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Praying, yearning, struggling, working, dancing, being, caught up in prayer

O breathe on me, breath of God/ fill me with life anew/ that I may love what thou dost love/ and do what thou wouldst do. I am going to skip ahead in my walk through the liturgy, to the “Prayers of the Faithful” because I am reading Carter Heyward’s book, Saving Jesus from those who are right. I am going to reflect on the ideal we hold in praying together, what might we mean by the “faithful” and what is the point of praying anyway? Please don’t expect definitive answers to any of those questions but they are my reflecting questions today.

Heyward talks about relationality being the ground of our being when we pray, also the Spirit praying through us (a biblical concept) in a deeply emotive, yearning movement towards God. Can God yearn for God? If God is more than an individual then there is dynamics and relation WITHIN God and then our role within the dynamic that is God is the question. But the hymn above goes on to put a possessive and almost forceful spin on God’s work to assimilate us, to remake us better whereas I don’t think there is anything forceful or disrespectful in how God makes us one-with each other, the earth and Godself. Rather than a forcing or making (see eg Donne for a rape-battery metaphor for the process) the spirit blows through us (like in Winter’s beautiful hymn) and we like well-crafted musical instruments respond WITHIN THE NATURE THAT IS INTRINSIC TO US- making music of the breath of God.

So it is like a call from a lover, or child to remind us that our priorities need to line up with the love-of-our-life rather than being a coercive, conscriptive process to a good that goes against our selves and our personal good. We are not born to be individuals, we are not born into aloneness, birth itself is going from intimacy (within our mother) to intimacy (in the arms of a family and community). Death is going from intimacy (the people who’d much rather we weren’t leaving) into…what? Memory? Some new form of life? What we do know is we are relational/mutual by nature and we are called to be true to that by an eternal God. That means something for who we are.

“Who we are is how we pray.” That’s the title of a book by Charles Keating that I have never read but it seems to me there is a wealth of wisdom even in the short title. And so “prayers of the faithful” could also be called “prayers of the relational” or “prayers of the responsive” as we come together to respond to each other and to our world and to ground that being in God and God’s desire to call, relate and respond to us. I like it better in communities where everyone can pray- at times we talk about the trivial, the personal and at times we look widely to the world but we pray aloud and we hear each other’s prayerful preoccupations and the miracle is the way we are sometimes able to respond to each other, or at the basic minimum be with each other in the complexities of life.

Does prayer “achieve” anything? I tend to intellectually think that there is no interventionist function in God (otherwise surely s/he would respond more strongly to save refugees and other innocents and not bother too much with trivialities like where I put my car-keys or how hard it is to find a date). That said when I “need to be rescued” I do send up that clamour to God, whether God does anything much with my selfish requests is another issue. But not all requests are selfish. We want a better world for everyone. We want answers about how to make this possible. We pray about the big things in our lives and our world.

I suppose an analogy could be the tendency we have to take home whatever happened at work (or wherever) and talk it over with out lover or get on the phone to a close friend about it. Why do we do that? Rarely do we want practical “help” or “advice” and even when we want those we can’t always get them in the way we think we need. But talking things through with someone who loves us is intrinsically helpful an God loves us. But now I am almost sounding like God is our invisible, imaginary friend that reflects back at us whatever we want to hear. This is a dangerously individualistic and relativistic theology.

God loves me, but God is not all about me, me, ME: wrapped around my ego like some sort of flag or reinforcing layer. I read a horrible blog today by a woman who has cast out her own son for being gay. The blog was full of sadness but also a toxic form of self-congratulation that having made such a big sacrifice “for Jesus” she was some sort of a heroine. That decision too could have come out of a more-or-less genuine attempt to pray. Just because we piously reference “God” in our decisions does not guarantee their rightness. If I knew how to guarantee rightness I would share the secret- but until then I find it important to remember when dealing with people who are “wrong” that I am also “wrong” a lot of the time.

