Tag Archives: baptism

On Sebastian’s Confirmation

My youngest was confirmed and I was privileged to be allowed to speak (preach?) on the day. There were also two baptisms and so I wanted to tie the confirmation in with them. Here is what I said…

Sebastian was baptised a long, long time ago. We had all the same hopes for him that parents do at baptisms. We didn’t feel we needed God to “change” him or “fix” him in any way, but we wanted to show our commitment to bringing him into the Christian community.

His community of faith was a joyful, accepting one. I had been asked NOT to step down from serving at the altar when I was pregnant (although I was allowed to sit down and take breaks when I needed to)- we celebrated the baptism at the Adelaide College of Divinity, intentionally choosing ecumenical territory, Matthew and I bringing our families and our friends together and Sebastian was not for a moment short of arms that wanted to hold him and faces that wanted to smile at him.

It was like any baptism of a baby that way. There were the symbols- water- death and resurrection, oil, candle, white garment. There was the love and the welcome in everyone’s hearts. I felt sure that baptism for Sebastian would not be a one-off event but would be the beginning of a journey. Over the years we have been part of several church communities- but what Sebastian has found there has been people who offer to babysit him and bake him sausage rolls, people who sewed a tiny cassock so he could be boat boy and people who made sure there were some kids drinks at morning tea after the service. He has been taught about the bible and about the sacraments and about how precious is God’s creation- human and otherwise.

At Cabra chapel Sebastian has been accepted with enthusiasm but also respect for his boundaries as he gets older. He often gets asked to help out in various ways, but the asking is never forceful. When I have the temerity to walk into the church without Sebastian, I always know people are going to ask me where he is. He has been allowed to become an important part of this community, because that has been his baptismal right. Baptism makes a place like this, a church community “home”. The baptised Christian is always called back by God to be amidst the love, support, inspiration and nurture of their community and that has been the case with us.

But now Sebastian is ready to be confirmed and confirmation works together with baptism as a sort of divine circle of security. You probably all know about the circle of security where parents work with the child on separating and reconnecting easily with trust and for the needs of the child –reassurance and encouragement to be met as the child manages to do more and more for themselves, but returns to that safe base. The sacraments work similarly, and in confirmation we receive the Holy Spirit as our mentor and inspiration. The Holy Spirit already knows Sebastian well I am sure and will work with Sebastian’s deepest God-given nature to find Sebastian’s unique work in this world. We all have unique work for God’s kindom and a unique (though sometimes difficult to understand or respond to) call.

In baptism, Sebastian has been called into the nurturing heart of his Christian community, in confirmation he will be sent out, commissioned to walk with God in the world. There is no contradiction here, any more than there is in the circle of security. He is simultaneously sent out and called back in. So are we all. Sebastian is no longer the baby he was and we must trust him and God to decide exactly how he will follow his sending out and his call inward. But we are pleased that he is our family, we are pleased that he is our church.

His journey of faith reminds us to look to our own ongoing journey of faith and his young flame of Wisdom and Courage, Joy and all the fruits of the spirit is one we will still nurture with our prayers, acceptance and community life.

We are privileged to assist God in nurturing these young lives and welcoming them into our midst. Come Holy Spirit. Fill our hearts today and always.

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Sprinkling, splashing, laughter and play

The next section in my book was “Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water” and nearly every time we skipped that and went to the Penitential rite. But I loved it on the few occasions when we had the sprinkling instead of the dreary old Penitential rite. In retrospect I feel I didn’t need to focus on my childish “sins” quite as much as I was encouraged to, especially given that I had so many adults to tell me what I did wrong anyway, it would have been nice to keep at least my internal voice free from that (it has been a toxic addiction my whole life to dwell on my guilt and shortcomings, it’s exhausting and it doesn’t make you a better person and nit-picking yourself is not the same thing as genuinely taking responsibility for your actions and identity).

But those days when we had the sprinkling were always festive days. We’d get a sharp slap or reprimand from Mum or Dad if we dared giggle aloud like we wanted to but we grinned. As I got older and there were seven children I learned to plan strategically where to sit so the water would land on me. Some priest seemed to have a sense of humour they would grin at our large family lined up and deliberately give us an extra splash. When it was clear that “father” did it on purpose we also seemed to get away with a muted snort of laughter. It was clear that laughing at church was only OK if the priest started it. Small wonder I wanted to be a priest, there was so much to laugh at (joy or amusement) and I wanted to be starting the laugh every time. But girls “can’t”.

