We’ve circled back around, now week by week I am repeating writing on readings I have already written on. This is a good discipline for me, because I am forced to revisit and rethink what I thought I knew. My reflection for this week three years ago was here.
Let me try to find words for the unspeakable.
I did say “try”, be patient with me.
I’ve just finished reading Kimmel and Messner’s “Mens Lives (1989) and I am struck by something that’s kind of disheartening (bear with me this is relevant to the lectionary readings). Even pro-feminist make writers, thinkers, people I meet make presumptions about women. They want to keep women “safe” and allow them to “succeed” and all the rest of it, but generally implicit in their rhetoric about women is woman as necessarily heterosexual- responsive or defensive vis-à-vis men. There is a huge failure of the imagination when it comes to the idea of woman as having motivations, desires or concerns that do not centre on men, either positively or negatively. I don’t think this ought to be excused on the grounds that these male writers might be writing about men, what women think or feel about men might well be relevant to their writings, but the absences are still telling. Women are not conceived of as able to have any headspace which is not invaded in some way by patriarchy.
As women we all too often take this on board, and our reactions to things become responses to patriarchy. Thus a woman who does not love or nurture men is a “man-hater” etc. Even feminists are tricked into talking and thinking about men too often, and what is worse thinking of ourselves via the male gaze.
I want to try to reach a consciousness that is lesbian/asexual or at any rate one that is not defined by men or their absence. The lectionary is not an ally in this. Are you laughing at me at this point because I access my lectionary via bishops (ie an all-male group)? Should I perhaps not be responding to the lectionary at all? Is my faith heritage so patriarchal that as a woman I can only have an implicitly heterosexual or trans-impostor role within it (please note I do not think trans=impostor, but within patriarchy this is a common discourse. That is to say I can view myself as woman-victim or I can view myself as woman-object or I can take on a male lens and victimise and objectify other women but it is very difficult to find a genuinely female-affirming gynocentric or better a non-binary point of view. Pretending the gender binary does not exist or does not have power is naïve to the point of foolishness, deconstructive work is needed even to assume a non-binary perspective)?
Have my confusing thoughts lost you yet?
The first reading at first glance seems very female-friendly with rejoicing coming from the desire-object Jerusalem who is depicted as female. After last week’s incredibly patriarchal readings (everyone at church was grumbling at them) it is easy to take this as an oasis and not to question it. Feminist spirituality within the patriarchal edifice is so often this, determinedly not looking a gift-horse in the mouth. But when we stoop to be dogs and feed solely off the crumbs that fall from the Eucharistic table we are limiting ourselves and denying our true Godde-given dignity.
As a lesbian, it is very easy to draw me into relating to the desire for the breasts and lap of the wonderfully nurturing and voluptuous Jerusalem. The reading says “mother” but it says it with a knowing wink. The implied reader is not really thinking like a baby, apart from the temptation to surrender critical capacity and agency and simply be carried (by tradition, by habit). The last line (which we do not notice because we are excited to be flourishing like grass and wonderfully held) reminds us that there is still a “Lord” and we have not lost our “servant” status. “Power” can be part of motherhood too but we’d love to gloss over how oppressively that can be experienced by the pre-schooler. We want to idealise this comforting femininity and we forget that God in reference to this Jerusalem is still the patriarchal structure intact.
We have gained nothing but the command to close our brains off and rejoice.
Is this the Word of Godde? Praise, praise, praise. Tremendous deeds. The psalm comes in to keep us distracted (again like babies). Oh look a pretty bauble…oh look a consumer product… When the going gets tough the tough go shopping…glossy brochures advertising the “experience” of various educational institutions (if you want to know why this is a problem please see Thornton and Shannon)….God didn’t refuse my prayer or his kindness…
There’s asymmetry here and as a good (“good” lol…”good feminist” is surely an oxymoron) revisionist feminist I want to change the pronoun to female and close my eyes to the things that I don’t like. After all God is objectively greater than me- more powerful, wise and enduring than I can be. Isn’t s/he? Aren’t they?
And what sort of a relationship can I base upon a knowledge like that? That all I can really know of God (praise Him, praise Him) is the idea of my own inferiority and God’s superiority. God’s unknowability stresses my limitedness. God’s power my weakness, God’s omnipresence my weariness, God’s wisdom my lack of knowing anything. Is this God? Or is this a great projection of my own existential terror?
