Tag Archives: Christian

The fig tree, the burning bush and my lenten call.

I have been absent, and yet my graphs show that readers have checked in here (thanks for doing that). after a busy and somewhat stressful few weeks, my body and mind exhausted beyond belief I am seizing some time to rest and self-care. And so, with a sense of luxuriating in the thing I love, I turn back to the lectionary, trying to feel guilty neither about how long it has been since my last blog post, nor about the things I am leaving undone to write this. This after all is a better use of my time than any sort of procrastination would be (and I am so tired I would not be more productive).

The first reading is the story of Moses encountering the burning bush. Is that what it would take to make me fully human again? A great phenomena like a burning bush, a place to take off my shoes and know mystery? A reminder that activism is all very well but encounter is where God happens. I have an hour and a half to choose something and I choose this. Pondering the readings, taking off the shoes of my roles as teacher, co-ordinator, bread-winner and politician. Here I am just Stef the human, here I am small and confused and trying to listen to a voice. The voice is the God who liberates, telling Moses of specific moments in salvation history and reminding me that I am called to fullness of life not just busyness.

But God is also the God who will send Moses out into the struggle to liberate a people, a God who will put me back into the struggle with all the good activists and advocates and seers and comrades. This space is not a place of escape or retreat, it is a place of sustenance FOR THE STRUGGLE. God ultimately refuses naming, refuses to be owned or branded. God is loyal to her own values not to an institution. The bush burns but it is not consumed, rules may be broken. The Spirit blows wherever she will and I do not own, control or parcel her out. This is perhaps a warning to all would-be theologians and preachers (noted).

The psalm celebrates God’s kindness, commitment to justice and strengths-based approach to humanity (pardoning sins and restoring life and liberation). I weep with gratefulness at the thought of kindness and mercy- yes give me that as a relief from politics and the negative speeches of so many. But kindness and mercy are not just gift but also call. I am asked to be the kindness and mercy of God, as human beings we are meant to embody the divine, not just anger (even when we are sure it is righteous). The kindness is stressed again and again, as sure and surpassing as the sky itself. God is kind so I must be kinder. As my exhausted mind ponders this I feel that maybe this kindness could even extend to myself, not to pander myself in inactivity but at least to allow rest and joy back into the mix.

Always back to the good things, back into the struggle for justice and also back into the solace-point, the “home” that God is to our hearts.

The second reading seems to be reminding us that tradition and institutionalised religion are no guarantees against error. Admittedly the recent events around “Cardinal” Pell have led me to embrace this interpretation. We must remember the values of the family of God (mercy, kindness, justice, advocating for the little) instead of just following rules and rituals or relying on our history and tradition. Our tradition/s are not a place to stand secure and judge others (other religions, sexual orientations or lifestyles) they are places to take off our shoes and gain some humbleness about what we have…and what in justice we ought to share. I have no patience with people who abuse power and privilege to harm others, as shepherds called to tend the people of God we have a vital DUTY OF CARE. This is true for all of us, the unofficial and petty shepherds as well as the ones considered “great” by the institution. That mercy and kindness of the psalm needs to be shared to the last and the least and the one who we do not think has the strength to answer us back (you’d be surprised what is possible with God).

The verse before the gospel tells us to repent (be radically transformed for the better) and to see the kindom of God.

The gospel begins with Jesus threatening dire things to anyone who refuses to repent and be transformed. This could be as true for an institution/church as for an individual (maybe more so). Just when we are sure that the gospel is a terrible judgement, the parable at the end switches it. God is endlessly patient, tending and calling and giving the fig-tree more time (though beware because at some point even the extra time may run out). If we have not borne significant fruit YET then this lent comes to give us another chance and our lives may be cultivated and fertilized that we might finally bear fruit.

I’ve been a slow-bloomer in anything I have ever tried in my life. I have both a slowness to understand, a reluctance to really back myself and am endlessly ready to quit and concede failure. God bids me garden myself more carefully, give myself time to grow (amidst the great role-models and mentors who always told me this was possible). Noone says that it doesn’t matter that the fig-tree is barren, noone suggests that it should keep failing to thrive, failing to produce. But Jesus suggests that if all that is needed is more time and caring then that can be provided by a patient and relentlessly loving God.

