Tag Archives: gifts

“Gifting”, power and the celebration of privilege

I have already written enough about creeds for the time being (and will probably return to this topic), and so I skipped ahead to intercessions. So now I turn to the Preparation of the Gifts -partly to open up the privileged-centre of this liturgical moment to a multiplicity of possible symbols that can authentically be “bread of life” and “spiritual drink”. The particularity we are told we are not allowed to move away from (bread and wine, and then even particular set-apart versions of “bread” and “wine” that are divorced from the every-day materialities they symbolise are Eurocentric as well as having become “owned” and controlled by the male-stream clergy.

There is firstly the “material” reality of “gifts” the bread and wine and the ecological significance of “earth” being named as a donor of those gifts but voiceless earth’s generosity is presumed upon as we often violently wrest wheat and grapes from inappropriate or at least over-farmed soil. Eating of course is not likely to be something we can ever evolve beyond- but our habits of demanding specific foods at will without dialogue with the environment are problematic toward with our (first world) excesses. We are a people who eat too much, drink too much and even when we try to curb our over-consumption we tend to starve ourselves in ways that harm our bodies and fragile psyches without material benefit to the planet.

Then of course there is the invisible labour that goes into producing the real, material food that in an overly religious interpretation of Eucharist becomes mere “symbol” or a privleged “spiritual reality” while the “gifts” of the workers underpaid time, the sometimes starving third-world producers that are behind so much of our consumption do not figure in our celebration of “gifted” blessedness that we thank God for.

If God specifically guided this slice of bread (or bowl of rice or quinoa) into my hand and into my open mouth, then that same God must have consigned the underpaid laborers behind my bowl of food to starve and watch their own children fail to thrive. Thus we construct God as white and relatively wealthy and actually sort of middle-class. We can “choose” ethical things and make our peace with our consciences, but the fact is we don’t really think about the global implications of out gluttony when we say that through “God’s goodness” we have this bread to offer.

To offer?

We offer it as a symbol and then we take it back again and distribute it to people who look and sound like us and make us feel comfortable. Which is a good in some sense of course but what if we were to really offer the bread of our lives to deeper love of the voiceless earth and the invisible human struggling labourer and her family?

“Which earth has given and human hands have made.” What do we then give to the earth and place into the emptied human hands as a true “offering” to a God we say is love.

Even in less extreme ways, I have a feeling there is a classism within most versions of formalised spirituality. We tend to invite into our midst only those who are beautiful in performative middle-class ways, who have as little first-hand experience as possible of being “othered”, even in feminist circles we make light of the difficulties others experience because we blithely trust that the “system” does what it says it does and distributes basics like food, medicine, health-care, counselling, education, etc to anyone who needs it. It is not a perfect system but it is reasonably functional. That idea circulates even in groups that are dedicated to social justice. Real poverty, real suffering happens “over there, far away” and we live in a largely enlightened society. If someone who has less comes to our church then this is an isolated case and we can help them, without opening our eyes to the need in our own society.

Privilege is ignorance of course, always, always ignorance and when we dismiss the claims of people who have been wronged by the system without having time to waste on getting into the whole story that is perfectly understandable.

But like the earth that “gives” and the “human hands” unconnected to voices or faces (or gender for that matter) what is invisible to us seeps into the bread of our lives and the oppressions we casually consent to by our inability or refusal to see and hear them seep into our spiritual drink. After all the “body of Christ” is a crucified, bleeding, beaten body and the “blood of Christ” is flogged out of him in violence and with mockery. Easy to think that he suffered and died “for us” like the endlessly “giving” earth, because our good and ease is more important than any other concern.

When the priest washes “his” hands, this is symbolic of washing away sin. The idea of washing used to seem to me to be a liberating idea. We travel through life, we get soiled, it is all washed away through sacraments of one sort or another and we continue. If “Sin” is a personal failing and a slight hiccough in our generally well-meaning and caring movement through life then this still makes sense.

But what if with the traces of sin, our awareness that something has been soiled, we are washing away only the evidence, and not the fact. Just as overly harsh soaps and chemicals can wash away “good bacteria”, “necessary oils” our own skin along with the dirt we are trying to escape, so our spiritual “washing” needs not to be a brainwashing into an ecstatic “new reality” where whatever we did yesterday or five minutes ago no longer happens.

