Tag Archives: human

Human, and made that way

I am ambivalent about this week’s readings. On the one hand they dismiss wealth and the striving after it as trivial. In 2019 and facing climate change that seems pretty relatable. Vanity of vanities, the way people keep stressing out over promotions and presents and their love-lives. When I say “people” I’d be lying if I pretended to be superior. I am writing lesson plans all week, not engaged in the political struggle, I almost even forgot to write my blog this week. But maybe that too is a vanity, for a tiny handful of people to read, mainly just to humour me. These readings have come around again, I have written on them already.

But it does not always feel like vanity to work, to strive, to desire, and yes even to write. It feels human, life is empty unless we have purpose and connection. I can have empathy for the writer of Ecclesiastes but I don’t think it is a healthy headspace to see all things as “vanity”. It is like some of my colleagues and students who seem overly scandalized about other people’s sex-life choices. We don’t need to dismiss or judge everything we see, sometimes it is just the experience of being human that is in front of us- whether that means sacrificing sleep time to get a promotion (vanity) or it means over-eating the delicious lentil bolognese (vanity) or it means feeling sad and lonely when you should be sleeping and being jealous of people who actually HAVE a sex life (vanity). But to limit people’s joys too much is a type of purity that limits our own capacity not just to feel and experience but in the end I think also to live and love. Why are we on this planet? Is it all just chasing wind? Noone should be forced to labour so long or deal with such hardship that life is vain. We live, not to enrich others but to enliven ourselves, to enloven all things.

Do we hear her voice then as the psalm seems to think we do? How do we stop our hearts being hardened when we are facing destruction, when people even less deserving than us prosper, when we are overlooked or hurting? God turns us back into dust as if we never were? What dust? Could it be star-dust? Is it “dusty” like after a great night out? What is this”wisdom of heart”that is not scared of it’s own mortality?

Kindness imbues us, it brings great (and undignified) joy. There is a morning after the night of ruminating. Whose heart needs to stay soft, ours or Godde’s? I will move forward in case wisdom is waiting.

There is some sort of renewal in the second reading, I am suspicious of it because to me it sounds Platonic, it sounds like the epistemology of the mind without a body, a patriarchal way of finding meaning (while expecting women to do all the real work). Enlightenment, the privileged man’s luxury and yet didn’t I flee from the world of children into academia as soon as I could? My issue with texts about rising above the body is envy. I want to be so male that my body ceases to matter. I want to be all spirit, pure mind and I want food and home and cleanliness to magically appear in front of me while I read and think deep thoughts. Unfortunately I am woman enough to know that is nonsense.

So rather than the advice from this all too male and privileged writer of Colossians I say “put to death that which calls you to be in denial about the fact that you are a child of earth. You are dust, remember the psalm told us. Vanity is also freedom perhaps, but there is love. Put to death your reluctance to face your own mortality and messiness. Put to death how easily you compartmentalise and ignore the pain of others. Put to death a church that is built on the fear and crying of children, the exclusion of women, the exploitation of the poor. Put to death inhumanity. Don’t be so foolish, God made our bones out of earth and our substance out of stardust. Put to death your illusion that you are superior to the bleeding, emotional woman or the starving, struggling poor person. Remember that you are dust. Vanity/sacredness/humanity.

In the gospel Jesus says something that is either healthy boundaries or lack of empathy. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, because we all too often judge each other for healthy boundaries, but I am afraid of the tradition of interpretation that would tell us that the things of this world (justice, fairness, having enough to live on) are insignificant and Jesus is all about the spiritual. I see a grittier Messiah with dusty feet (though admittedly washed by a woman of more kindness than reputation). I see a Jesus for whom John was not worthy to undo his sandal (or maybe just didn’t want to touch such filthy feet). No I am being a bit silly, I am breaking out in possibly inappropriate humour. I am tired from the vanity of my week. Maybe Jesus was too tired to play judge. Maybe he said as I said to my students this week “you are qualified to make this decision yourself”. One of them told me it was a “cop out” but I begged to differ. I think Jesus gives me that sarcastic smile if I try to call him out there. Ok, Ok you rascal, you always catch me being incoherent!

