Tag Archives: flesh

Burdened: Of flesh and spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Ways of (not)Knowing

Is it good to bite into

the crusty, doughy wheatiness

of Word made Flesh made Bread;

to drink the cup- the complex bouquet

of birth and stars and long roads,

friends, stories, long roads,

betrayal, suffering, short road to death

but also hearth-fires and washed feet?

 

Is it good to remember

that love had courage

to speak out, stand tall,

stand with, be told;

learn and grow;

to hold firm and die?

Dare we shed a tear?

 

Is it “him” and is it even me?

Where is the place on earth

where love bakes, breaks bread

and wine is shared;

where suffering is acknowledged?

What does it mean

to have “life”?

My useless flesh rejects your mansplaining

Wow do this week’s first and second readings want to get any more patriarchal? Everyone was forced to listen to the important leader man saying “blah, blah, blah” and mansplaining at God for ages with false humility meanwhile no one else gets to speak especially not women and the all male clergy probably slap each other on the back about a job well done, meanwhile the average housewife is bored as hell (especially when I look more closely and realize this really long-winded reading is heavily abridged!!) and wishes she could spend any time away from her housework doing something more interesting than standing on her weary feet trying to stop the kids hitting each other while Solomon/Joshua goes on and on and on.

Then the people of god were relieved the mansplaining was finally over and shouted “hurrah, amen, we agree” to avoid provoking a longer speech.

If we see “righteous” as meaning “oriented toward justice” then I like this psalm for all that it is Utopian and not grounded in real experience (I like the uncut version infinitely better). But that’s the psalms for you, they are sort of bipolar channels for your extreme emotions, passions and grandiose ideas. Which would be why I have always liked them. So on to the second reading which still makes me giggle as I remember my Dungeons and Dragons playing days.

Put on your belt of truth (armor class 7) and your breastplate of righteousness (+3 to defence against media magnates). Yes I am sure the militaristic language was more appropriate and relatable in its time to the implied (male) listener. But I think that I am already too inclined to think of the negative things that happen in the world in these terms, so that people become my enemies and I feel some sort of a desire to “fight”. And resistance is something very complex and subtle, it’s not a matter of flaming swords and winged sandals.

So ok, from my woman’s place (caught between my childcare job and my going home to be a mother) I am not getting a lot out of the first couple of readings. Let’s hope the gospel has something for me.

The gospel is rich enough so that I could ignore the bits that trouble me and just take some sort of spiritually correct orientation toward Christ out of it. But the troubling bits are there. The complete discounting of the flesh as “useless”. Yes, so your words are spirit and life- but I get to live in a world of food and food allergies and sleep and sleep deprivation and belly dancing, and bubble baths and sex and rolling downhill and swimming in the ocean and the salted-caramel dairy free icecream I can share with my son and busting for the toilet and having to pay bills, and heavy layers of clothing because I am cold and coughing into my elbow so I don’t spread germs and the ectasy not just of the beautiful words but having to turn the page to get to them. And no “Lord”, my flesh is not useless. I have hated it, and wished to escape it and it sometimes weighs me down but it is beautiful, it is human, it is earth.

And I can only be a Christian in a material sense- just as I wish to give the refugees the material good of homes and food and schools and playing football at the park not just words of comfort.

My second stumbling block is this gatekeeping “Father-figure”. If Jesus was to ask me “Do you wish to go away?” I don’t think I can speak with Simon-Peter. I don’t think these words are life for me. I think I will be more like “Leave me alone, I have a headache. I am sick to death of you and your mates expecting me to be an audience for your mansplaining and your pompous speeches and your extremes and binaries while my experience is so completely invisible”. Because this teaching is not just “difficult”, it’s downright insulting in places.

So then maybe I will call up my good friend Wisdom from last week and take her up on the offer of wine and maturity. She won’t brag about ascending or ask me to unquestioningly believe things, or screen me through her “father”. She has her own place and understands that bellydancing and cuddles and purring cats are far from “useless” even for beings with a spirit.

