Tag Archives: Ministry

Motherhood

Dear readers,

I love and appreciate that you exist and that it appears like some of you check weekly for updates. I had every intention of writing a post but my eldest son moved back in. I will write about that when I am less tired (but late)

God called me to preach AND be a mother. Not one OR the other but both. Sometimes I have to drop everything though and just help my son get settled in and then just feel overwhelmed yet warm in my heart.

I am so (materially) impoverished at the moment there is no symbolic way to “kill the fatted calf” so all I had was the answer to his apology (CAN YOU BELIEVE IT????) for moving back in.

All I could say was “I want you to be here. I am happy you are here. Now I know where you are and that you are ok. I am proud of you.”

I am overwhelmed and tired. I am worried about the details.

But I am happy…

Chloe’s people, John’s people, Jesus’ people and the call to me

I am not in the mood to pretend that I feel “enlightened” or full of hope. I think it is a big mistake when people use Christianity as an opium for themselves as an individual or for the masses. If what is wrong with the world ceases to hurt in the euphoric escapism of being “saved” then God is a great big ecstasy tablet and the believer is some sort of socio-path. Because real life and the earth and human bodies matter a lot. We live in that pre-salvation darkness when we let families be locked up on Manus, when we make selfish and life-denying decisions, when we let greed and fear rule our world.

“For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.”

We can hope in this vision of the reign of God, but we are deluded if we see it as already fully realised. But it does give us a hint about which prophets to believe, and where to look for the authentic Wisdom in a world of competing truths and wisdoms. God does not deny the yoke that oppresses us but SMASHES it, radically works to undo and make impossible the oppression of her people. “Saving” is not some sort of magical act, but is liberation, removing the unjust power of whatever enslaves us (and our unjust power to enslave others). Wherever there is true liberation, there is the action of God. Wherever we (or anyone) are still being oppressed the light is yet to shine.

In the psalm I “believe” in the goodness of God. If this goodness in my life was already fully realised I would not have to believe any more than I have to “believe” in the roof over my head or the food in my bowl. I “believe” because there is something of God’s effect over my life that still exists as potential energy, poised to unfold in some way I may not grasp. Courage and stoutheartedness is needed as we wait (and these are in me, in short supply I confess).

I can’t say I completely resound with what Paul is on about in the second reading. Granted it is disheartening and counter-productive how often churches and other communities of hope become splintered as people polarise over some issue and refuse to work together. What is equally hurtful however is the false unity that makes invisible any minority or less privileged group. I am currently reading New Feminist Christianity and finding it full of diverse and oftentimes critical voices of various groups of WOC, queer folk (once again varied and diverse), workers in DV prevention and healing, people from various church traditions. They don’t all say the same thing, but they make up a wonderful patchwork of views that turn into a polyphonic dialogue that never intends to be completed or closed.

Instead churches and other organisations often opt for a “unity” that is hegemonic, restrictive, exclusive or downright abusive. Rivalries and petty politics ARE every bit as bad as Paul says, but I want to remind him of Jeremiah 6:14, and warn him that sweeping differences under a carpet is NOT a way forward. Simply putting Christ in the centre in a kyriearchal way is more problematic than I think we often like to admit. He is “the Lord” and simply trumps everyone else is an easy answer but not a real solution. Once again I am indebted to the book I mentioned above, quite a few of the theologians have challenged me to look beyond kyriearchal, individualist interpretations of the “Jesus story” to the “everyone else stories” that Wisdom has always woven through (being the sort of girl who goes exactly where she wants and won’t stay put). Wisdom (although I have a borderline problematic tendency to anthropomorphise her) is in fact neither male, female not in any way human and her story is not the story of an individual. If she is revealed “in” the historical man, Jesus (I would agree that she is) then she is also more than this historical individual.