I want to find something positive in all this, so I will return to the idea that gifting goes with feeding and allow us  a measure of “becoming-ness” like the babies whose meal-times I also help to preside over. The babies begin in the simplest way, by crying when they are hungry or wish to be held, within a few months they are sitting up and looking at each other’s faces at the table, they are tapping their spoons together and giggling and generally reacting to the “humanness” of each other, then they begin to invite teachers to sit and eat with them and gradually they learn that there exists a kitchen from which the food comes and to say “thank you” to the kitchen staff and teachers who make it possible. Over the next few childcare years they learn to participate in cooking, cleaning and even in the kitchen garden, their sphere if understanding slowly widens from just demanding the gifts of the meal to learning how to participate- to receive with gratefulness and to give to each other and to the adults.

In the same way, our smug words of feeling “blessed” and “gifted” as the haves of the planet, do need transformation, however there is the beginning of understanding in the fact that the earth and humans are at least mentioned as part of how “God” gives to us. We cannot be more than we are and we must love ourselves and each other as we develop more aware ways of taking what we need and truly “offering” to others (all others) in a more meaningful way.

I return then to an old favourite Proverbs 9:1-6 

Blessed are you Wisdom, caller to the table of all creation. Through your goodness we will learn to build your house and set your table with you. We will leave our toxic ways of being behind along with our ignorance. We will eat your bread (rice) and wine (soup) and we will learn to walk softly upon the giving earth and touch with love and abundance every human hand. Your bread and word are our life.

May God accept our desire to share in the abundance of creation, in ever widening circles of welcoming and gratefulness, may we seek our good entwined with the good of our neighbour.

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Where’s the good news?

A lot of other people have written good stuff on “the gospels” so I am not going to discuss which parts I think are true/factual and which are made up (my opinion varies anyway) or point out that the significant differences in them, or even nitpick the patriarchal view of any or all of the gospel writers (or gospel writing communities which seems more likely). I do think it is problematic how we often privilege the gospel over the rest of scripture and how that fits with the anti-semitism of the OT/NT world-view. I also think it is problematic how little we dare to criticise the words or deeds of Jesus (as recorded) and tend to assume if it is in the book then it is automatically both good news and true.

And I guess that is where I want to come into the liturgical moment of the “gospel reading” and ask a few hard questions to make sure we are not being sold “fake news” in the guise of “good news”. Even though I like history as much as anybody and more than some, I don’t think the point of history is to look back and find some sort of objective “truth” about exactly what happened and I don’t think the bible is only history in any case- it has mythical status as much as anything else and I neither want to reify nor debunk all that.

But I partly want to debunk the idea that Christ is more present in the official gospel, than in the good news of some of the “Old Testament” readings for example, or the good news of “Acts” or the “epistles” or my life or yours or the rainbow I saw one week on my way to church. All of that is God’s good news, therefore gospel. So I want to wonder aloud about good news- what is it and how do we find it and how do we know we can accept it?

When I studied homiletics, we were warned to ensure we were finding the “good news” even in negative texts. At the time I had a fairly hippy “everything is awesome” view of church and God’s kindom (not that’s not a typo) and a fairly negative view of anything that spoke about “sin” or anything other than God’s unconditional and always redeeming love. I still believe in the kindom of God and that it is built on a foolishly generous and eternally hopeful outpouring of unconditional love by God to all creation, but also that this love may contain strong anger toward injustice, especially the stubborn sort of injustice that refuses persistently to be called to account. That is, I do not think God will punish us (or perhaps anybody) for getting things wrong, but I think the sin that leads to the suffering of humans or of the earth is a real problem for God and one we need to try to address to live faithfully and lovingly with our ultimate friend/lover, God.

So I find the balance trickier now, because I don’t enjoy or find helpful overly positive readings of the world or the text, that try to explain away or erase conflicts and the terrible injustices in our lives (our lives in the broad sense where we are connected to each other). And yet the heart yearns always for hope, hope is the breath of the soul and we asphyxiate when our environment is too polluted by fears, suffering and despair. So the “good news” is still the heart of what we seek in God’s word. We come to God not just to be challenged or debated with but to be loved and affirmed. But then we come not as overtired babies to be simply soothed but as partners who seek also to soothe God and make her comfortable and accepted with us equally to the comfort and acceptance we seek.