And if the latter then what does it mean for faith? If I don’t believe in God’s “tremendousness” then can I believe anything? Could I survive as an atheist? Experience tells me not. I seem to be caught between a Scylla and a Charybdis of my own spirituality here. Patriarchy has told us that Scylla and Charybdis are both female. Alright then, as a truly transgressive lesbian feminist my mission is to make sisters of them. I have not yet found a way to steer safely through, but I know from having flesh-and-blood sisters that discomfort and reluctance to engage does not mean we are not kin. Come with me Scylla, take my hand Charybdis, we need to confront the second reading!
In the second reading difference is being undone- that is the difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. I have often taken this on glibly to think about how progressive this unification of opposites is. No matter what sort of a penis we have we are now all equal. Yes the foreskin is no longer a bone (pun intended) of contention.
See what sleight of hand the smiling lectionary has pulled on us now? We are all equal as males. What does this mean to non-males, non-penis-bearers? What have we been “pricked out” (Shakespeare) for? Nothing. We are absent. We have to read this from our own absence, to construct our own being with no building blocks. I am not circumcised, but neither can I properly refer to myself as “uncircumcised” therefore as usual the lectionary has not spoken to me or about me. What are we going to do about this girls (Scylla and Charybdis)? I can see why you wish to devour them all now!
So is that what a woman becomes? The wish to devour? A vagina dentata? A big mouth? How easily this view of womanhood (hole, chalice, receptacle, womb, urinal, kiss) is colonised back into patriarchal smugness where they think everything that exists comes from their seed (this is as true in intellectual work as traditional discourses of baby-making). And how do we answer that? Patriarchy has so colonised the whole globe and the whole language(s) that I know if no place outside of it. Besides bell hooks (in Kimmel and Messner) shows that any attempt as separatism works against feminism and reinforces/reifies inequality.
I am left not knowing where to even stand, how to begin to speak (and yet all these words).
So here we are in the gospel- Scylla, Charybdis and I. We’re being sent out now like lambs among wolves (no kidding, Jesus). We are here to bring peace, we’re are we meant to get this peace from? Is it more unpaid, unacknowledged women’s labour to fashion this peace out of crumbs and discarded foreskins or something? We are meant to accept whatever is offered. Oh this again! Against this preaching I am the bad woman who left the (heterosexuality that was) offered and asked for something different. And failed to find/obtain it. What am I but the queer art of failure (Halberstam)?
I cannot explain why, but I see trans-Jesus wink at me. We are both caught up in this charade but they are not bound completely by the role and invite me also to see the joke. Respectable, tame, church-going Jesus suddenly spreads his/her/their wings and reveals themselves in drag (or is the respectable “passing” the drag?). Jesus is also caught up in the necessity of making sisters of Scylla and Charybdis. Jesus here is a human queer -vulnerable, rejected, made invisible, the sign that is opposed (Luke 2: 34; cf Acts 28:22). Am I wrong to catch a glimpse of a Jesus I can identify with? Who may claim this?
Then this happens:
“Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you,
go out into the streets and say,
‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet,
even that we shake off against you.’
Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand.
I tell you,
it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town. “ (luke 10:10-12)
What does this mean to us queers, feminists and critical voices? What does it mean for the church’s reluctance to receive us? We are treading on snakes and scorpions when we attempt to even begin to articulate our experience. A far cry this is from the breasts and comforting lap of “Mother” Jerusalem. We are both and neither, something the writers of scripture and compilers of the lectionary never considered. The question remains whether God considered us?
Everything hinges on that.
Halberstam, J., & Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. Duke University Press.
Kimmel, M. S., & Messner, M. A. (1998). Men’s lives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Thornton, M., & Shannon, L. (2013). Selling the dream: Law school branding and the illusion of choice. Legal Educ. Rev., 23, 249.
It’s time for me to get over my addiction to superheroes. Oh I don’t mean the Marvel Universe, although many of my friends enjoy that, I need more feminist storylines than I can find there. I mean people, the very first example I can think of is my Mum.
My mum used to do all these amazing things, she made things happen, she dealt with every crisis, she knew too much and she never seemed to rest. Being a child meant that Christmas was a sort of magic that happened. In 1996 I became a mum and to my shock there were no super-powers conferred on me with the position, but now I had to be the person who made things happen and unravelled all problems and worked so hard (and largely invisibly) to make the Christmas magic.