The feminist theologians have pulled apart the metaphor of baptism and I find it easy to agree with them that “baptism” as it stands, controlled by an all male “celibate” clergy is a sort of insult to the actual physical fact of baptism, where each person comes into the world to take their own life in their own hands, through blood and water- out of another person (and the love and nurture that led to birth) and welcomed INTO a community. So concurrently at birth we gain our independence (arguably personhood) and our connectedness, membership and dependence (later interdependence) of a family. But patriarchy responds to this sacramentality with envy and seeks to erase its significance by mimicking it in an authorised and controlled way where “father” presides. When my youngest was baptised I wrote a poem about this mystery and how I feel we are “baptised” by birth itself (though like a good little member of church I let the rituals take place) and when my children questioned whether their unbaptised friends would go to “hell” I said that I didn’t really believe in hell and that God could baptise them any time when they get caught in the rain or go for a swim in the warm, motherly font we call the sea.

I explained that when we each are born we come out through blood and water (the children found this fascinating) and our cord to out human mother is cut, but the cord to Mother God is never cut and we draw life from her in the Eucharist, which can be any lovingly shared meal. They asked why we went to church then if we didn’t have to and I said because it makes God happy when we show our love that way and in my head was an image of God that was an older woman, like my grandmother who always wanted everyone to gather at her house every single Sunday (unless we all agreed to meet at the forest instead) and gathering to mean celebration and sharing. Those were gatherings where we laughed whenever we wanted and there was food and singing and serious talk just like at church.

But I was not allowed to laugh at church. Because they didn’t see God as the laughing silly Grandmother who lets you sit on her lap even when you are 12 and too big. They saw God as the angry Father who demands respect. Father as in “wait ’til your Father gets home”. Father as in “head of the household”, stern and proper. But the edges between these two possible images blurred a little on days when the sprinkling happened, because sprinkling in my real life was something that happened when Mum was watering the garden. We would come up and make funny voices at her and tease her until she laughed and turned the hose on us. Then we would squeal and run away and come up again trying to make her do it again. And sprinkling was racing Dad into the waves on a hot summer evening, kicking up the salt-spray with our feet and he would always overtake us and plunge in first, he could swim like a fish and let all of us try to crowd on his back while he swam under water. Sometimes it was the “underwater bus” and he swam quietly past the fish as we clung to each other and other times it was one at a time and he would try to shake us off. Sprinkling was play, sprinkling was silly, sprinkling was being accepted by the bigger people.

My missal tells me that water “gives fruitfulness to the fields, and refreshment and cleansing to man (sic).” and refers me to all the “Old Testament” stories of the Red Sea parting to let people through and water gushing from the rock to give them life. In the Sprinkling, the hostile waves of Patriarchy parted and I walked through into another world where God’s reality collided with who I really was, not who someone else tried to make me be. In that desert place of estrangement from my tradition and inability to adequately answer my call to ministry I drank unexpected water from a rock, when feminists broke open the texts to give life-giving water. Life-giving because it was what I was made of (over half of my body is water). Life giving because I am someone who cries, sweats, salivates, bleeds, and once had the potential to lactate and give birth.

I could rewrite the final prayer of the rite of sprinkling with water if I borrow an image from Colleen Fulmer.

May Washerwoman God, loving Grandmother, with much laughter and play,

wash away all that hurts us or holds us back from her table:

which we are called to set for the whole world and all creation,

which we are called to supply and serve at,

and at which we will sit and celebrate on earth

and forever more. Amen.

 

 

 

 

I did not know about your vocation, but I remained open to seeing the Spirit in you

In between the unrelatable metaphor of “servant” (exploited labour) and the nicer but possibly still dangerous concept of “light” to the nations the first reading is telling us that God’s knowing of us, relationship and call go back to when we were in the womb, pre-existing any decisions, social influences and learning we had acquired. This to me is what grace means, that we do not earn or compete for positions in the household of God but we are already called before we even take a breath. To be called into being is to be called into the household, the body of God.Our vocation is not a skill-set or an honour it is our deep and true IDENTITY. What God knows us as, is what we were always meant to be- beyond questions of recognition of the church.