This lent we are given the time and kindness to grow, and the warning that we must encounter God ourselves, not rely on ritual and tradition. I will seek the quietness of lent, the gathering dark of autumn, the parrots in the fig-tree, the super-worm moon and the promise that something will come again out of all the deaths of the world. I will give myself time.

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Not finding it in the lectionary this week

Edit: When I wrote this I was unaware that this week is reconciliation week. I feel a bit ashamed that I was unaware but I think some of my points work for that occasion. At church we reflected of reconciliation week, the need to decolonise, the recent arrest of the Catholic archbishop of Adelaide for covering up child abuse, our desire to move away from any model of church that is a “boy’s club” (a man said this), and our tears and love for the people suffering the fall-out of these toxic cultures. I also reflected on the fact that in the week gone we celebrated Pansexual and Panromantic visibility day and that people whose love is outside the box (but respectful, equal and between consenting adults) show the dance of the Trinity in their being.

The idea of “chosenness” that comes through in the first two readings and the psalm this week seems cosy and comforting but it actually if we look closer deeply problematic.

I speak with the anger and bitterness of the outsider- chosen last at team sports, excluded from games and parties and a child, ganged-up on, teased, criticised, harassed, written on with pen and then punished by parents for being written on. I speak with the pain of the eldest child in a large and dysfunctional family- although my feelings of being replaced and passed over were not (I now as a parent myself realise) a completely accurate reflection of reality, the feelings were real. I speak as the child who couldn’t speak English, the teenager who wore hand-me-downs from old people, the young single mother in a primary school where everyone else seemed to be comfortably middle-class. I speak as someone who has suffered mental illness, mild alcoholism, chronic dysphoria around sexual identity.

The minute someone is the “chosen people” you are also creating outsiders, the excluded ones, the ones who do not measure up. I felt this only on a gut level as a child – something about the presumed “chosenness” of the people of God (and lets not blame the Jews this idea is just as rife in the so called “New Testament”) something there seemed a bit off, even when I was a pious little child who assumed my inability to grasp this idea as “fair” and my desire to feel empathy for the ones who were not “chosen” was something I had to try to repress or grow out of (I spent my childhood repressing many things and got quite good at it, not so much now).

I speak with the amusement of the queer, feminist, deconstructive, almost post-Christian (except God doesn’t quite let me slip away). I speak as the outsider who no longer tries to fit in and be “normal”. My hermeneutic of suspicion is triggered by this first reading where we are supposed to believe that no one else ever experienced God until it could be done in the proper patriarchally approved and religiously institutionalised way in the correct sort of fire. This is what the Christian missionaries believed, the ones who worked tirelessly to aid colonialism, at times putting a slightly more benign face of it with gifts of food and clothing but nevertheless destroying cultures and families in the name of this great and good and only Lord and his structure of “rightness”.

Because if we are right then the others are wrong. If we are chosen then the others are rejected. If we have the only and one truth then the others have nothing of value.

And so it begins.

The gospel on this occasion gives no relief. Jesus is the proper rubber-stamped figurehead of the new world-order they worship him repressing their doubts and he commissions them to go out and reach everyone with his marketing message. We can try to cosy up to this, try to read the commissioning as preaching a gospel of liberation and justice, because that fits our theology it fits who we know God is and who we experience Jesus as.

What/who we know experientially and sacramentality is all we really have.

But the church has not necessarily read it this way, when they have seen “make disciples of all the nations” that has fed a deficit view of nations that are not already Christian and an expansionistic mission. Many missionaries no doubt meant well and some were kinder than secular colonists (mind you these colonists also would have considered themselves “Christian”) but this expansionistic mission did huge harm to many people, including perhaps my own people in Latvija colonised by German “Lords” and including certainly Indigenous Australians taken over and used as slaves by the English.

All of this was considered a faithful reading of today’s gospel. All of this is the shame I feel if I admit to anyone that I am a “Christian”.