There were other heroes too…there were teachers and leaders. All sorts of people over the years for me to admire. In activist groups there was always someone who seemed larger than life and it was my privilege to try to become involved enough so they would notice me, so I would be part of the team. But of course the heroes served another purpose also. Heroes meant I didn’t have to be fully committed I could come and go on the periphery of the action, I could “contribute” but someone else would take the responsibility for what we achieved. Heroes were greater than me, more sparkling so they could do all the work. I would follow when I could and expect tolerance for my human limitations and lack of consistency.
This view of the world has always made it hard for me to celebrate Ascension, which I tend to experience as abandonment by one of my necessary heroes. I have a fear of abandonment which does not help me feel joyful.
Wouldn’t life be easier if Jesus had just stayed around indefinitely to answer questions and perform miracles and argue with out enemies saying “hey look I have been here for centuries, even death couldn’t stop me” and outranking them? In this sort of wishful thinking of course, he would have come to Australia and be part of my communities and advocate for me (possibly a questionable element in the privileged Christianity of the minority world).
Jesus did not decide to work in this way. He lived with us, spoke with us, walked with us, suffered with us and had enough commitment even to die. He came back to offer hope and to show that we should never give up…and then he showed enough trust in us to leave.
Yes trust. As the original second reading (which I used as the responsorial psalm) says, God’s power strengthens our hidden self and brings out of us a deep and integral desire for God, for real meaning. There is hope in what we are called to do, but we are called rather than led or enabled. God asks us to make our relationship more mature than in the beginning, the idea here is emotional labour.
Where a relationship is healthy and respectful BOTH people are taking responsibility for the emotional labour and a measure of responsibility each for themselves. So we are not called to a toxic dependency on God, to be crying out to be saved but to watch and listen and come to love and learn and live what God is. God is Godself in relationship with us, in us and calling us through the sacraments to touch and be more than followers. Jesus was not a figurehead, not a superhero but a fellow-traveller, a teacher who becomes a friend. We are supposed to become what Jesus has shown us.
The angels tell us not to stand and stare at the sky, not to look after Jesus as if we had been abandoned. Instead we are to find God here and now, in our bread, in our community and in our lives. So I invite you now to sit and think of your own life and the encounter you have found within it this week. How has God been deeply embedded, instead of leaving this week? If you are not abandoned, what is it you can do to take responsibility and move toward relationship with Christ? What is our call and how are we companioned in fulfilling it? You may also wish to share with people sitting near you.
Station 4- Jesus meets his mother
Imagine being the mother of Jesus. Imagine being any mother. Imagine spending years holding your baby close, talking with your growing child, doing everything you can to give them opportunities and instil some wisdom. But still they do things we would not have chosen and have courage we would not have for them.
Any child has some sort of devil/cross to carry on their back as they get older. Any child is condemned and rejected by others at some point. Any child falls and wonders whether they will go on.
We are not giving our young people hope, that is the trouble not only today but going back at least to my generation and maybe further. My parents loved me but they gave me cynicism and sarcasm and a refusal to listen to my concerns that the planet was dying. We still ridicule the young. We tell them nothing is more important than having a job, and then we show them that there are no jobs. We tell them that this is the country of the “fair go” and show them refugees (mothers and their children, hollow eyed men whose mothers loved and nurtured them like Christ) we show them these people locked up, with the key all but thrown away. We tell them (our beloved young) that the world is so bad because of their addictions (which we have fostered) to iphones and smashed avocados. We are very quiet about our own addictions (to coal-powered economies, to sanctimonious inequality).
The face of Mary looks at her son. She does not ask “where did he go wrong?”. She does not blame herself for letting him grow up brave and wise and question the system. He would be half the man he is if he were otherwise. Wise Mary knows that Jesus is suffering because the system is unjust. Like the women on welfare who cannot feed their children or get home to them in time she weeps.
Your mother sees you and I see you too. Your mother is a face in the crowd, but one that does not mock or judge you, one that knows this does not “serve you right”. It can be hard to look on her, on the face of the one who understands terrible suffering and wants to relieve it. It can be hard not to cling and beg and depend but you grew up.
