivity and weariness with tears and bleeding which seems to schedule itself to appear especially at the times when we would have liked to seem most invincible. We have been expected to take up more than half of the burden of cooking and cleaning and child-raising all the tasks which bring us very much into our bodies and force us to deal with the realities of other people’s bodies.

Because of this, for me the idea that we need to “rise above” flesh and be all about spirit sounds like a very privileged and misleading claim. People who consider themselves “spiritual” still have bodies after all and someone has to prepare food for them and clean up after them. It seems to me more honest to stop pitting the spirit versus the body and to allow them to nurture each other- thus allowing every person to be both.

Carter Heyward in her book “Saving Jesus from those who are right” looks extensively at how we can find God through respectful, mutual relationships with others (human and otherwise) and within our embodied realities of life and love. I want to return to the second reading with Heyward’s assumption that my bodily, lived reality and relationships are where I encounter God.

We are not ONLY flesh. We are not ONLY limits and needs and mortalities. We are “Spirit”, something greater than an individual person or handed down tradition, greater than the group of “insiders”.

Spirit is radical connection, embodiment toward the whole- it is galaxies and stars and planets, blades of grass and tiny fish, children born into poverty and adults who want to be able to afford an education. Spirit in humans may look like art and literature, dance, hopes, visions and dreams, physical exertion simply for the glory of it and warm prickles of water washing our skin in the morning. It is giving. It is loving. It is reaching outside myself to include someone more in my circle of care. It is also hunger and thirst and need: the persistent call for greater justice.

But we (spiritual beings) are embodied. We need to be kind to our limited selves too. Jesus in the gospel is not inviting us into that constant nit-picking that I started with but offering us a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.

We are called to become who we secretly want to be- more human, more authentic to the image of God we were made in- more compassionate and wise and filled with meaning NOT out of guilt, but out of the joy of living authentically. To do this, we need to let go of the fearfulness that God will ask more from us than we are capable of giving. Instead we may seek to find the desire in ourselves to give generously.

I struggle with this, not because I don’t believe it is there but because enthusiasm gives way to exhaustion and distraction and the effort of juggling too many different things  at once… I have not yet found a truly, deeply AUTHENTIC way to live my vocation.

The hope lies in that we are yoked with Christ and with all who are yoked with Christ. We share the burden and hopefully pull more or less in the same direction- toward the liberation and life of all.

It is not “I” alone who must achieve my vocation we are called into the love of Jesus, our vocation is to be community and within it is rest, refreshment and the ability to share the load.

 

Let’s just sit for a moment with the invitation to an “easy” “light” load and to “rest”. How will our deepest longings and God’s deepest longings begin to actualise without us beating ourselves up all the time? How do we “learn from” this wise Word of God? How could we become?

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.

Bootleg preacher attempts to be reflexive

Apologies for length. I will never know if you skim read, read just a paragraph or skip it entirely 😉

The missal has this to say explaining the role of the “homily”: “Through the readings, God has spoken to his people of redemption and salvation, and nourished their spirit with his word. Christ is present among the faithful in his word. The homily helps those present understand and reflect upon what they have heard.” (32). We are given no advice on how to discern the validity and “truth” of the homily, presumably we are left to trust blindly to the authority of the (ordained, male) priest. Nor is there any mention of the priest’s responsibility to preach ethically nor any ideas on how to ensure that this happens.

As a listener, I can remember slowly realising that the sermons I had taken as unquestionably truth were performed by biased, limited humans who might have thought they were acting responsibly in what they told us to believe, but did this without any respect for the critical abilities or experiences of the listener and with some fairly glaring gaps in their point of view. I realised this as an adult and as a slow process of disillusionment. By this time I had already heard many things passionately decried from the pulpit- contraception, homosexuality (on the bright side that was where I found out what homosexuality even was) and even feminism.

As a preacher myself, a bootleg-preacher who has no license (or possibility of being licensed) from the church magisterium I wonder then why should people trust what I say? Related to this is a question to myself- how dare I express and opinion and how do I keep myself honest? Part of my answer is that I truly believe that I am preaching not for personal gain, or to big-note myself (to the tiny handful of people who receive my words) but because the female, feminist, lesbian, single-mother, vegan point of view is part of the much wider and more diverse kindom of God and is a piece that has been hidden from sight and silenced from being heard. Therefore I speak not only myself but a silenced fragment of the Word of God.

So “God told me to” I say, and yet this as a claim must always be suspect. Much as I am suspicious of the authority of the clergy, so anyone ought to be extremely suspicious of my authority too- perhaps the more so if you only have my word for it. Within the messiness of that awareness I always preach carefully, self-consciously trying to remember that no one OWES me their trust and belief and that they will listen politely and then decide and possibly disagree with me. This is one safety catch to my preaching.