After writing this rant I woke in the middle of the night with a hymn distractingly running through my brain

Yes Lord I believe

That you are the Christ

The son of god, the son of man

Who has come into the world” (note the less than feminist wording)

 

The hymn is “I am the bread of life” and like many things from childhood it has embedded itself in my brain. I was trying to get some sleep before a 7:30 start at work but this hymn kept waking me up. When the third time I work up sweating and clenching my teeth with those words invasively banging around in my head I told God I would write in a footnote that I do realise that Jesus and Wisdom are the same people. I am not rejecting Jesus I am just having some fairly significant creative differences over “his” association with patriarchy.

 

I don’t (as I explained to God) repent of what I said, or of my anger. I do now feel I should be clear that my criticism comes from a position of overall faith (however imperfect), conflict is part of any relationship. Maybe my overactive conscience is a delusional part of myself, but once I had made that commitment I fell asleep and slept until 4 minutes before the alarm went off, just as I wanted to.

 

Surely if there was no love there I could easily dismiss the whole baggage of church and faith and God as irrelevant. Anger means that in myself I know that what I am being excluded from, or kept on the margins of is in some way significant.

Holy, holy, holey

What a claim, that God calls me to speak out. I feel embarrassed to have made such a claim in light of how impossible it is for me to adopt a pious demeanour and look like a good and holy messenger of God. The things I say are not good for the church’s PR, nor are they in line with the view of God portrayed in this week’s readings. And so the temptation is either to abandon the readings altogether (since I already posted another blog post today), or to abandon the readings and look for the liberative strands within trinitarian thinking that I used to (critically) find.

But these readings are the bitter pill the church wants us to take as our rightful medicine this week. What sort of a faith is it after all if you just look away from the bits you don’t like and don’t grapple with them? So here I go in my dialogic perpetual struggle with the bits of texts the men in dresses want us to read.

I can’t actually say I relate to the first reading. I used to be able to practice spiritual contortionism enough to stay quiet in church and believe I fit in there and in those days I used to somehow contort my brain to believe that this first reading talks about ministry; that an angel will come and cleanse my lips with coal to make me pure to speak God’s word. I no longer see God’s word that way- coming out of pure lips in a pure way. I think of the Word as also being Wisdom, that wanton woman who frequents places she ought not go and I feel relief at that. She comes to me not because I am humble, or worthy or “clean” but because she loves what is human, she loves what is messy and true (please note any reference to “truth” I make may contain traces of its own demise).

She sits with sinners.

I don’t believe for a moment that my guilt is gone or my sin is blotted out or whatever and I don’t even ask it to be. How dare God just “blot out” the sins of first world, privileged, comfortable, white people while the earth is still dying and myriads are still suffering? The way I want to get rid of my sin is by God making the world better not just filling me up with the spiritual equivalent of Valium while other people suffer. And if God throws it back on me and says “your sin, you clean it up!” what then? That is certainly what I would say in God’s position.

The thing is as privileged people we are accountable and nothing can take our complicity away. The thing is as vulnerable and broken people we are not solely accountable and we may be affected by our circumstances. And only God can really hold that in balance (or at any rate I hope she can) and lead us to a better future (which entails us deconstructing and diminishing our own privilege in the cause of radical justice.

There is grave danger in those who speak for the church claiming to have their sins magically blotted out.

So here I am God, send me! Not the pure of heart (or lips). Not even particularly keen (it would actually be more convenient to only think of my career and the next holiday I could take my son on). But you call me and I love you and I will respond if you show me how. But if I have to say “Lord” and look upon thrones with militaristic mythical creatures attending some sort of even more privileged icon of the ruling class then forget it. God there is a class war on, there is a line I can’t cross even for you- now there’s heresy if you like.

So then the psalm is full of this mighty splendiferous God breaking cedars (why? is he three years old?) and making places skip about. Actually, God in this psalm sounds like the sort of scary climate disaster I have been reading about and suffering nightmares about and which looks increasingly likely in our near future. Shaking the wilderness while flashing flames of fire do you God? Are you testing a new type of bomb or something? So all of that fire and earthquake and flood but all is well because the “Lord” sits “enthroned”. It makes me wonder, in the context of that psalm whether I want the “strength” and the “peace” offered in this kind of faith.

