Tag Archives: 2 Corinthians

Your abundance should supply their needs

I have had some internet and email problems this year and as a result, lost my roster for church (among other important things). I did not realise I was meant to be on the roster to lead at church this week until 9:30 last night when someone from the community called me to check up on what was needed this morning. She told me what the gospel for today was meant to be and I started thinking about what I might say.

 
When I got to church this morning, I was able to look up the rest of the lectionary readings and I had to do an “off the cuff” reflection. The fact I was able to do so at all, probably has more to do with this blog than with anything else, and of course God may well have helped me (I certainly asked her to).

 
I will try to remember what it was I said. These were the readings, and I said something like this:
I remember going through a time in my life, when the patriarchy of the church and the male-centredness of the stories and beliefs we were taught made it very difficult for me to continue in the faith. It got to the stage where the maleness of Jesus himself was a problem for me- I felt a strong disjunction about who I was created and called to be with God and the church’s seeming insistence on the MALENESS of priesthood grounded in the maleness of the one we follow. I nearly fell away from the church over this, I could only bring to God my female body, my female-centred way of loving, my female experiences of life and work. If these were not holy then how could I approach God?

 
Today’s gospel perhaps speaks to those yearnings and questions I had as a young woman. I experience Jesus in this gospel within my own life where I have been a mother, and early childhood worker and in some degree and activist and I can relate to the way Jesus is being pushed and pulled and pressured every which way. So many different people demand things from him and each person’s need is urgent and real. Jesus sets off to help one person, is interrupted by another and as a result of stopping to help the second one, the first- a little girl dies.

 
Being Jesus he can make something of this, he can turn death into life which is certainly more than I can do. I don’t have the capability or the patient grace of Jesus in my own life as I juggle competing demands (all important) and try to discern where to turn my attention, where to channel my love. I often drop the ball, neglect something I should have done or arrive too late to something else.

 
I take heart then from the second reading that reminds me that God is not asking us to deprive ourselves for the sake of others, or to give more than we have. God is challenging us as relatively wealthy and comfortable people to give of our surplus. All it takes is allowing God to turn our greed and our fear into generosity and openness. Is that not an important lesson for our time?

 
How can we not pay heed to this call to share from our abundance? How can we bear to be part of incarcerating people and families on Manus or at Nauru? We are not just starving their bodies, we are not just taking away their lives we are starving them of hope. Of hope itself. I almost began to cry at this point as I often do when I consider the mother who lost her son or the man dying of cancer or the hundreds of others.

 
This cruel way of treating people, it really needs to be said is a sinful direction for our society to be going.

 
It is against God. The same goes for what is happening in the US where little children are being pulled away from their mothers and fathers (I didn’t mention our own stolen generations but I should have). I read this week about small children, some as young as three being forced to go to court to be sentenced and deported- all alone these children face this without even a loving adult by their side.

 
This is an evil beyond words, an extreme evil. I feel that word is not an exaggeration.

 
I have been reading bell hooks this week, “all about love”. In it she talks about our yearning for love and the way so many of us grow up not getting what we need from our families- not experiencing the emotional security of being loved. She talks about romantic relationships also frustrating this need and not delivering the love that is needed. I could relate to what she was saying the desperation and the lovelessness that she said is characteristic of people in the world today.

 
She said that people yearn to be loved but have never experienced it. That they do not know what it would feel like to be really loved and as a consequence they do not know how to love.

 
While I could see that there was some truth in what I was saying I could not agree with her that I had never experienced being loved. I feel that this is a community that has taught me a lot about love. I have been loved here and encouraged to grow into a more loving human being. I have had my gifts honoured, and my lack of giftedness forgiven. This is a place where we come to be loving and to heal each other’s capacity to love and to hope. How can we pour out our love to the world? How can we be the loving people that the world needs?

 
Let us think about that. Let us remember that God does not ask from us more than we are capable of giving. How can we be the love the world needs? How can we ask for and teach love to others? When we are pulled this way and that by the needs of others; and are poured out and fragile, how can we trust God to fill us up? How do we bring love, healing, and new life also to each other?