Nevertheless, despite the potential to make big mistakes in everything we do an decide, it remains important to do things- to confront the dilemmas and injustices of the world and to seek to be more loving and also to insist that everyone be treated with love, inclusion and fairness. We can’t simply acknowledge that “everyone has their own opinion” and retire from the debates and struggles over social goods and access to them. Nor can we “give it to God” in any sense that undercuts our own responsibility to respond and to work toward answers. God isn’t going to magically save the earth from environmental disaster and the unfair thing is many of those who make/made the decisions to degrade the earth so much either won’t live to grapple with the fallout or will be rich enough to be protected from the worst of it (initially). I’d love God to “cast the might from their thrones” and heal the earth but God is looking to us, “the faithful” to pray more actively than just with words of resignation but to enter the social and political arenas of our lives.

“Lord hear us” we used to say, as if we were bringing supplications to someone higher in status that ruled over us and even when we do tweak it to try to make it less kyrierchal the imperative “hear us” seems to still separate the “us” praying from the more powerful “Thou”, God. How else could we put it? Love you hear us (indicative not imperative). Love you stand with us. Love infuse us. We pray in the Spirit. We pray together. We pray in God. We pray in Love.

Or sometimes I think just the old “Amen”. Just a way of bringing ourselves into the words and beyond the words, making the “words” part of prayer, part of conversation and whatever else the sharedness of the presence of God in our lives entails.

It is not “my” individual prayer or faithfulness that is at stake here. It is the way we take up each others prayers that makes us faithful and brings us into God. God pours Godself into whatever is other and when we are “the faithful” that is the work/dance we also engage with.

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Walking humbly with…?

I didn’t look at the readings for the week. Instead I wrote about an issue which has been cropping up in my prayer life and the reading I am doing to try to make better sense of my own vocation. It is so time consuming to wrestle with readings while also doing other spiritual work, real-life work, parenting, study, etc. I will continue to try to “preach” properly but I felt that God wants me to really grapple with the problematic idea of humility. Here is an imperfect beginning…

I have long been enamoured with Micah 6:8, where we are told that the only thing we have that can please God is justice, loving-kindness (hesed) and walking humbly with our God. For me I focus on them in the order they are given- I am passionate and full of rants when it comes to justice, I seek to be full of a sincere and tender kindness particularly in the face of anyone who is less powerful than me or vulnerable (which considering most days I feel like a fire-breathing dragon could be anybody) and then….well usually I try to mumble over the third one and let it take care of itself.

Because humility and me have a long and problematic history.

I was raised to be “humble” to self-abase and to self-mortify. Every time I recognised anything good about myself I was (for the sake of my own soul I am sure) warned about the “sin of pride” and the necessity of humility, modesty, obedience, subservience. The problem was the way these things were conflated with femininity and embodied femaleness (my father was certainly not very humble, neither were the priests who preached this). The problem was that this view of great female role-models (such as Mary and all the virgin martyrs) was quite objectifying of females and also trivialised the value of words, actions, leadership when clearly God has called me to preaching, teaching and leadership. My real and God-given (I believe) vocation was constantly at war with this sort of “holy” modest model of proper femininity.

The problem was that no one noticed the symptoms of self-hate, depression, anxiety, toxic underconfidence, anorexia, dysphoria until these habits of thought and action were deeply ingrained and even then did not make the connection between the continuing call to be “humble” to “weep with loathing” over my own shortcomings.

So I broke away from that sort of humility. It was killing me. It was preventing me from God, from even my own self, from relationship with anything or anybody. So I came to hate the very concept of “humility” when I noticed the men who talk about it so very much and maybe practice it in male contexts have a very different unhumble way of relating to women and children (and othered men). When I noticed that women allow and welcome all sorts of abuse from men on the basis of proper submission, humility, modesty.

I had some choice swear words about the huge con that has been pulled by the privileged (white people, males, heterosexuals, the wealthy) over the humble doormats they craft out of anyone and everyone else. I stopped constantly apologising to God for existing and I spent a couple of decades yelling at God furiously about how unfair it all was. “I know” said God tiredly, “I know”. “Humbly fiddlesticks” I snapped, “I’ll walk with you as I am, a hyena in a petticoat, a fire-breathing dragon. I am what you made me I will not shrink down into this fragile petal of submissive humility” God chuckled, “I knew it” she crowed as if this was just what she had been watching for. So that was that. Me and humility were done, we had nothing further to do with each other.