So far…

 

the readings are like cement slabs

gaoling me in an outdated building

a church of powerful men.

 

Where is there a breath of life?

 

A shoot of green rising

between a hairbreadth crack?

 

That with the advent of life-again

might begin to crumble

my prison?

 

There’s a crack in the cement in Romans. I am not a great fan of the flesh/spirit dichotomy since a major battle of my life has been to learn not to hate and despise my flesh (that gift from God that keeps me whole and grounds me to the earth). But I didn’t receive a spirit of slavery apparently- so by implication I am allowed to disagree with tradition. I have been reading Carla Rinaldi about the child’s right to express themselves and think differently from the teacher because they are not slaves. Then if I see God as teaching, leading, guiding or parenting me I have to assume God is more enlightened than me and able to see how counter-productive it would be to silence who I am.

So that one little line is like a license to critique everything else. So if I was to cry “Abba! Father!” (which doesn’t actually come that naturally to me to begin with) it seems the reading is leading me to do that in some confidence, in a spirit almost of entitlement before God. I don’t mean to fall back into that first-world entitlement where God will do good things for me just because we have this great relationship; if God is my Dad, then I am certainly NOT Daddy’s little princess. It is more that I am entitled to have this dialogical relationship of questioning and growth with God because it is somehow in God’s interests to nurture me (the heir) and to teach me how to continue God’s work. An important note here is that any entitlement “I” or “we” have as a result of being God’s heirs is also shared by the “others” by “them” by whoever our social structures and ways of life oppress. So we will inherit God’s grace WITHIN the perpetual struggle for justice. We will inherit an accountability which it would be wise to become more ready for. Roman’s talks about suffering with the suffering Christ as the way to be glorified with the glorified Christ.

So we struggle, we suffer with the refugee Christ and with the single-mother Christ and with the rejected GLBTIQ Christ and with any place where Christ is and any work that Christ is doing or calling upon us to do. And that is where we tend to become like Nicodemus and want to ask stupid questions and deconstruct all the wrong things (don’t you see me doing that often enough) and to show our bad-tempered side when things don’t go our way.

And I really hate what Jesus says to Nicodemus in this gospel and I could become distracted by that and the awful way I was brought up to interpret it as a rejection of the supposedly obsolete bodily existence (that comes out of a female body of course) in favour of a patriarchal higher spiritual reality. It all sounds very gnostic to me and full of male privilege and I wonder if they would still all be too superior in their “spirit over flesh” ivory towers if someone (probably a woman) wasn’t being exploited to take care of their bodily needs which they scorn.

And I say this right back to you Jesus (if you ever, in fact said any of this nonsense)! What is born of flesh is flesh and damn well better have some gratefulness. What drinks its mother’s milk better not be saying it is better than its mother and you of all people should understand the sacrifice of sharing your flesh and blood to give life to another! If you were just a spirit then how did you eat and walk and talk and touch people? If you were not flesh how did they kill you?

What is spirit we know lives in flesh and its yearnings are written on the flesh and its strange and hard to understand sayings are also formed of flesh; of tongue dancing around teeth, of wind moving through vocal chord, vibrating through the living, breathing, heart-beating immediacy of FLESH. You made us of flesh and spirit when your name was Wisdom.

I am baptised but I don’t want to say I was “born again”. I came out of my beautiful, fleshy, fragile mother and I see her face now only in the mirror. I in turn pushed out three fleshly, spiritual beings and they were baptised but they did not need a rebirthing to negate my hard work. The beings of flesh and spirit that call us to accountability (especially this Reconciliation Week) that desperately call for justice in our world today don’t need us to think we are “better than” earthly demands for adequate food, housing and meaningful work.

Once again I have chosen not to allow the angel to hold the coal of blotting out to my unclean lips. I do not blot out my flesh, my material reality. I ask you God to take the person I am in reality, not some idealised image of perfection and I ask you to let me honestly and brokenly strive to follow you. And you are not my God because you sit upon a throne and are waited on by magical creatures who have little imagination when it comes to lyrics; you are my God because your place is in the struggle. As is mine.