We know this about Jesus. We read about the annunciation and the visitation and the baby in a manger and we are already seeing God in the swell of Mary’s belly, the kick of joy from the baptist (already following his vocation in the womb), the first staggering steps holding a parents hands begin the thousand steps of a ministry. It’s true for each of us. We are already physically star-dust and emotionally God-stuff before we choose how to inhabit that identity.

The psalm agrees. Our deepest longing is for God to come and recognise this in us, the deep longing to be fulfilled in the vocation to follow Christ (as toddlers follow the admired older sibling), to be bigger than our littleness- to strive into the fullness of God. Which is our essence. We are the image of God (we and all of creation) and we are ourselves truly when we honour the possibilities for deep love and hope in ourselves and others. “here I am God, a better thing than any sort of commodified “thing” of religion, more meaningful than sacrifices and offerings- here am I and my deep longing for and delight in your Word, in my potential to actualise you” I love the unsilenced jubilation of the final verse of this psalm, I have for many years on taken it on as a sort of motto:

“I announced your justice in the vast assembly;
I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.”

I did not restrain my lips…but of course I did when I was young because I was told that women were supposed to. Luckily the sinful state of silent obedience was unnatural for me and God’s constant egging on broke through it. Of course once we unsilence ourselves we do become responsible for what we say. God’s justice (and some translations add loving-kindness) are worthy topics for ranting.

The second reading is very short, only just long enough to introduce ideas of being “called”, being “sanctified”  Part of our work is building a communion of the called and sanctified, that is recognising the Godness of each other and the vocations in others. It makes me a better person, renews my hope and sense of purpose to be recognised by other humans and it diminished and depressed me for years that the church could not and would not recognise me (but now for me “church” is whoever brings Christ to me and not associated with the hierarchy except sometimes by coincidence).

So then with the customary “Alleluia” we turn to the Word made flesh who chose and chooses to live with and in us. To Jesus the purest version of who we are supposed to be.John the Baptist as the established church is busy practising his ministry, at times having trouble being heard but having a power of sorts. What does he do when his younger cousin Jesus comes up filled with vocation? He not only moves over and makes room for the ministry of Jesus but he proclaims and assists that ministry. This is a part of the servant-leadership of priesthood that can be hard- sharing the spotlight, easing the ministry of others and the paths of people to the good news as proclaimed by someone who is not ME.

John did not “know Jesus” but being an open sort of a person he “saw the Spirit” alight on him. This is our challenge to remain open to the Spirit in each other and in nature. We need to look beyond ourselves and beyond our pre-determined ideas of God. In Scripture and beyond scripture. In the church however flawed it might be and beyond the church into the apparently sinful world and apparently dangerous nature and apparent heathens and queers and transgressives of all types. And even the hierarchy (Elizabeth Johnson does this well and shames me for so quickly dismissing the “church Fathers”).

John teaches us to look for and recognise God in our cousins and other young upstarts- but Jesus trusts John to work with him and comes to him openly too. The church is not one individual- it isn’t about superstars and heroes. We listen, affirm, work together. We see the Spirit in each other, we baptise each other and confirm the pre-existing touch of God in each life.

Our ministry is not judgement and separation. It is connection. It is love.

God is everywhere, even in the church

It is difficult for me to find a path into this week’s readings. They seem patriarchal and colonising (God will give other countries as hostages to ransom you chosen privileged ones) and alienating. I can see the modern-day fundamentalists standing and cheering at this week’s images of powers that seem almost magical, charismatic male leaders and the chosenness and power of baptism. Because the readings can and have been read like this, it is very important to come back with a more liberative reading of a tradition we dare not ignore.

I myself was brought up with the idea of baptism as sacred but I remember my son at age five asking me what God’s attitude was to one of his friends who wasn’t bapitsed. I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t imagine that god throws out the unbaptised like rubbish, nor that we should desperately pray that they can be “saved” by a priest throwing water on them. I floundered.

“God is everywhere”, I told my son, “Every shower of rain is a baptism if you love the earth and love all people, every swim with friends is baptism, every bath or shower. We don’t know at which point a person goes under the water and comes out into God but it isn’t just for church people, God loves everyone.” It must be obvious where the flaws in my oversimplified answer are and I don’t offer it as an adult understanding of baptism, but simply a starting point. How do we take the recent epiphany on board as we return into more formalistic, ritualistic ideas of church? How do we broaden and deepen ideas of “church” and “sacrament” to be as large as the all catching, all nurturing grace of the real God (as opposed to some stiff church icon).