Fallenness…sin…human nature?

Are we “fallen”? Is there something really flawed and ruined about humanity? Do we need “saving”? Some theological perspectives would answer “yes” to these questions, or ones like them. In that sort of a theology, usually Jesus’ death is seen as the salvific act, the death is a necessary sacrifice, a good thing. I approach a perspective like that with extreme caution, even suspicion. What does it do to our collective psyche if some human deaths and suffering are necessary or “good”? I don’t like the implications of accepting the pain and sacrifice of another too blithely.

But we do need to grapple with understandings about our own nature and about who God is. These questions seem to me to go back to today’s first reading.

In the first reading Adam has sinned by listening to the “woman” who listened to the animal. He has embarked on a human pattern of othering any part of himself that causes him shame. He is hiding away from God, afraid and conscious of his own nakedness. Nakedness has ceased to be an innocent state, he needs a barrier between himself and the environment. Incidentally this is the first “nudey-rudey” self-shaming episode that many children internalise as parents battle them out of embarrassing habits.

God in this reading accepts Adam’s assertion that it was “the woman’s” fault and her assertion in turn blaming the serpent. God appears to be sanctifying the hierarchy we know so well. What is going on here? Why would an all-knowing and all-loving God create humans with not only the capacity but the yearning to “fall” in this way? Why give “Adam” such a flawed companion? Why allow the serpent to speak? The idealised “perfection” of Eden thus becomes reconstituted as a death-trap. Some theologies hold that God planned it all that way to make Jesus’ saving act all the more spectacular.

This also is problematic.

Let’s assume that God set up the fall and the resultant disconnection in order to make necessary and meaningful horrific violence and abuse many centuries later. At this point I can see some sense in the mocking atheists, the “spaghetti monster” people etc. If I understand my faith this way it does seem violent and compassionless. If I understand myself as so “fallen” I can see a need to repress my own emotions, my own impulses, my own over-loud heart.

I grew up with a faith related to that, and it didn’t do me much good.

But outside of this pericope, Genesis also tells us that we are made in God’s image. There must be some inherent beauty and goodness (ie grace) in our identity, whatever about “original sin”. How can we be made in God’s image and yet made only to fall and be fragmented and driven asunder? How can we be made in God’s image, yet in our very nature demand and need the violent death of another? What is “God” then?

Last week I mentioned George Monbiot’s assertion that human beings are intrinsically altruistic. While the bible does not specifically say so, this idea fits with many biblical stories and thoughts. It fits with the idea that we are made in God’s image. It fits with the idea that God loves us (why would God love the irretrievably fallen?). It fits with Jesus’ tendency to spread food and wine and joy together with his wisdom; to spread healing together with forgiveness; to spread love and hope in the world. To take blame and judgement as the main products of our faith is to miss the point.

“Out of my depths” of yearning to be more than some narrative of “fall”, I pass through the psalm where all things are redeemable into the second reading. Like the author of the second reading “I believe therefore I speak”. I may be wrong in what I say, but my theologising comes from a position of faith- my faith in God is important enough for me to have made this commitment. I am called to put in the hard work every week and write something, sometimes also to preach it. I often fail at this and other vocations in my life, but I also often break it into small enough steps to succeed at some of it.

There is more than fallenness and passivity and waiting in my relationship to God. I sweat real sweat of hard work over the computer each week. I shake with real anxiety when I stand up before people to preach. My collaboration with God is imperfect because I am a still growing-toward God little unfinished image, not because I am completely without hope and “fallen”. I sin less (I believe) when I think about what I am doing, when I focus my motivations on others (particularly on God) and when I make an effort. It is very easy to slide into all sorts of unhealthy relationships with myself, others, food, money, work and leisure. While I can’t make myself perfect through an act of will, or a decision or even through hard work I can make myself better or worse by trying or not. I need God sure, but God also requires of me a commitment of will and effort.