But the wealth-hoarders get short shrift here. Jesus might as well be talking about certain churches I think…or maybe as a first-world person I ought to hear this. Am I working too much? Is my greed taking me away from my real calling? How about the way my work is more love than just profit, does that count for anything? Is this a reassurance for the person who has no super, or is Jesus going to remind me that my (lack of) super is not his problem?

I am without answers but I sort of feel like Jesus is a hopeless rebel like me too. Maybe we can discuss wine and debate philosophy? Maybe we can pray? Maybe it only matters that I love. Maybe it is valid to spend a few hours washing clothes and writing and NOT interacting with others.

If everything is vanity, there are no KPIs and there are no “targets” for the kindom of God. Spend some time in joy and peace today as you don’t know when you will be able to again. But also Jesus implies there is a wealth that “matters to God” not airy-fairy things I dare say but meaning and connection. Breast-milk as much or more than ideas. Chickpea patties as much or more than a promotion. Kind and understanding words or just and loving anger.

God knows we are human.

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Knowing

Someone asked me (well not just me, a group of us) to articulate how/why we believe in God. I am tired and it is a hard thing to articulate, but I will set down here what I said and try to start to polish it to understand it better. I think it was Elizabeth Adams St Pierre that said she only knew what she was going to say AFTER she wrote it. It’s a bit like that for me and this is my process for trying to understand my inner truth.

I think I will classify this as one of my “creeds”

I think my belief in Jesus is just me needing a framework for my belief in God

that is the framework I grew up with,

sort of the God-language that I am fluent(ish) in.

 

There is not rational reason to believe in God

I feel a presence

that is what a relationship is, a presence I can feel and trust

I need values and meaning to be fully alive

and sometimes struggle to know what they are

or define them.

 

People define them wrong, rules break down,

systems oppress someone

I need more

a presence I can trust

that will travel the beyond-ways with me

but wiser

and love and trust me into

my better self.

 

God is “other” to me

so that I might not be God to myself

which would be narcissism

I find myself

in bouncing off an “other”

sometimes people are the “other” but also God

to remind me that the “other” is as great and greater than me

and reaching for me in love

to wrap me

my “self” is not all, is not the reason

but even my “Self” is also wrapped in the great love.

 

I know God.

I mean I know love.

I am loved.

I know the sight of the tawny eyes that make me feel tender

and I say “I am in love”

and I can ask all the texts in the world to explain this thing to me

can deconstruct and disbelieve

but I see the face, the smile

and I am in (human) love.

 

And that is what knowing boils down to.

 

I know the taste of mango.

I know the sweet and the sometimes too sour

and the inconvenience of skin and seed

and the pleasure/irritation of dripping

and the juice in a thirsty mouth

and the wrong season so I have apple instead.

There is reason, there is science

but that is not really how I know the curve and the scent

that is mango.

 

I see a man and I know he is the baby

that I used to watch breathing in joy and fear

that I used to hold close and allow to move away

that began words and thought I was everything,

then nothing,

then a person, an “other”.

I know the baby still in the man

but the baby is long gone

and I love the man the same and not the same.

The breath that meant love.

 

My cat purrs and I know her and she knows me.

My hand on her velvety fur brings the purr

and she is old

and she knows I am far from perfect

but also trusts that I will feed her,

she rarely reminds me.

I know she purrs not for any reason

but because we are together.

 

I know the velvety rose petal.

I know its caress and I know its fragrance.

Roses have thousands of petals and they curl and dry up and disappear

and I have to try to remember

to dead-head them.

If I pick a rose

and put in in a vase in my warm house

it will last a day perhaps

not long.

But the petal is fresh if I rub it, unless I crush it,

the rose smells like something I can’t prove.

