Tag Archives: grace

Being patient- the “not yet” of Christmas.

“The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

As a metaphor this is a beautiful idea, that the wasteland and disappointed places inside myself have transformative potential at the coming of Sophia. But there is a chilling side to this metaphor in the year when we have had such a wet and abundant spring that everyone has harvested record breaking vegetables and roses (this in Australia) meanwhile the North Pole is fast disappearing (and how many species with it?)
But…
“Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

All the limits we feel in our bodies and in our places in society will be overcome by the one who comes to “vindicate” the weak and frightened. There is radical hope here. How to read the hope together with the despair of a burdened earth? The psalm reminds us (as scripture does again and again and again) of God’s agenda, nothing to do with what you believe or who you sleep with but justice, relief, healing, sanctuary. God offers these to the poor and oppressed and calls us to be part of the movement of actualising her offers. I’d like to take that psalm on as a creed. The God I worship and call to is the God who does all those things. The hair-splitting theological points become irrelevant as God in this psalm, elsewhere in scripture and in the world rolls up her sleeves (shades of Washerwoman God here) and sets to work cleaning the house, nesting, making ready for baby Wisdom at Christmas and demands that as members of the household, the economy/oikonomia of God we do the same.

The second reading calls for patience (like every Mum ever talking to her small children about Christmas coming). Apparently we can’t hurry grace. We are also asked to stop complaining about each other, I would not think this refers to people who cry out against the genuine oppressions that God abhors but rather the nitpickers who judge other people’s sexual morality, spending habits or lifestyles and completely miss the point that God is coming to spread radical hope and justice and above all LOVE. We can all be a little bit mean-minded and judgemental at times, we all know better than others how they ought to live their lives. God doesn’t seem to have time for all that though because there are real things to be put into order (strangers to be protected and widows and orphans to be sustained).

The gospel could be read simply as part of the story of John the Baptist, a great prophet one who called people to repent back toward God and tried to open them up for the radical possibilities in Christ. There is also the bigger picture of reading the signs of the times. We keep wanting more and more and more proof and certainty before we make any decision or act. Jesus here seems to be advocating a boldness in the gospel. Don’t follow every reeed swayed by the wind, don’t expect your prophets packaged more perfectly. There are already voices of prophecy telling us about our times (there are the plants telling us the climate is skewed, there are the refugees telling us capitalism has failed the world). Take on the news you don’s wish to hear (that we must all repent radically and immediately) in order to make way for the Word that we do want, the hope and salvation of the world.

So pressed for time energy and money this year, so bereft of hope I do not know what I can bring to the table of celebration, in what way to connect with God in this coming season of Christmas. Patient waiting with the pregnant Mary is all the action I can offer at this stage, but also accepting the refocussing and repentance of the advent readings, to prepare myself for hope, for tiny baby-voice Wisdom to wrap delicate but insistent fingers around my finger and bring me back down to her level. To first steps not yet taken; to angels singing in Luke’s remembrance of the beginning or mysterious gifts and sudden journeys that are Christmas in the gospel of Matthew. And John reminds us to open our hearts to the Word- full of grace and truth. If we already had all the answers I guess we wouldn’t need Christmas.

What do I get out of it?

Ah this difficult parable that I have grappled and struggled with for so many years. This parable that wounds me because one of my greatest failings is an ever present tendency to envy. It comes back regularly to test me and I have been through all sorts of emotions- guilt that I don’t find the idea of grace in it all that beautiful, an unconvincing attempt to focus it on my prodigality and see it as unconditional good news for the “prodigal” in me (but why then the older brother at the end?). A feeling of sadness and guilt toward the older brother type people in my life, the people who have not as obviously received undeserved blessings as I have. A conviction that I do after all side with the older brother that the exploitative and cynical parasites of this world take advantage of the good nature of God and the labour of the rest of us.

Which lengthy battle shall I recreate in my blog this week? Which angst to plunge into.

Prayer has yielded a simple and clear truth. Envy is a defining sin in my life, it is a daily struggle not to be so consumed by it that I fail and make excuses because other people seem better off. But then I don’t think I am alone in the temptation to let envy rule my relationships and decision making. Look at how grudging we as a society have become, how keen to sniff out welfare “cheats” and refugees who may be trying to take advantage of us. Look at how bitterly we fight against a generosity which we might see as too much, try to protect our borders against prodigal brothers who might destroy our way of life which we deserve.