As I grew in this new sense of self, there kept being surprises. I was actually sometimes good at stuff. Sometimes I was naturally good and more often I could gain skills through hard work and confidence. Slowly, tentatively I began to sometimes feel confident and make surprising discoveries about myself. “I knew it!” God always smiled and laughed whenever I achieved, whenever I was celebrated, whenever I didn’t sink back into the mud of self-hate. “Well why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. God just looked me in the eye with that sarcastic look that she gets when I am being unreasonable. How on earth would I know what God was telling me? I hadn’t really learned to listen. My “humble” self-talk took over any sort of listening to anything, to creation, to the heartbeat of the universe, to my own heart. Where would God speak to me if not in those things? I had dreams…vivid God-filled dreams but I used my patriarchal “objective”  self-effacing knowledge to erase and trivialise what the dreams told me.

When the dreams told me that God loved me then I added “even though I am so unworthy and unimportant” to my interpretation, even when the dreams told me God was calling me I added “but I am a sinner so I will fail to reply” and cried self-loathing about being too weak and pathetic to reply, but didn’t consider that God would not set me up for failure in that way. I hated my femaleness, my weakness, my lack of certainty, my desires, my exhaustion, me emotional neediness. God gave me a dream to radical love and faithfulness an offer of partnership with others and with God and I forced an interpretation overlaying what was there.

In the dream God claimed me and called me and carried me, I awoke and sternly rebuked myself not to begin to expect this sort of treatment from God, not to think I was “special” for having dreams, to realise that while God loved me and didn’t want me to kill myself it was not given to me to have God always whenever my desires dictate it. And that of course was partly true, because in fact I do not own or control God and God doesn’t come to comfort me on demand (or by my manipulation). But it was also untrue. When God gave herself to me in scripture, in sacraments, in creation and in human relationships she actually meant it. THERE ARE NO ONE-NIGHT STANDS WITH GOD.

So then I retreated from God to give her space, and to not be this clingy human needy person that I still secretly hated myself for being and that actually in a way was the opposite of humility. It’s not humble to hate yourself for being “only human”. We are human and God is fully aware and accepting of this. God loves me, the human. God unconditionally, committedly, faithfully and possibly sometimes exasperatedly loves and desires me. Humility is not the denial of the beauty and specialness that I have in God’s eyes. Humility is accepting that as precious, being grateful and responsive to it and also recognising that God has an equally deep and true love for other humans and in fact for all creation.

I am reading Mysticism and Prophecy by Richard Woods at the moment and it is humbling to find myself agreeing with Aquinas (who as a feminist I have been pretty dismissive of all these years). And I see that God is calling me to the humility of coming back toward the tradition that hurt me so much and rejected me so deeply and coming with an attitude of strength and courage to listen. There is wisdom in Aquinas when he talks about how ultimately unknowable God is and yet how fervently we must seek her (please not Aquinas never to my knowledge uses this pronoun for God, but I do)…that is such an exact echo of the dream I had as a confused young woman where God told me that I would never gain certainty, nothing but traces of “truth” but that it was my calling to always seek this “truth” and then after I despaired of what sounded to me like futility God held me and carried me and brought me to her heart.

And to see that these patriarchal writers (as I saw them) were actually in between being wrong about so many things also lovers of the same beautiful Wisdom that calls me, is to be called to a sense of humility about all the ways I could still be wrong and oppressive but also a new appreciation of the everlastingness of God’s love in the walk with humanity. If I walk humbly with my beautiful God I will never hate myself, I will glow in the radiance of her love and I will accept that love. But I will learn that all people and all things are called by her to participate in that love, I will learn to look beyond imperfections to the Truth of Her love for us all.

Seeking justice means continuing to angrily call the powers that be to account. Loving-kindness equally demands that I am uncompromising in demanding that the vulnerable receive what is their due and when necessary stand up for them. Walking humbly, means remembering to hope, remembering to love; daring to forgive and to listen and not allowing those She loves to become my enemies. Walking humbly means forgetting my fear that I am “unworthy” of her and accepting that only beautiful, persistent Wisdom can understand the fullness and apparent foolishness of her love. I am humble when I forgive myself for being “only human”, and bring even the seeming triviality of my human experience and my human fickle love to her heart to be blessed and broken and shared as her sacrament to her beloved world.