And why does the scent of a rose

call to mind those eyes again?

Something like faith, making connections

that reason cannot sustain.

 

I would hope everyone feels some such thing.

 

The bible for me is not fact,

or rules for living,

or instructions or warnings.

It is a photo-album of

communities of God within my faith-family.

They got some stuff right and some stuff wrong.

And some of it I just plain wasn’t there and I don’t understand.

 

And then God comes along like a burst of music

through my head and echoing in my memory,

reverbating in my body, in my bones

live music

making me dance and haunting me forever after.

 

Sometimes I get the moves or the rhythm wrong

or I strain to hear and miss my cue.

I hope the music is still moving me even then.

I hope but I can’t prove it.

 

Somewhere in my hope, my good intention

I must have been touched by God

I must be right

(not about the facts or the mechanics or to tear others down)

but right to live and move and have my being

coming to know GODDE.

 

 

 

Fallenness…sin…human nature?

Are we “fallen”? Is there something really flawed and ruined about humanity? Do we need “saving”? Some theological perspectives would answer “yes” to these questions, or ones like them. In that sort of a theology, usually Jesus’ death is seen as the salvific act, the death is a necessary sacrifice, a good thing. I approach a perspective like that with extreme caution, even suspicion. What does it do to our collective psyche if some human deaths and suffering are necessary or “good”? I don’t like the implications of accepting the pain and sacrifice of another too blithely.

But we do need to grapple with understandings about our own nature and about who God is. These questions seem to me to go back to today’s first reading.

In the first reading Adam has sinned by listening to the “woman” who listened to the animal. He has embarked on a human pattern of othering any part of himself that causes him shame. He is hiding away from God, afraid and conscious of his own nakedness. Nakedness has ceased to be an innocent state, he needs a barrier between himself and the environment. Incidentally this is the first “nudey-rudey” self-shaming episode that many children internalise as parents battle them out of embarrassing habits.

God in this reading accepts Adam’s assertion that it was “the woman’s” fault and her assertion in turn blaming the serpent. God appears to be sanctifying the hierarchy we know so well. What is going on here? Why would an all-knowing and all-loving God create humans with not only the capacity but the yearning to “fall” in this way? Why give “Adam” such a flawed companion? Why allow the serpent to speak? The idealised “perfection” of Eden thus becomes reconstituted as a death-trap. Some theologies hold that God planned it all that way to make Jesus’ saving act all the more spectacular.

This also is problematic.

Let’s assume that God set up the fall and the resultant disconnection in order to make necessary and meaningful horrific violence and abuse many centuries later. At this point I can see some sense in the mocking atheists, the “spaghetti monster” people etc. If I understand my faith this way it does seem violent and compassionless. If I understand myself as so “fallen” I can see a need to repress my own emotions, my own impulses, my own over-loud heart.

I grew up with a faith related to that, and it didn’t do me much good.

But outside of this pericope, Genesis also tells us that we are made in God’s image. There must be some inherent beauty and goodness (ie grace) in our identity, whatever about “original sin”. How can we be made in God’s image and yet made only to fall and be fragmented and driven asunder? How can we be made in God’s image, yet in our very nature demand and need the violent death of another? What is “God” then?

Last week I mentioned George Monbiot’s assertion that human beings are intrinsically altruistic. While the bible does not specifically say so, this idea fits with many biblical stories and thoughts. It fits with the idea that we are made in God’s image. It fits with the idea that God loves us (why would God love the irretrievably fallen?). It fits with Jesus’ tendency to spread food and wine and joy together with his wisdom; to spread healing together with forgiveness; to spread love and hope in the world. To take blame and judgement as the main products of our faith is to miss the point.