That word deserve, deserve, deserve….like the older brother who has risen before dawn daily and suffered the lines of weather and time on his face and his tired hands. All should be his, he is the only one who has been faithful and worked. And in faith, by our vocation we may feel like that too…why does God deal so kindly with those who squander what we work for and do not appreciate our labours and throw our faithfulness in our faces. Such as the patriarchal church. What a bitter pill to swallow at times that God still deals with them and forgives them.

I hated this reading for years for that, for showing me my own parsimonious meanness. I do not want to be taken advantage of. I want to reward I DESERVE and do not want some parasite taking part of it (ironic when you look at just how much I myself have been a recipient of other people’s free generosity). But it is lent a time for turning again to the apparently familiar and seeing it differently (repentance). A time of creativity and change a time of rekindling truth and love and growing toward God’s harvest.

So God turns me around to this reading and says “read it again envious one” and I read ti through to the bitter end to see the punishment to be meted out for my sin, the sin of envy. And that is precisely where I have not ever paid attention before! There’s no sort of punishment or cruelty here from God…no sort of bitter justice against my sin of envy. The “father” (not my favourite metaphor) says “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”. That is the unerodible reward that I have if I have (infrequently) got up before dawn and laboured according to my vocation, if I have tried to avoid sin and temptation and done what I think is better for God’s reign on earth or eternally.

God has already given, eternally conferred to “always” and the “everything” on our faithfulness just as much as God has already welcomed with open arms our unfaithfulness (and that is the other point of the story, that each of us is both brothers). So when the jealous stirrings see someone else’s need for grace as a threat to what we have, God gently consoles us reminding us of “always” and “everything”.

That is my challenge this lent, to avoid all the despairs of the world and of my life and to focus and refocus every moment on the “always” and the “everything” that is mine when I turn to God. Anything God asks of me is asked out of an infinite abundance, replenishing anything lost. My vocation to be kinder, more human, more just may seem like duty but inbuilt into it is the joy of God’s “always” and the wealth of God’s “everything”.

No place to be grudging, we have lost brothers and sisters to reclaim and feed!

 

When liturgy is women’s work: self healing and being loved

Even though I made claims at the beginning of this story which did not turn out to be true as I travelled through my story, I will not edit the beginning partly because I am so time-poor but mainly because I think there is an honesty in keeping in the way I delude myself and the way I try to avoid the obvious.

Given my estrangement from the lectionary at the moment and the fact I need to study I will not bother looking up a reading, will just recount a spiritual experience I had this week. I was challenged by it, back when I was more “churchy” I would have mistrusted what I felt or felt I had to turn it into a Christian framework somehow.

Instead now, I just want to tell it the way it was, with possibly my Christian prejudice still in place and my feminist bias too but not deliberately turning it to a familiar framework. I will trust the whatever, the God-thing to be real enough not to need me to fabricate Her realness with a framework. I will trust myself to love and follow the God-being enough not to need to force myself back into a box I never was all that comfortable in and have long outgrown.

As I say to the pre-schoolers “This is a true story, but there are still a lot of questions about how I know this story and whether someone else would know the story or tell the story differently”

I was unhappy yesterday, with an unhappiness that was probably just the after-effect of letting my happiness get too high like a drunkenness a few hours before. There is a person that makes me happy, euphoric and I always get drawn into a transfiguration type experience with her and then like in the biblical story (which wasn’t going to be part of this story) I want to make some sort of tent around the experience to prolong and own and predict it into my continued life. And it is a gift, but it is not that sort of a gift…the fragrance of beauty and possibility fades.

Later on she was short with me, I had a half-heard comment from someone else who laughed with her and I felt shut-out, the outsider. I felt they were mocking, and she rejecting me. Actually very little happened. It was a feeling, an after-effect of a high but I felt like shit. I wondered if I should work harder at not being in love with this person. I wondered how I would live without the glow of that love…I panicked at the unsustainability of it no matter what.

And though I didn’t feel like it I met my friends for belly dancing. My friends surrounded me. Often they have been sad and I have tried to commiserate and comfort. This time they were happy, bubbly, full of plans. They laughed at my emotional pain but in a loving way. I saw through their eyes that I was being stupid, overreacting – but they were not cruel enough to say so. One of them spoke with me at some length challenging my rigid meanings of what had happened- offering other softer meanings allowing me to begin to let go the self-hate and resentment.

But there was still sadness.

“I’ll dance it out” I said unconvinced, I wanted them to believe I was being brave, that I was at least trying not to be so stupid. “Yes dance it out” a friend agreed, that worked for me last week” but I had loved dancing last week and all week as I practiced and now I just did not want to dance. I felt too stupid and hideous and like a great big lump of sadness and I wanted to cry not to dance.