So we make ourselves into gospel, into Good News also for God, because in some way maybe God also can be nourished by nothing else. I have been wondering about that as I continue to read Carter Heyward’s “Saving Jesus from those who are right”. How do I make myself and my life “good news” for God? Any grandiose plans where I give everything in some radical way are fleeting because I have children and friends and a job where it matters whether I am fully present, so I begin by being fully present to my near ones and those dependent on me, and also to my gifts. Even that is difficult, even that is a large thing to attempt (and I am not claiming to have achieved it) but then there are the political things we can do- we can band together with others- listen and support and do what we can to choose and change the world we live in. The balance between looking after my small world and my big one is one I never seem to manage. At times I have poured myself out (though not as much as some others I admire) to do things for “good causes” and I have begun to neglect my family and friends or my own health. More recently I have generally erred on the side of allowing myself some personal time and valuing my social contacts and “coffee dates” (and the never-ending conversation of my son) but then who will be an activist or an organiser for anything?

And how/when do I write? And is it just a self-indulgence?

For me it is no simple task to become “gospel” to the cheering of God’s heart but I must remember both that God loves me already and sees all the traces of gospel that I am, even if I am not a great masterpiece. And I must also remember that just as in the text, the bible we are given four “gospels” and just as we can find God’s good news in many places and people and texts so God has all creation to draw her own gospel and her own incentive to kindom from not just “me” the individual.

I will continue to think about that in a world where sometimes “good news” is hard to find and at church when sometimes “good news” is not as apparent in the words we are supposed to assent to as we would like. I will wonder not “where is the good news” but “how can I become part of the good news in this story”.

We are the good news to the world and to each other.

Our love and passion always for you, beautiful Wisdom!

Some of us have run out of wine

I have run out of wine! I started this blog because my heart was heavy with the burden of a ministry I had failed to realise. I was full of negative feelings such as guilt, anger, blame toward both myself and the church(es) that had not nurtured me better. For a while I felt that me blogging was a pointless exercise, and yet it was an outlet for feelings and thoughts which needed to be expressed and served also as a spiritual discipline focusing me on lectionary readings each week whether I liked them or not and forcing me to engage with them either adversarially or in an attempt to glean something of value.

I was grateful for the very, very small number of friends who made it obvious they had read my blog entries and encouraged me to persist. And as I put my words out there, I came to see that it was not all just about “preaching” in the narrow sense, where I think I have something of value and others need it but it was about my own struggle with my faith journey and engaging in that struggled moved me back toward church: surprisingly enough to the church of my childhood (though a transformed and transformative community). Once I was “back” in the church there was no fanfare or immediate reifying of my ministry and I am ashamed to have felt so anticlimactic about the whole thing but there were crumbs of encouragement in liturgies, in things that were said and in the readings themselves.

I was asked to preach one day and I felt euphoria and joy as if that one event was some sort of realisation, and end of a struggle (but of course it was not). From that event, and from my now more frequent attendance at church as I am relearning that maturity means sometimes honouring the community not just acting like a selfish individual has grown an opportunity to participate in writing, collating and delivering liturgies and the desire to make them meaningful and affirming is still strong in me. I have learned that there may be more readers of my blog than is obvious to me week to week and have laughed at myself for still being weak and childish enough to need people’s approval and “praise”.

This journey is mirrored by the progress I have made in my professional and in the beginning steps of my academic life too. I have learned much, changed and grown and begun to experience a hard-won success.

I have identified a purpose and a direction to my life and all should be as a wedding feast. I ought to feel full of confidence and energy to extend hospitality to people and to bring the best of my inner gifts to the table for sharing with people who bring so much to me! “Ought to” I say, as though I hadn’t learned by now that the world is not governed by “ought tos” and “shoulds” and that whatever deeper reality we feel is possible and right is always one we need to struggle for (and forgive ourselves for frequently failing).

If we can reclaim Mary, not as a hyperfeminine vessel for the patriarchy of the church but as first apostle and nurturer of all that is Christ-like and wise then perhaps she at this time in my life, in all these times in all our lives turns a motherly glance at me/us. “Poor darling” she might say, “you have run out of wine”; and then the good advice has to follow (I did say motherly) “Do whatever he tells you”. “He” in this situation meaning Christ, meaning the God who has embraced and lived humanity but somehow at times transforms and transcends the exhausted and uncertain humanity that is all we know.