“Out of my depths” of yearning to be more than some narrative of “fall”, I pass through the psalm where all things are redeemable into the second reading. Like the author of the second reading “I believe therefore I speak”. I may be wrong in what I say, but my theologising comes from a position of faith- my faith in God is important enough for me to have made this commitment. I am called to put in the hard work every week and write something, sometimes also to preach it. I often fail at this and other vocations in my life, but I also often break it into small enough steps to succeed at some of it.

There is more than fallenness and passivity and waiting in my relationship to God. I sweat real sweat of hard work over the computer each week. I shake with real anxiety when I stand up before people to preach. My collaboration with God is imperfect because I am a still growing-toward God little unfinished image, not because I am completely without hope and “fallen”. I sin less (I believe) when I think about what I am doing, when I focus my motivations on others (particularly on God) and when I make an effort. It is very easy to slide into all sorts of unhealthy relationships with myself, others, food, money, work and leisure. While I can’t make myself perfect through an act of will, or a decision or even through hard work I can make myself better or worse by trying or not. I need God sure, but God also requires of me a commitment of will and effort.

Seems like I am in a more complicated relationship with God than merely “fallen” or “saved”, each day I make choices (some without noticing) about who to be and how to be. I am like the babies I work with, I sometimes over-reach and other times I am tired or lazy or angry and do not try enough. I am human. I am flawed. I am imperfect. But I am intrinsically good.

I am made in God’s image.

The gospel cautions us against sin against the Holy Spirit. This is a debated text, but for an every-day reading I like to reflect on who the Holy Spirit is and where we encounter her? In the context of the reading, the Holy Spirit is to be encountered in Jesus who therefore should not be mocked or dismissed. We know from Jesus that we find him (therefore also the Holy Spirit) in our neighbour.

We are called to look for traces of good in each other and to recognise and honour the Holy Spirit in all. Are we willing to see these traces in our Muslim neighbour? In our lesbian neighbour? In our politician neighbour? In our militant vegan neighbour? In our private-school educated neighbour? What about the noisy child? The strangely dressed or pierced teenager? The overly talkative old neighbour? We are all made in the image of God and the good things we do (however fleeting or however consistent) all come from God’s Spirit. God’s creation cannot fail to have goodness at its core.

It is a denial of God’s spirit to dehumanise others, even others we disapprove of or disagree with. It is a denial of God’s spirit to be so cynical about humanity that we advocate violence or nihilism. It is a denial of God’s spirit to only value animals, plants or rocks only by how much money we can extract from what we do with them. Are these ways of thinking unforgiveable? I hope not. I hope God’s Spirit dwells so tangled and burrowed deep into our DNA that it is impossible to completely de-Spirit us.

That is what I hope, but Jesus DOES caution us not to be too small-minded to recognise and honour the Holy Spirit. If we mock Jesus, or if we mock those who have hope and idealism then we are doing a dangerous thing to our souls. Perhaps it’s not about getting our theology or our creed right in the end, it is about getting our relationship right.

Because if we manage to live according to the Holy Spirit- for a moment or a lifetime then we ARE Jesus’ family. That is what we are made for and always called back to as human beings, as earthlings. Let us pray that we know and do the will of God. Let us trust in God, our souls trusting in God’s Word. Let us love generously, recognising the family resemblance in all creation.

Sprinkling, splashing, laughter and play

The next section in my book was “Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water” and nearly every time we skipped that and went to the Penitential rite. But I loved it on the few occasions when we had the sprinkling instead of the dreary old Penitential rite. In retrospect I feel I didn’t need to focus on my childish “sins” quite as much as I was encouraged to, especially given that I had so many adults to tell me what I did wrong anyway, it would have been nice to keep at least my internal voice free from that (it has been a toxic addiction my whole life to dwell on my guilt and shortcomings, it’s exhausting and it doesn’t make you a better person and nit-picking yourself is not the same thing as genuinely taking responsibility for your actions and identity).