We went into dancing and the teacher welcomed us, the group had already started and they drew us in. We called instructions to each other (actually I was new to this and didn’t say anything but I appreciated that the more experienced dancers did). I had learned so much by practicing over the week but now my mind was full of tears and my body heavy, uncooperative. I forced myself to follow half a beat too late, my feet all wrong, my body ungainly.

Mostly the teacher did not comment. At one point she reminded me that it was early days for me and that it was just good to try. She reminded me to layer the moves, to only focus on the feet if I couldn’t get feet, hips, hands, upper body everything. In tribal belly dancing you layer move upon move upon move. Beginners don’t have to move their whole body. We move as a team, we try to all move together and be together and flow as one. We signal to each other the moves we will choose in the changes and we take turns leading the group.

I am a raw beginner, no damn good at it but the mathematical precision of where I ahd to put my feet gradually took over and my hips wanted to follow. My arms were too high so the teacher helped me drop them and stretch them out as they should be. Other dancers, more experienced than me also had small adjustments, but the teacher was always very positive to us and always broke it up into the smallest most logical steps possible. It was a type of maths, it took my brain and body over. I was still sad but not as heavy with it. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight; each move was eight beats (more or less) and they always happened in pairs. The feet. I placed my feet right, corrected or caught up when I needed to. I moved around the circle suddenly confident and keen to lead when it was my turn- then once again confused and lost.

The teacher had let me pass on leading the previous week, this time she saw that I was emotionally ready…with the right scaffolding, she suggested the move I should “lead” and remindingly took me through it. It was a parody of leading only, but I know from my pre-schoolers that that is how you become someone who can do. You imitate the appearance of doing, you slowly take over a step or a feeling of doing and you keep trying.

“You’re actually ok for someone on their second lesson” a friend reassured me

“I am trying to speak to myself as I would to the kids I teach” I admitted, “that it’s ok to take some time to learn a skill”

“It’s like a different language” she challenged, “You can only learn by doing. I love bellydancing. It’s all types of women…all ages, all sizes, all shapes. Well it is in tribal anyway”

At the end after our cooldown I realised I am quite fit. I was less breathless than many of them. I need to gain skill and the right sort of intelligence to understand which move comes next and remember how to do it but I am fit enough for this. When I stop panicking I will be flexible. I felt a glow of happiness that I would one day have the chance to be better at this as the teacher brought us into a circle.

“This is what we do, this is what tribal dancers do in every country” she told us, “If you don’t know their language you still dance with them and we finish with this” we brought our arms out blessing our sister- first to the right then to the left. We brought our hands together into the centre of our body “this prayer is also for ourselves” we knelt to the earth and blessed it with our outstretched hands and folded bodies, we rose up and travelled clockwise together then once more blessed our sisters to the right and to the left.

I felt sisterhood. I felt the “otherness” and the presence of God. I felt connectedness to the earth. I felt a humility creep into my body- what were my sorrows or my mistakes after all? What significance do labels like “Stupid” or “unattractive” or “rejected” have. The divine presence was flowing through me and my “sisters” and we were deeply emotionally and connectedly intelligent, we were attractive with a glowing light of beauty and love that flowed from us to all people and the earth we were accepted, welcomed, beloved by each other and the earth and the divine.

“I will try to be ok about her not loving me” I tried to pray but it came out differently.

“There is no significance in wondering and wishing and hoping about her loving or her not loving. There is dignity in me because I love her. There is dignity in me because I see dignity in others. I will walk into greater compassion and kindness toward others. Real love for someone leaves the other free.” I wasn’t moralising at myself like I have tried to when I try to pray the “right” way, I was letting go of pain and feeling a calm self-acceptance that was loving toward others. I felt connected to everyone- to my accepting friends, my dancing group, to my child and to my friend’s partner who was babysitting him, to the partners of all my friends, the friends I have not seen for a while to the friends who need my help, the colleagues who love working with me and the ones who rub me up the wrong way.

I am connected to the person who may or may not find significance in that, and to people I have not wanted intimacy with. I am connected to the people who bullied me in high school and helped me become such a nervous wreck but they are human and forgiven because I am filled with redemptive grace and beloved. I am human and forgiven for my blunders. I am called to mean well and to question.

Sisterhood in this case was inclusive, it was beautiful and because it honoured the specificity of our femaleness there was a spirituality of deep healing grace here. On the way home I ignored my anxiety about starting work at 7:30 the next morning and stopped for pizza and immature jokes with some of my “sisters”. I wasn’t going to turn this back into my Christian paradigm but what was that if not Eucharist?

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!