How then does Jesus respond to us running out of the “wine” of our ministry, the “wine” of our wisdom and the “wine” of our energy for goodness and beauty? Does he say “that’s ok then you rest and I will do everything?” It is tempted to read a God of miracles in this way. To see us as able to do nothing more than ask for grace and wait patiently for Jesus/God to accomplish all. But Jesus demands a more exhausting collaborative approach. You have run out of wine, out of the good stuff? Alright then bring water. Bring the mundane stuff of your labour and good intentions to me. That is so unbelievably unglamorous to do isn’t it? To spend long stretches of time bringing nothing but our ordinary labour and out common place accomplishments to God. These times lack the euphoria, the deep feeling of connection with God or the universe, the lightning-bright glint of revelation and the winged-feet feeling of success. We simple plod and plod and plod and bring boring old water to God to be blessed.

That is the “coal face” of faith, the place where the euphoria ends and we are still our own boring and fallible selves with our own boring and somewhat (at times) unfulfilling lives struggling to make meaning and struggling to grasp the moral politics of the reign of God from a place of exhaustion and uncertainty and surrounded by less than ideal understanding and nurture.

So when at Jesus’ word we give a taste of the water to the “chief steward” to those who are able to receive, judge and distribute our ministry and when the chief stewards of our ministry tell us that our ministry is the “good wine”, they may tell us we are good at preaching or good at counselling or good at leading- the temptation after all our hard work and despair is to feel pride, not just a healthy sense of accomplishment but an identifying of the self with the accomplishment. Then it is easy to get fancier and fancier, to fall in love with our own cleverness and success and perhaps popularity too and to lose sight of the need to be bread broken, not just a fancy and overly rich gravy.

And this happens to me.

Because of the depth of despair and cowardice and emotional pain and failure that I have experienced, when I begin to succeed then I want to see myself as forever transformed into a “wine maker” that can do no wrong. My pride in this situation holds many dangers, the obvious one is the narcicissm of forgetting to self-question and assuming your own infallibility. In the past I have been very critical of this lack of reflexivity in successful and charismatic others, so I need to keep that in my own mind as I at times experience success.

Other dangers are the loss of empathy and kindness as I become impatient with those who do not understand what I am saying, or who think differently. There is also the very great danger of despair when I fail to live up to unreasonable standards within myself- there is the all-or-nothing approach where a bad day or a bad week or a misstep damns me right back into perpetual failure and self-hate. All of these are the blights of pride, if I see any part of my ministry as bigger than it is, or as all my own work.

In preaching for example, it is entirely possible that my words could be wrong and therefore others who hear them need to always be free not to agree with me. But it is also possible when others gain something of value from my preaching, that the water was only water but that God turned it into wine not at its source, but somewhere between me and the person who heard the words. The wine might only become wine in the chief-steward’s mouth for all we know.

So in this grey time, when I cannot seem to put a foot right; when I have become addicted to a spiritual feeling of connection and euphoria which I ought to have been experienced enough to know was unsustainable; when there are simply not enough hours in the hot and sometimes lonely days and old anxieties resurface to drive a wedge between me and my support networks. When the temptation once again is to “drop out” of studies and church and even of my friendships and simply go to work and read novels. In this grey time all I see before me are water jars to do very ordinary tasks. I have run out of wine for others, for myself.

I have nothing to give.

I will continue to bring water then, since I don’t have wine remembering in the words of the second reading that my gifts were “for the common good” not for my own ego or individual success. I will follow the apostles like Mary, who point me toward Christ to take my cues from the one who makes meaning from my mundane, who changes my water into wine.

Sometimes the best wine comes much, much later than we would expect.

Epiphany

I wrote this hymn. It can be sung to the same tune as “How great the harvest is”. It’s not brilliant but I used it in a liturgy and some people liked it. I hope to do more hymn writing when I get time…and get better at it!

We follow Wisdom’s star,

that calls us by its shining

to gather all we are;

our separate gifts combining,

gold, frankincense and myrrh,

lives glittering, fragrant, lavish.

Your reign will heal our earth

you’ve come all hate to banish.

 

Now at the stable door,

we leave our pride and enter.

So tiny and so poor,

and yet you are the centre:

the reason for our long,

our winding lifelong journey

transforming all that’s wrong

with Wisdom’s dance of learning.

 

We’ve called you “God” and “king”,

our language can’t contain you

and yet in love we bring

our gifts as we acclaim you.

You are our star, our road

the giver and the treasure

your love’s abundance shows

life filled beyond all measure.

In the unlikely event you want to use this or any other poem or song by me, it is free but please let me know you are doing it. Thanks xxoo