Seems like I am in a more complicated relationship with God than merely “fallen” or “saved”, each day I make choices (some without noticing) about who to be and how to be. I am like the babies I work with, I sometimes over-reach and other times I am tired or lazy or angry and do not try enough. I am human. I am flawed. I am imperfect. But I am intrinsically good.

I am made in God’s image.

The gospel cautions us against sin against the Holy Spirit. This is a debated text, but for an every-day reading I like to reflect on who the Holy Spirit is and where we encounter her? In the context of the reading, the Holy Spirit is to be encountered in Jesus who therefore should not be mocked or dismissed. We know from Jesus that we find him (therefore also the Holy Spirit) in our neighbour.

We are called to look for traces of good in each other and to recognise and honour the Holy Spirit in all. Are we willing to see these traces in our Muslim neighbour? In our lesbian neighbour? In our politician neighbour? In our militant vegan neighbour? In our private-school educated neighbour? What about the noisy child? The strangely dressed or pierced teenager? The overly talkative old neighbour? We are all made in the image of God and the good things we do (however fleeting or however consistent) all come from God’s Spirit. God’s creation cannot fail to have goodness at its core.

It is a denial of God’s spirit to dehumanise others, even others we disapprove of or disagree with. It is a denial of God’s spirit to be so cynical about humanity that we advocate violence or nihilism. It is a denial of God’s spirit to only value animals, plants or rocks only by how much money we can extract from what we do with them. Are these ways of thinking unforgiveable? I hope not. I hope God’s Spirit dwells so tangled and burrowed deep into our DNA that it is impossible to completely de-Spirit us.

That is what I hope, but Jesus DOES caution us not to be too small-minded to recognise and honour the Holy Spirit. If we mock Jesus, or if we mock those who have hope and idealism then we are doing a dangerous thing to our souls. Perhaps it’s not about getting our theology or our creed right in the end, it is about getting our relationship right.

Because if we manage to live according to the Holy Spirit- for a moment or a lifetime then we ARE Jesus’ family. That is what we are made for and always called back to as human beings, as earthlings. Let us pray that we know and do the will of God. Let us trust in God, our souls trusting in God’s Word. Let us love generously, recognising the family resemblance in all creation.

Nothing is going to get better…without your work.

I find the way sinfulness and repentance is portrayed in the readings today problematic. Here I go again arguing with centuries of tradition, but it seems offensive to have to appease and angry and tantruming Lord, to consider ourselves condemned unless we humiliate ourselves- that seems to go against the idea of a loving God that wants us to thrive and grow.

But if I assume that a loving God wants us to thrive and grow, what am I left with of these readings?

  1. It’s not too late to repent. In terms of the extreme sins of society that we are entangled in. In terms of our personal investment in those sins (lifestyles reliant of environmental degradations, disgusting inequalities, consumerism, cowardice, addictions). In terms of the lack of hope in humanity’s future if we don’t repent quickly the readings have a few things to say.

“Even now…return to me with your whole heart…” Don’t just despair that it ought to have been done a decade ago, get busy saving the earth now. “Let your hearts be broken…” repentance is an emotionally honest process, not a performative one. The second reading tells us that “now is an acceptable time…a day of salvation”. The time we need to be doing any work of repentance is NOW. Not despair over a past when we “should have”, not wishy-washy trust in a nebulous future but the hard yards need to happen “now” (there is a promise that we will feel joy).

  1. This is urgent. The business of fixing the values that we live by as individuals and demanding better from our society is urgent- more urgent than getting married, or other cosy lifecycle practices of human beings. At the same time I realise that this reading was written many centuries ago for quite a different time, so the universal call to leave family and celebration and make a serious and urgent event of repentance comes around again and again and again. Hence we have lent. It’s exhausting to live in a serious-minded lent frame of mind for long, so we can’t blame ourselves for needing other parts of the liturgical year, however lent has a sense of urgency- we need to change how we relate to ourselves, each other and the world, therefore improving our relationship with God.