But having asked for caution when demanding too much from Jesus and his story I nevertheless read the gospel with interest. John has been arrested and instead of falling to pieces in some way Jesus rolls up his sleeves and gets on with John’s work. Remember “repent” was John’s slogan wasn’t it? Jesus affirms John’s ministry by grounding the beginnings of his own in continuing it. He may or may not make some departures from John’s teaching or develop his thinking further but he shows the respect to his forerunner to accept the work that has already been done. Also as with a literature review in a piece of research this places Jesus’ work within the already established work of John as a continuation. Jesus is both respectful and strategic in positioning his ministry in this way, however it also undermines our tendency to want to see Jesus as a peerless exceptional superhero. Jesus himself seems to be implying he is part of a tradition of critique and struggle, a continuation of good work that can happen before (and by implication after) his time on earth.

Jesus also aligns himself with a criminal, a trouble-maker- not charismatic John that Herod liked but arrested John that threatens the state. I am liking this Jesus. In this context “come after me” to the fishermen makes it clear once again that Jesus is not seeking for personal followers and fame, but to expand the work that is being done to continue the struggle and to have it continue beyond him. Right at the start he is already asking for help…needing “others” to ensure his vision will eventuate. We cannot do these things (like ministry) alone.

So he calls some fishermen (a working class movement perhaps, not one for elites) but does he also call housewives baking and mending and sweeping? We can’t assume he did not just because the patriarchal text masks our view of the women at the back of the stage.Paul clearly has as working relationship with “Chloe’s people” whoever they were. Jesus’ inclusion or otherwise of women remains invisible- not interesting enough to the male historians of the time (but that’s a familiar scenario).

Perhaps in the end the “great light” that dawns on the people is that it is not up to the exceptional individual like John the Baptist, or even to Jesus to actualise salvation for us all. It is not something I can do on my own and also not something I ought to leave to stronger or better others to do for me. We are all invited to leave our mundane concerns and go kindom building with Jesus, with the interweaving of Wisdom with a relentlessness that survives all sorts of suffering and crosses every gap.

 

A woman’s place

 

There was a pope who tried to tell us we are not allowed to talk about women’s ordination. He forgot to rip this page out of the bible though…

Before I had even looked up the gospel for this week, I was listening to Everything’s alright from Jesus Christ Super Star and even though it diverges in some ways from the story as “John” originally told it, there was a lot to ponder in it about power, about priorities and about how issues of gender are reflected in the story of Jesus.

‘Mary Magdalene’ in the song is looking after the mental health of Jesus, seeming to offer and evening of peace, massage and forgetting to be a workaholic savior figure. Although she is interrupted first by Judas’ pseudo-political critique and put downs and then Jesus’ irritating posturing (remember I am still talking about the song) which verges on mansplaining, I love that each time she relentlessly comes back with her message of comfort and gentleness and peace.

The ‘Jesus’ in the song comes across a bit like a neoliberal celebrity having an ego trip “you will be lost and so sorry that you didn’t pay attention for me” almost like the way of the cross is an attention seeking drama. The cult of the marketable personality is more important than the “poor” in the song. Meanwhile MM shushes both Judas and Jesus and insists that it is time for relaxing and letting go. Her idea of calm and domesticity and even perhaps pleasure, she insists is as important as any delusions about “bigger” things. Taken in moderation I think this is a good message, besides it underlines what it is that women do. In the midst of big events they continue to relentlessly take care of the little events (sometimes instead of the big ones but just as commonly AS WELL AS the big ones).

So this was the gendered idea I was taking into my reading of John. I knew that in the gospel it is Mary of Bethany (not Magdalene) who performs this scene and I was really hoping that Jesus would be less attention-whore rockstar and more wise teacher in the original, but I smiled at least that in the musical the scene belongs to Mary and Judas and Jesus do their important man-argument thing but can’t shout her down.