John in the gospel today is speaking with much better humility than the priests and leaders of our church usually manage. He offers a baptism in water, a symbol of repentance and a door into a greater and more mysterious reality. But John knows that he is not the Messiah and that his ritual of baptism is not the real or only baptism. John’s celebration of what we have later come to understand as “sacrament” is merely an entry point into something deeper and uncontrolled by him. He is not a gatekeeper for Christ who may also act on his own behalf.

Jesus also comes into the scene with humility. If we wish to find in here an individualistic and wholly independent model of faith we can be disappointed. Noone more so that Jesus could see beyong the limits of the church or could criticise the flaws of the church. And yet Jesus does not reject John’s baptism. Jesus finds within church, within his connections and following of imperfect people and their imperfect rituals a place of encounter with God and here God acts to seal and proclaim Jesus’ unique ministry. Maybe here is part of the answer why I so strongly feel called and tricked back into the church by a compassionate yet persistently nagging God. When we allow ourselves the pride of “giving up” on the church what good do we really achieve? Do we run off and start a dazzling ministry of our own? Generally no, in my atheist and anti-church phases I have turned to hedonism and escapism and individualism. Imperfect though our families are we cling to them in a difficult mixture of love, loyalty, duty and exasperation. The church also is one such family and we are called to transform it through struggle not to drop out and disengage.

Having said that, I feel that I have done the right thing by finding the most resisting and least oppressive pocket of the church that I can and hiding within that. Within the mainstream church I am supposed to act as if I have no vocation beyond the capacity to bear children (and not even that since my marriage ended)…the mainstream church is like a bushel placed over the light of many woman, to stop their vocation shining for the world. I regularly watch how one of my friends whose call is apparent to anyone comes up against the repressive and hurtfully silencing might of the church and I feel no envy for someone still battling that after all these years.

I would rather lurk on the margins and minister to people like me who are also marginal and somewhat bitter. I am at the point where it is easier for me to see sacrament in a three year old passing me a bowl of rice than in any ritual involving an ordained “father”. This Sunday is a challenge to people like me poised on the margins of the church like stray cats ready to fell back into the shadows beyond the margins. It is also a challenge to the church not to take the easy path of seeing this week’s readings as rubber-stamping the privilege and authority of the church elites but to be like John and avoid that narcissm and humbly refrain from even claiming to undo the strap of the sandal of the real reality.

The Christian life done properly is ALWAYS ministry. Will we ever see a church that looks at the priesthood of every single believer and says: “you are my daughter, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.” God asks us to accept and affirm them all, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Defending the sacraMENts vs the weaker sex and others- warning: contains boasting

For anyone who wants this week’s readings in their entirety, please look here. I zoomed in on a tiny verse this week inspired by another (smarter) person’s facebook rant.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

Boasting of my weakness. That is actually exactly what I do every week when I dare to post a blog on the readings. I am trumpeting before anyone who cares to read my failures to live, speak and perform in a way that would have resulted in me being ordained, that would have rubber stamped me to lead the people of God. But my “weakness” and “failure” of which I boast go deeper still. Being born female in the church is still a very big failing. Sometimes I feel baptism should acknowledge this reality, there should be some words about “only a girl, what a disappointment” somewhere in this liturgy welcoming the child and endorsing membership of the people of God, to reflect the lived reality of the community we call the church.

Of course people would be up in arms over such sexist and offensive language, but the insidious idea behind it IS embedded in every so-called liturgy (or nearly every). That level of misogyny is commonplace and I think keeping it invisible only makes it harder to fight against. So let’s be honest. As a church we really don’t like girls (except as wives and mothers).

The most popular imagery of baptism (that of rebirth) in itself contains a deeply deficit view of femaleness. Right when we are celebrating something that is uniquely female (giving birth) we have to reject this giving birth process as dirty- connected to earth, the body and therefore chaos and sin and we need to “rebirth” in a more masculine place presided by a still usually male priest, with a very masculine set of words and practices to correct the sinfulness of the birthing performed by the mother and give the child a chance to be allied to heaven, the spirit, order and grace. Women of course are necessary to produce the raw ingredients for these perfected spiritual post-sacramental beings.