I am not finding life or Godde in these readings (though perhaps a wiser preacher at church will glean something). I wanted to reflect on the Trinity, on difference and loving “other” or “thou” within God. I want to reflect on the diving dance “peripatesis”, as I learned at theology college the movement of the Trinity is in and out and through and around each other. There is love and beauty, there is relationship and great complexity at the heart of God.

Let’s leave behind colonialist traditions after seeing them for what they are and realising we will be called to account as a culture. Let’s reflect on how we are invited into the peripatesis of the Trinity, the respectful and madly joyful dance of God, the eternal turning toward the other. We are the image of God and as such are called to turn to the image of God in thoughtful listening like Jesus in prayer, in admiring love like the creator at Jesus’ baptism, in nurturing care like the spirit who flows in and through Jesus to the world.

I was hoping that the feast of the Trinity would remind us that “Wisdom has built a house” and invites all to celebrate. There is room then not to colonise, but to meet on equal terms the “others” who are not “Christians” but may have met Wisdom in another place because she likes to get out there- she is no enclosed victim-lady. Wisdom of course, the pre-existing companion of God the Creator is the one embodied as Jesus in the “New Testament”.

But if the lectionary has let me down, then I will dance right out of it to all of scripture and to the ultimate aim in life to understand and heal others. And I will pray:

Father, Mother, Creator of all, Midwife of each life that comes into being. Teach us to know ourselves in your image and see each other in your image. Teach us reverence for all your creation, showing us how to nurture seeds and stones and polar ice caps better. Thank you for naughty kittens and waddling penguins. Thank you for the clever things humans say. Thank you for the richness of which we see only a part. Call us deeper into the connection and love at the heart of your creative work.

Jesus, Christ, Wisdom, Sophia, Son, Word, Mother-Hen, Vine, Way, Truth, Life. As Wisdom you have the eye for detail and for joy. As Jesus you showed unbelievable courage and commitment. You are the one who seeks to protect, heal, scold, reform, feed, teach, guide, send-out and suffer for us and for all creation. You feed us your body and blood, you call us to honour what we eat and to live. Death cannot claim you because your nature is to live always. You bring us transformative possibilities and radical hope but nor without hard work and possibility of suffering also. If the whole world would love you then we would find newness of life. We will seek you and we will find you if we seek with all our heart.

Holy Spirit, dove, flame, fire, love, flow. Giver of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, reverence and respect of God. Pour out your gifts to us. Show us the Creator and the Word in our lives. Help us to read the gospels in the right frame, receptive to your Wisdom and closed off to hatred and abuse. Inspire us with life, fire us with pregnant possibilities like Mary pregnant with the Christ. Remain with us when we are troubled or suffering or even in death. Bring us back to our vocation to love. Bring us back into your presence giver of life.

Trinity of God may I see the love poured out in you each to the others and may I live my life in divine dance, seeking to connect as you connect, seeking to unconditionally love as you love, seeking where the hope is and strengthening there. May my life find meaning, joy, love, peace in you.

Amen.

 

Not being silent

So many readings to choose from for Christmas services…and many of them so well known they’ve almost become a cliché. But I will start with the vigil, which may sound like an odd choice (and in fact any Christmas vigil mass I ever went to used Luke’s nativity story which is more child friendly). The gospel is a bunch of this person “begat” that person. I didn’t bother using a more modern translation this time, because I remember when I was a kid referring to this passage as the “begatteries” (I think I got that from my Dad and thinking it was the most boring passage (and to me pointless) in the hole bible. I wondered who cared about hs patrilineal line that way as if he was a breeding animal or something. Jesus’ remarkable person was nothing to do with who “begat” who.

Later on, I noticed – or perhaps it was pointed out to me- that in this account of fathers and sons four women manage to squeeze their way in and for a time I thought it was a feminist victory of sorts. I don’t like “liberal feminist” ideas though that some women (often at great personal cost) can break into patriarchal places in small number, because of their own individual “empowerment” or some such- but the norm is still exclusion and low status of women in general. I sometimes see this in churches that begin to ordain women, it takes a long time for real change to happen (and to me it doesn’t matter so much these days who does or does not get ordained- it is the effect on the wider community that matters).