But those days when we had the sprinkling were always festive days. We’d get a sharp slap or reprimand from Mum or Dad if we dared giggle aloud like we wanted to but we grinned. As I got older and there were seven children I learned to plan strategically where to sit so the water would land on me. Some priest seemed to have a sense of humour they would grin at our large family lined up and deliberately give us an extra splash. When it was clear that “father” did it on purpose we also seemed to get away with a muted snort of laughter. It was clear that laughing at church was only OK if the priest started it. Small wonder I wanted to be a priest, there was so much to laugh at (joy or amusement) and I wanted to be starting the laugh every time. But girls “can’t”.

The feminist theologians have pulled apart the metaphor of baptism and I find it easy to agree with them that “baptism” as it stands, controlled by an all male “celibate” clergy is a sort of insult to the actual physical fact of baptism, where each person comes into the world to take their own life in their own hands, through blood and water- out of another person (and the love and nurture that led to birth) and welcomed INTO a community. So concurrently at birth we gain our independence (arguably personhood) and our connectedness, membership and dependence (later interdependence) of a family. But patriarchy responds to this sacramentality with envy and seeks to erase its significance by mimicking it in an authorised and controlled way where “father” presides. When my youngest was baptised I wrote a poem about this mystery and how I feel we are “baptised” by birth itself (though like a good little member of church I let the rituals take place) and when my children questioned whether their unbaptised friends would go to “hell” I said that I didn’t really believe in hell and that God could baptise them any time when they get caught in the rain or go for a swim in the warm, motherly font we call the sea.

I explained that when we each are born we come out through blood and water (the children found this fascinating) and our cord to out human mother is cut, but the cord to Mother God is never cut and we draw life from her in the Eucharist, which can be any lovingly shared meal. They asked why we went to church then if we didn’t have to and I said because it makes God happy when we show our love that way and in my head was an image of God that was an older woman, like my grandmother who always wanted everyone to gather at her house every single Sunday (unless we all agreed to meet at the forest instead) and gathering to mean celebration and sharing. Those were gatherings where we laughed whenever we wanted and there was food and singing and serious talk just like at church.

But I was not allowed to laugh at church. Because they didn’t see God as the laughing silly Grandmother who lets you sit on her lap even when you are 12 and too big. They saw God as the angry Father who demands respect. Father as in “wait ’til your Father gets home”. Father as in “head of the household”, stern and proper. But the edges between these two possible images blurred a little on days when the sprinkling happened, because sprinkling in my real life was something that happened when Mum was watering the garden. We would come up and make funny voices at her and tease her until she laughed and turned the hose on us. Then we would squeal and run away and come up again trying to make her do it again. And sprinkling was racing Dad into the waves on a hot summer evening, kicking up the salt-spray with our feet and he would always overtake us and plunge in first, he could swim like a fish and let all of us try to crowd on his back while he swam under water. Sometimes it was the “underwater bus” and he swam quietly past the fish as we clung to each other and other times it was one at a time and he would try to shake us off. Sprinkling was play, sprinkling was silly, sprinkling was being accepted by the bigger people.

My missal tells me that water “gives fruitfulness to the fields, and refreshment and cleansing to man (sic).” and refers me to all the “Old Testament” stories of the Red Sea parting to let people through and water gushing from the rock to give them life. In the Sprinkling, the hostile waves of Patriarchy parted and I walked through into another world where God’s reality collided with who I really was, not who someone else tried to make me be. In that desert place of estrangement from my tradition and inability to adequately answer my call to ministry I drank unexpected water from a rock, when feminists broke open the texts to give life-giving water. Life-giving because it was what I was made of (over half of my body is water). Life giving because I am someone who cries, sweats, salivates, bleeds, and once had the potential to lactate and give birth.

I could rewrite the final prayer of the rite of sprinkling with water if I borrow an image from Colleen Fulmer.

May Washerwoman God, loving Grandmother, with much laughter and play,

wash away all that hurts us or holds us back from her table:

which we are called to set for the whole world and all creation,

which we are called to supply and serve at,

and at which we will sit and celebrate on earth

and forever more. Amen.