When I gave birth to my youngest child, I squatted there screaming and growling like everyone else does and I thought to myself (there is water here, God is with me this is baptism. His real birth is also his baptism) while I also sweated and bled and gritted my teeth in the pain and the glory of it. We were a team- the midwife, the child’s father, the child (beautiful little God-bound soul) himself and I and we were engaged in a great and powerful struggle for life, for triumph so why not also against sin and despair? As the child left my body, slid out to make his own way in the world and into individual relationship with God now unmediated by me I cried out in triumph and I thought of Jesus’ words “It is complete”. Even though noone was crucified, noone died in this joyful moment.

It helped that I had read other people’s ideas comparing Jesus’ work of suffering and struggle with the idea of giving birth- giving life and blood to another-take in nutrition from my umbilical cord, take and eat from my body and blood when you take in breastmilk. Take and eat. In theory my child was as yet un-baptised and as yet too young to receive holy communion. I deliberately put him on the breast every week as soon as I had received communion. Any sacrament that applied to me applied also to my children. This argument will probably not seem strange to most parents. To love is always to be sacrament. It would be good if church recognised this already sacramentality of the family and celebrated it rather than trying to correct it with the “better birth” and the “only real” food.

So weakness equated with femaleness, bodiliness, earthliness is something to brag about. God does not transform our weakness into some sort of patriarchal hardness, despite all the imperial imagery around many of the readings, songs and prayers at church that call to mind the Christian life as crusade rather than as breastfeeding, as holding close, as claiming kinship.

Weakness is always part of any “othering” discourse; it is the sort of language used around people who “lose the struggle” against themselves and return to gay lifestyles, relationships or ways of being. Gay and lesbian churchgoers are supposed to closet themselves firmly in Christian respectability. I did this. I married. I bred. I wasn’t very good at the sort of “good behavior” that was required. Something in me kept yearning and questioning and had to be constantly put down and repressed (repressed so soundly that I would not even become aware of it). I had to find less dangerous ‘sins” and adventures to distract myself with to avoid confronting the truth of what I was.

I did not listen to this week’s reading, I spoke a lot about grace but I did not really trust it. God’s grace was not sufficient for me to leave the safety of what I had been taught and to boast about my weakness. I am weak. I am unacceptable. I am queer. Instead I was dishonest and blocked my “weakness” from being part of God’s power in me and I missed some crucial turning-points in my life, in the career that wasn’t. But God doesn’t call us to give us a comfortable life and a successful career. God gives us nothing except grace. Is grace the persistent and sometimes irritating voice that still pokes and prods at me to remain in God somehow?

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

But since I was little this reading has been a stumbling-block to me. I don’t want weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. Perhaps I ought to want to bear all that to prove my deep and radical love for Christ. As the offspring told us “the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care, right, yeah”. But I don’t care in that way, if I am being persecuted, abused or belittled in a relationship or because of a relationship I seek to leave it. I don’t find my strength in being trivialised, silenced or judged.

As a gay person therefore, as a woman, I have lacked the courage to bear all the insults (usually disguised as the “proper” language of the liturgy) the feeling of having to choose between believing in all “that” or believing in myself (in a very basic way), the self-persecutions I have been tricked into, the calamities of self-hatred. This weakness never made me strong and I fell and fell and fell away from being ordained, away from church, away from everyone I knew, almost into death (by suicide).

ALMOST. That word. Why didn’t I kill myself? There is no safe way to answer that. If God somehow saved or helped me then it begs the question why not all the others? Why not my very dear friend who did die of rejection and suicide? But no. I was never “content” with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions or calamities.

And now we have the whole question of marriage equality, and once again the church is coming out to “defend the sacraments”. And once again the sanctity that is being defended is a sanctity that reeks of power and privilege, not a sanctity that reeks of manger straw, and fishing boats, and the cross. And all the wise things that could be said on the topic have already been said. All the hypocrisies have already been pointed out. All I can do is add my voice to the more articulate in some way. And I do it with a sigh of exasperation that once again – like birthing and ordination/vocation, once again the church has taken something that is sacramental (in this case human sexuality) and turned it into a bunch of rules and exclusions.

And I say at the end of the day I don’t even need to keep looking for the (obvious) holes in their logic. The fact that the church wants to keep a stranglehold over a sacrament so that most people won’t be special enough to qualify for it already has my suspicious feminist spidey-senses tingling.

Like the boys who build a cubby house for the express purpose of putting a sign on it saying “no girls” and “no pansies” they have built themselves a church. But for those left outside- perhaps God’s grace will be sufficient after all!