What then is Mary doing in John? She often gets interpreted as a prostitute or comfort women or at best a girlfriend sort of character for Jesus. We are meant to be so sex positive these days that we uncritically accept this, we avoid being slut shamers by embracing the idea that women is equated with sexuality. Jesus is just telling them not to slut shame her. Well…in a way perhaps there is that in the story because the history of interpretation is part of what we have as church and as church and society we have again and again been told that a good woman is a wife or girlfriend and a bad woman is a prostitute. Either way a woman exists for the comfort of the real hero (man/Jesus).

But this is Mary of Bethany.

Mary who Martha tried to pull back into a traditional female role and Jesus said “let her go she is following her true vocation” (apostleship/priesthood). Can we read her in the simplest and most obvious way? Considering the powerful symbolism and mystery that the gospel of John weaves through every and all story, all building toward the sacrificial and Eucharistic climax of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection? Considering it is a week before Psalm Sunday. This is the curtain raiser for the sacramentally enormous happenings. Mary is using oil in the lead up to Palm Sunday. Mary anoints the one who is to be the sacrifice. Mary surely here is a priest!

She uses her hair to wipe his feet. Her long, womanly hair is part and parcel of her priesthood to Jesus. She is not an honorary man in her role she is called and consecrated AS A WOMAN to serve Jesus and minister to Jesus and minister for Jesus and perform the prophetic, liturgical action for all time in the moment and in the gospel that is written as sacred.

Everything that she is she brings to lay at the feet of Jesus so that she too is at the feet of the teacher. She is a priest and a prophet a faithful apostle and one who has sat at the feet, one who has learned the trade, one who can teach after the teacher passes on. If we see any sexual tension in the idea of scented oil and female hair, then we need to sit with the discomfort of that sexuality being a priest-thing. Because it cannot be doubted that there is priestly work happening here.

Judas’ criticism (in the song he says “people who are hungry…they matter more than you” the ultimate put-down. Even in the song he is only caring for the poor because Mary is worth even less than them. But in the gospel, there are more sinister motives attributed to Judas. He wants to control the funds so that he can embezzle them. This is partly to set him up as the villain of the story of course, but it also speaks into the tendency many Christians have to suddenly develop a social conscience when talking about how other people should spend their money and their time.

Jesus’ retort then “you will always have the poor with you” can then be interpreted NOT as claiming that he is more important than social justice, but as a refocus on RELATIONSHIP not isolated “good works” as the key to the kingdom. Judas has the purse strings, he could be distributing funds to the poor every day but he waits until now to be suddenly concerned. An act of disconnected generosity here or there will not change the world; nor will top down controls over how people behave with their money or time. Judas as the treasurer, as a man tries to control Mary who is only a woman. Jesus reminds Judas that Mary’s faith journey is her own, how she expresses it is also her own.

We will always have the poor with us because we have not-yet become one with the poor to challenge the systematic injustices (such as man over woman). We will always have the poor with us if I am more interested in telling you, the less powerful how much to give to charity than in having the courage to challenge those who are setting up systems of abuse and inequality…or interrogating my own privilege and my use of the resources I am steward over. I think the church all too often acts like a Judas in our preaching and in the sort of actions we enable or close off.

So this week’s reading for me, reifies a woman’s absolute knowledge that Jesus has called and consecrated her to ministry. It turns and interrogative eye back to those who would try to keep her “in her place” or distract her with minor “good works” while basking themselves in an unfair system. It tells us that liberation is going to happen from a place of respect and dialogue (in this way it reminds me of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed) not from a top down set of rules or decisions from above. This is a democratically arriving kingdom of God.

It speaks to me of the longing for an authentic, visionary and always political church. There are churches like that (The man who threatened Rome tells of one example but I think there are ones also closer to home). How tragic that often in those stories of hope the church, bishops and Vatican play the part of Judas and shut down authentic liturgical action.

If only all of us had courage to practice a priesthood like Mary’s. Could we trust that Jesus would stand up for us when we are attacked?

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.