But then recently I had an experience where an academic article I wrote (nothing to do with theology) was rejected by the peer reviewers and one of their criticisms was that I had not established the VALIDITY of my research enough. This criticism has led me into a lot of reading and thinking about validity- what is it and how do we establish it? To problematize this further, there is no established blueprint for validity and even things that get taken for granted as the “gold standard” (scientific method) contain flaws and impossibilities. For an interesting view of some research that has claimed to “prove” things while in fact being full of flaws, read Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young. This book rang true with me- many things that are accepted as “fact” seem built on a foundation of sand- but then where is the rock on which I can pitch my building (clever people will tell me the rock is God or Christ but that is a glib non-answer really).

How do I “keep myself honest” to do what I way I am doing, say what I claim I will say and show my working out enough so people can follow me (or spot where they diverge). How might I do it in research brings me back to the question of how do I do it as a preacher (blogger, speaker). I have some thoughts on this- mainly sourced from reading things written by Patti Lather, also Jill Green, as well as a lecture I recently attended by Yarrow Andrew.  I have not given links to their work but all are possible to “google scholar”. Even though all three are academic writers/speakers my thoughts here will remain more about my faith life rather than becoming academic in nature.

One of the first things that springs up whenever people consider qualitative research methods and especially the place of feminist thinking is the idea of reflexivity. Reflexivity means having some idea of who I am, what experiences have formed me to be this way and what gaps there may be in my knowledge and experience. In other words it involves identifying my bias and my point of view. For feminists reflexivity means both explaining how our experiences (of exclusion and discrimination) have led us to challenge what we are “supposed to” think and how we are “supposed to” account for it- so that our experiences become an impetus for questioning and breaking the rules (both the clearly stated and the taken-for-granted ones). We might find that the rules don’t “work” for us, or function only to keep reproducing the status quo and leave power imbalances intact. Then I as a preacher use my knowledge of who I am and what sort of people I might (partially) speak for to argue for my right and need to speak.

The other function of “reflexivity” is to call to account the speakers and preachers who have defined “truth” for us and told us what to believe. So for example when the preacher told me that women feeling erotic love for other women was “sinful”, I could have asked him how he would know this (I was about eight and he was beyond question). He was a man with a public commitment to be “celibate” therefore not to be in intimate relations with a woman himself. He had lived for many years with other celibate men (although it is probable that some of the domestics who looked after him and certainly some if not all of his secretaries were female). Nothing about his standpoint means he is necessarily “wrong” it just means he would have had very little empathy for what it was like growing up as a female who was female-centred in her unspeakable desires, who was sent to an all girls’ school etc. He was speaking to me from a very, very distant point from my experience across a whole host of assumptions that came out of his own limited perspective and which I was expected to take-on wholesale.

At the time I did take them on, because I didn’t have the years under my belt to know that anything I could feel, imagine or experience had any sort of meaning. Life was confusing and I experienced myself as a misfit and a hated mistake. This of course was not the preacher’s intent and I would not have seen any part of how depressed and self-hating I was to have stemmed from what I heard at church. If I was older and more opinionated/feminist I would have had questions about how he knew what he “knew” and where such thinking came from. He would have had answers for all my questions of course but I could question the answers and keep questioning or at least work out of a hermeneutic of suspicion- which we know to switch on as soon as someone is claiming to speak “absolute truth” and not showing reflexivity about their own possible failures to “know” or “understand”.

In addition to reflexivity, Green talks about “catalytic validity”, that is, being aware what it is we want to change through our research. For the preacher there can be no clear “catalytic validity” because it would be unethical to tell people how to live or specifically what to do (in the past some preachers have told people how to vote but tempting though that is- that is an abuse of the power to preach). So as a preacher instead my “catalytic validity” is the desire to be moving in my own life toward the kindom of God- so I am preaching to myself, I am trying to shift my own self into better praxis and healthier relationships. In that sense preaching must be a giant (but honest) thinking aloud exercise where I am showing my own faith journey and allowing anyone who listens/reads me to walk it with me. They get to choose their own role on my journey, they could be observers, participants, co-walkers, respectful disagree-ers or disbelievers or attempt to change my direction. People sometimes shift between different roles in engaging with my faith journey but just as I do not get to define their journey, so they may speak back by sharing their own but they don’t get to take my journey from me and forcibly change my direction or derail me.

I wanted to say a lot more about triangulation (not letting one person being your only source for what to believe) and how also some of ideas around how concepts of “validity” are problematic, fragmented and don’t always perfectly come out but I am aware that this is already an overly long piece of writing.

If you wish to- share in the comments what sort of things a preacher may say, do or be that make you more likely to trust their preaching (or mistrust it) and also how you bring your own hermeneutic of suspicion into how you engage with someone’s preaching.