 

  1. This needs to be real. Performative holiness, looking like the person who prays more and fasts more and does more for the church or good cause does not fool God. God wants a deep commitment, that other people don’t even always need to be aware of. Having said that, recently a young man confided in me that because he has not got any children he uses a truly staggering part of his salary each week (which he works hard for) to support a cause he believes in. I did not feel he was telling me this to make me approve of him or admire him (though it did have a positive effect on my opinion of him), he was telling me as part of his need to share his journey and his fierce hopes and looming despair. I felt inspired and connected by him trusting me enough to tell me- so I don’t think giving ALWAYS needs to be a secret. It can be a model, and inspiration for others we may have all sorts of good reasons to let people see our light. It is just that the gospel is picking up the theme of the first reading.

 

The point of generosity and goodness is not to appear holy or admirable, it is to make an actual difference within ourselves and the world. Reading smug parenting blogs with a passive-aggressive judgemental tone has taught me to look for my motivation in sharing something I am good or successful at. Am I really trying to be “good news” when I talk about something I think I have got right? Sometimes the answer is “yes”, and I truly appreciate the young man’s confession of how generous he is. Other times all I am doing is trying to look better than others or shame them. God is not impressed.

Ove the years I have seen some unhealthy tendencies in my own relationship with God. One is dependence, this is the one that is often encouraged in some churches- where God’s role in the relationship is to know everything and order everything and fix everything for me from my economic woes to my mental health. This is a seductive idea because it takes the responsibility to act and grow away from me, I am simply a victim of the divine and need to trust more or surrender more to be fixed.

In my experience, no matter how hard people pray and believe they don’t always magically get what they need. Then people will try to tell you it must be “God’s will” that you suffer. I reject that idea also. What is the good of life if God plays creepy, psychotic mind-games with us to “test” us or something? Theologies like that give rise to unhealthy power-structures and all sorts of abuses.

So my final point about repentance, and it springs out from these readings is that it is an active verb. We repent, change our ways, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”. We take radical responsibility for ourselves, including the responsibility to separate what is “sin” and what is “me” and not confuse the two. I can turn away from sin but I cannot turn away from myself (and in fact self-hate of various sorts has been a consistent and toxic sin that I have had to battle for many years). A measure of self-compassion needs to blend with our repentance, like that drop of water that brings out the flavours of a good whisky.

Repentance is not about holding myself to a higher and higher impossible standard, forbidding myself human weakness and moments of being trivial. But it is about trying to move away from “victim narratives” where the world is too awful to be born, or escapist and addictive behaviours and overfocus on the wrong things. God is calling us “now” to a fuller, deeper, richer, more meaningful life. We must care for ourselves AND others. This is not a chore but a fulfilment of our true nature in God. Look deep inside and allow yourself to care. Feel compassion for the child you were, the adult you have been, the adult you are currently and all the great and flawed things you will be tomorrow. You have been hurt. You have been harmed,

Then compassion needs to flow outwards as well. Who is suffering more than you? This is not to belittle the validity of your pain and scream of anguish, but simply to find solidarity and compassion for them, your God-given vocation. What do we all need for the best possible future? How do we look beyond our own private good to a “kindom of God” approach to life?

Rest up and heal if you need to but also stand up for things and give generously to others. Demand a world that does not crush your light (my light, your light are connected to every other light that God has put into creation). I won’t give words for a prayer today, it is too easy to hide behind words. I will look for my awareness of where my potential is to turn more fully to be facing God in the dance of life. I will look at where my understanding and compassion are needed. I will forgive myself for not being better, but I will do it with a joyful spark of knowledge that the “not better” is only a “not yet”.

I will work for the things that matter, giving up escapism (in my case dumb computer games) for the duration of lent and stop avoiding the deep reflective time that is needed for my growth. I will light a candle and contemplate without words (or try to).

 

 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not” (Dr Seuss, The Lorax)

God has touched us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” God asked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God has touched us.