Gentleness born from Wisdom

Written in a tearing hurry by one who has a lot to do…

 

A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” Really I feel I am being mocked in this reading and I can’t help cross referencing it to Virginia Woolf’s Angel in the House. Like Woolf, if there was ever such a phantom, an “angel in the house” or a “capable wife” in my psyche (and of course there was) reproving, blaming, scolding me for my many deficits then I killed her off in self-defence.

So why not ignore this reading and look at one of the possibly less offensive others? Because as long as “the church” uphold this sort of a reading as sacred, and Godly and proclaims it from churches or endorses it being proclaimed, then it is naïve to pretend that this is not part of our tradition. To shut our eyes from the ugliness and misogyny of the church is to remain in that place of privilege, related to those who are colour-blind and refusing to believe that racism still exists, “tolerant” and refusing to allow queer people to be seen or heard, we are the church but we take no responsibility for the parts of tradition we don’t like.

Instead we need to criticise these at all times, to wrestle with any text of terror or trivialisation that could be mobilised against us even if we are too wrapped in cotton wool to feel the abuse. But there are more interesting readings to focus on so I just remind you that a “capable wife…husband…partner” is not a commodity and that rejoicing in your comfortable house or comfortable car or comfortable and efficient wife is a bit sick. This is not a milk cow we are discussing!

Pfft….I move on.

The psalm tells me I will be “happy” if I refuse the path of the wicked. So I will try to remember not to commodify people in the dehumanising way of the first reading as I look at James’ advice for good living. The symptom of a Wisdom filled life here seems to be “gentleness”. I like the idea of having a “gentleness born of Wisdom” after the way I have been pursuing Wisdom and trying to respond to her week after week through reading after reading I like the thought of birthing with her a child, gentleness.

It seems to me (reading between the) that the key to a good life is not over-focusing on things you can’t have (like perhaps the paragon wife of the first reading) but settling down in your own lowly little life with wisdom and bringing gentleness to birth for the purpose of transforming all your works (and relationships?) to peace and justice.

“Peace” does not mean continuing to allow people to oppress us; and certainly doesn’t mean silence where others are being oppressed. It means weeding out motivations such as greed, envy, boastfulness, falseness and turning again and again to beloved Wisdom only allowing deep love for her to motivate us (and I don’t pretend to be at that ideal state at this point in my life; assuming a human is even capable of loving so perfectly).

How would we ask “rightly” for what our heart desires?

I won’t agree to the idea of “submitting” I don’t see Wisdom as asking for that; maybe for a playful yielding where we have been stubborn and neglectful of Her. But we needs must draw near to her, to cultivate that gentleness that will spring from within us and wear Her face.

The gospel frightens me again foreshadowing the extreme consequences of true commitment to God. The kingdom of this world does not love those who overthrow it…the rich want to keep their privilege and radical justice is always seen as fomenting rebellion. But here Jesus is not necessarily asking us to step into his shoes and be the one who suffers and dies, only to let go of ambitions for “greatness” and to turn back to gentleness. To behold the child (Jesus has a theme of focussing on the littlest and the least) and to “welcome” the child. I have heard persuasive preachers argue that the child in this story would have been a street thief, not a nice well-brought up, polite child at all. It is whatever is vulnerable and not nurtured- the refugee child, the single-mother’s child, the silenced child.

Jesus, behaving maternally, asking us to treasure and be gentle with his little beloveds. Jesus, Wisdom, begetting gentleness within us.

Who needs that impossible poster-wife of the first reading when we have Wisdom? She invited us in and gave us wine some weeks ago. Then she called us back and called us to account for our unfaithful ways. Now she offers closeness, and wants to beget gentleness- gentleness the great healer, gentleness the transformer of worlds, gentleness the tenderness of humanity turned toward wisdom. When this world makes us despair, then we are in danger of miscarrying that gentleness, or of suffocating her by giving her too limited a sphere.

Surrounded by the love and strength of Wisdom who is a co-parent and a midwife and a refuge, humanity can learn to nurture deep within itself gentleness, to grow it, to set it free. Thus through the relentless love of Wisdom, gentleness acquires both human and divine features, blended in staggering beauty. Now there is a higher purpose for drawing near to Wisdom, for following our yearning hearts and our deepest desire.