Then again this is God’s history, not “man’s history” and if you look carefully at what sort of women have got a mention in the patrilineal line they are transgressive types- Tamar and Rahab and Ruth, who in various ways broke conventions or used their sexuality and agency to achieve moments in the story of liberation of their people or themselves. Mary also, she has been colonised by so many artists and theologians- depicted as passive and submissive but if we knew her only from the scriptures then she comes across very differently- as outspoken, courageous and somewhat of a visionary.

So Jesus could be a male saviour in a male story of a male church- except God keeps calling women at various points in time (probably always) to transgress patriarchy (like Wisdom herself who is free from constraint) and to change history for the better. This text is not very feminist, the very few women mentioned are all mothers and wives, their other deeds unmentioned but they are THERE and if we look at the story in full then we know them. And we know who is missing- Jepthah’s daughter for example and other victim’s of men’s violence.

I’ll go back to the first reading with all this in mind, and proclaim together with it that I will “not be quiet”. The first reading is all about “Zion” depicted as female and needing advocacy (and waiting for God’s intervention). Unsilencing is a theme of Christmas, especially if we consider Jesus the “Word” of God- speaking and spoken (through Mary’s embodied production of “Word” and through Joseph making room for Mary’s work in this). God unsilences the voices that call for repentance, change, better ways of being and knowing and relating.

They sing that “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” which I suppose is meant to be a moralistic guilt trip on the tendency of children to talk and complain so much, but instead I think little Jesus screams his lungs out like the healthy, fully embodied human he is, like the voice of unquenchable Wisdom, like the son of the composer of the Magnificat (and of God and of the quiet and assenting carpenter), like the future preacher and threat to the status quo. He screams that unjust hierarchies and powers will fall and Herod hears enough to be frightened (that comes later of course).

When I went to Latvija, I was in a relatively atheist state of mind. I was “over” church and I didn’t know what I believed apart from the fact that church is too often boring, depressingly patriarchal and generally unhelpful (this is not true in the community  I attend but while travelling further from home I often find services that shut me out in various ways). After walking out of a service which seemed to be about the little, guilty me having to grovel to the patriarchy (which is a form of idolatry anyway) I went to visit my great aunt, Stefanija, for whom I was named and who has since died. I have posted her picture on this post so you can see her.

She told me stories of what it was like living under the Russian regime. Atheism was part of the ideology of the state. People who strongly advocate for universal atheism, often claim that atheists have never visited religious oppression on anyone. That is simply not true. In Latvija during the occupation you could be deported to labor camps even for saying “Merry Christmas” on December 25th, the state proclaimed that the correct festival was the secular “new year’s eve” and any religious celebration was forbidden. Church was not available, nor were decorations and the like.

Enforced atheism has shown itself to be every bit as horrifying as any other enforced religion, for all that atheists tend to claim a moral high-ground…educating ourselves about the (un)beliefs of others in a spirit of tolerance might be a better thing to try.

Anyway Stefanija told me that she and her husband had some Christian neighbours, that they knew it was safe to say “Merry Christmas” to (very quietly so no one would hear and report them) with a little smile of significance because Christmas is still a big deal to a Christian even when you are not allowed to celebrate it. And I realised that my faith does mean something to me after all- when it can mean quiet defiance of an unfair regime, it can mean a joy and hope we are not “supposed” to feel.

So like the shepherds in the reading I didn’t get to discussing, we stop work for the evening to focus on someone else’s baby in wonder and awe. Like the magi in a few weeks we follow even a star, even a rumour of a hope to connect across cultures with generosity and respect. Like Herod we might be threatened by the politics of the kindom of God, and need to resist the temptation to defend the status quo by making othered families suffer. Don’t you think you are Herod? What is your attitude to refugees? To trans-kids? To teenage mothers? To the unemployed or homeless? The wonder and transformative power of the Jesus story has been very resilient over centuries and it is part of our identity as individuals and as communities.

Jesus was grounded within his own Jewish tradition with its problems (eg patriarchy) and its possibilities (eg the radical call to social justice). I am Latvian, my relatives were courageous about having a “Merry Christmas” under an oppressive regime.

Merry Christmas to all my readers and your families. Don’t be silent- be advocates for the oppressed, be hopeful, be joyful. Let us be in the Jesus movement together!