In addition for anyone who preaches, I would like to know (if you can simply reduce it for us) how you make sure you are saying things that are right, valid and helpful for others; also do you undermine your own authoritative voice in any way to assist people to remember to listen critically and with discernment?

But perhaps you will feel this conversation would go better over a bottle of scotch and several hours…

Where’s the good news?

A lot of other people have written good stuff on “the gospels” so I am not going to discuss which parts I think are true/factual and which are made up (my opinion varies anyway) or point out that the significant differences in them, or even nitpick the patriarchal view of any or all of the gospel writers (or gospel writing communities which seems more likely). I do think it is problematic how we often privilege the gospel over the rest of scripture and how that fits with the anti-semitism of the OT/NT world-view. I also think it is problematic how little we dare to criticise the words or deeds of Jesus (as recorded) and tend to assume if it is in the book then it is automatically both good news and true.

And I guess that is where I want to come into the liturgical moment of the “gospel reading” and ask a few hard questions to make sure we are not being sold “fake news” in the guise of “good news”. Even though I like history as much as anybody and more than some, I don’t think the point of history is to look back and find some sort of objective “truth” about exactly what happened and I don’t think the bible is only history in any case- it has mythical status as much as anything else and I neither want to reify nor debunk all that.

But I partly want to debunk the idea that Christ is more present in the official gospel, than in the good news of some of the “Old Testament” readings for example, or the good news of “Acts” or the “epistles” or my life or yours or the rainbow I saw one week on my way to church. All of that is God’s good news, therefore gospel. So I want to wonder aloud about good news- what is it and how do we find it and how do we know we can accept it?

When I studied homiletics, we were warned to ensure we were finding the “good news” even in negative texts. At the time I had a fairly hippy “everything is awesome” view of church and God’s kindom (not that’s not a typo) and a fairly negative view of anything that spoke about “sin” or anything other than God’s unconditional and always redeeming love. I still believe in the kindom of God and that it is built on a foolishly generous and eternally hopeful outpouring of unconditional love by God to all creation, but also that this love may contain strong anger toward injustice, especially the stubborn sort of injustice that refuses persistently to be called to account. That is, I do not think God will punish us (or perhaps anybody) for getting things wrong, but I think the sin that leads to the suffering of humans or of the earth is a real problem for God and one we need to try to address to live faithfully and lovingly with our ultimate friend/lover, God.

So I find the balance trickier now, because I don’t enjoy or find helpful overly positive readings of the world or the text, that try to explain away or erase conflicts and the terrible injustices in our lives (our lives in the broad sense where we are connected to each other). And yet the heart yearns always for hope, hope is the breath of the soul and we asphyxiate when our environment is too polluted by fears, suffering and despair. So the “good news” is still the heart of what we seek in God’s word. We come to God not just to be challenged or debated with but to be loved and affirmed. But then we come not as overtired babies to be simply soothed but as partners who seek also to soothe God and make her comfortable and accepted with us equally to the comfort and acceptance we seek.

So we make ourselves into gospel, into Good News also for God, because in some way maybe God also can be nourished by nothing else. I have been wondering about that as I continue to read Carter Heyward’s “Saving Jesus from those who are right”. How do I make myself and my life “good news” for God? Any grandiose plans where I give everything in some radical way are fleeting because I have children and friends and a job where it matters whether I am fully present, so I begin by being fully present to my near ones and those dependent on me, and also to my gifts. Even that is difficult, even that is a large thing to attempt (and I am not claiming to have achieved it) but then there are the political things we can do- we can band together with others- listen and support and do what we can to choose and change the world we live in. The balance between looking after my small world and my big one is one I never seem to manage. At times I have poured myself out (though not as much as some others I admire) to do things for “good causes” and I have begun to neglect my family and friends or my own health. More recently I have generally erred on the side of allowing myself some personal time and valuing my social contacts and “coffee dates” (and the never-ending conversation of my son) but then who will be an activist or an organiser for anything?

And how/when do I write? And is it just a self-indulgence?

For me it is no simple task to become “gospel” to the cheering of God’s heart but I must remember both that God loves me already and sees all the traces of gospel that I am, even if I am not a great masterpiece. And I must also remember that just as in the text, the bible we are given four “gospels” and just as we can find God’s good news in many places and people and texts so God has all creation to draw her own gospel and her own incentive to kindom from not just “me” the individual.

I will continue to think about that in a world where sometimes “good news” is hard to find and at church when sometimes “good news” is not as apparent in the words we are supposed to assent to as we would like. I will wonder not “where is the good news” but “how can I become part of the good news in this story”.

We are the good news to the world and to each other.

Our love and passion always for you, beautiful Wisdom!