Jesus, I am afraid for my sons. I am afraid for the children of the world, I am afraid for me. I am afraid to show my truth, to show that I am oppressed, to be one with those who carry stigma- the mentally ill, the unemployed, the ones who get blamed. Give me the courage of Mary who never ran even from this. Give me the love which kept walking with a broken heart.
Some situations are completely without hope, and yet we must be the face of love. Always and everywhere unflinching. Love stares suffering and death in the face and remains love.
Make my love courageous.
Station 11- Jesus is nailed to the cross.
Just when the indignity and exhaustion has been so relentless that you cannot bear it they make it worse. Nails splitting skin and sinew. Blood, pain, jeering, hung high above the crowd which understands the opposite of your message. I’ve had a small taste of being hated so much and for the wrong reasons, but I’ve only had my picture defaced in a way that my indignant son said was symbolic of domestic violence, but was powerless to really frighten me. But real people are beaten, made to bleed and bruise, gas-lighted, told they are worthless, spat upon.
“Why didn’t she leave?” we ask of the woman who puts up with it year by year, akin to the thief asking why Jesus didn’t waltz down from his cross and prove he was more than a man, prove he was God. We don’t understand suffering, we do not wish to identify with victim-hood we see no strength in broken endurance, but Jesus sees. Jesus calls his sisters out of domestic violence, yes but he sees also the invisible nails that keep them there.
Jesus calls the child in the school-yard to speak out and end their victimhood at the hands of a bully, but Jesus sees the social stigma that stops the child telling. Jesus stands with the ousted whistle-blower (even when he is an imperfect human being). Jesus stands with the impossible child. Jesus stands with the undiagnosed and the misunderstood and the wrongly medicated. Jesus stands with the victims of the church’s myriad abuses and turns an eye of anger and shame against the perpetrators, however powerful.
Jesus stands with all victims everywhere, not to sanctify and reify victimhood but in solidarity. Jesus would end the pain and the shame if he could (let us be clear about that and not too cosy about his “heroic” victimhood). Jesus suffers terribly and is retraumatised when we suffer or when we cause suffering.
What do I say to you O Jesus,
As you are nailed to the cross. Is it the cross of my prejudice? Is it the cross of my impotence to create change? Is it the cross of my inability to hope? Is it a cross not of my own making, but one I would rather not confront?
So easy to look away and walk past, because what after all is the polite way to speak to someone who is suffering and dying to keep me in my first world (minority world) lifestyle? Are you languishing in a factory in China owned by someone in my country? Are you a calf brought up in the dark and filth only to be slaughtered? Are you a fish in the Murray river? How do I confront you when to see you crucified is to confront my own privilege, which I prefer to keep invisible?
How dare you hang there on the cross! How dare you spoil our public holiday with your suffering! How politically correct of you to demand some recognition.
But dearest Jesus, you know I am not really like that. I see in your face my own humanity. I will do better. I will not walk past injustice. I will become conscious even though it is like thorns digging into me. I will speak out though I am afraid. I will practice holy solidarity with anyone who is oppressed.
One of my students said to me that we need to find the place of no more crosses, the place where no one is crucified. She thought she was being rude to my religion but my heart leapt at the idea and I agreed with her. Show us that your followers ought never be the ones who drive the nails in or even stand idly by.
Let us build a world of hope, a world without crucifixion.
Solidarity brother Jesus
I have had some internet and email problems this year and as a result, lost my roster for church (among other important things). I did not realise I was meant to be on the roster to lead at church this week until 9:30 last night when someone from the community called me to check up on what was needed this morning. She told me what the gospel for today was meant to be and I started thinking about what I might say.
When I got to church this morning, I was able to look up the rest of the lectionary readings and I had to do an “off the cuff” reflection. The fact I was able to do so at all, probably has more to do with this blog than with anything else, and of course God may well have helped me (I certainly asked her to).
I will try to remember what it was I said. These were the readings, and I said something like this:
I remember going through a time in my life, when the patriarchy of the church and the male-centredness of the stories and beliefs we were taught made it very difficult for me to continue in the faith. It got to the stage where the maleness of Jesus himself was a problem for me- I felt a strong disjunction about who I was created and called to be with God and the church’s seeming insistence on the MALENESS of priesthood grounded in the maleness of the one we follow. I nearly fell away from the church over this, I could only bring to God my female body, my female-centred way of loving, my female experiences of life and work. If these were not holy then how could I approach God?
Today’s gospel perhaps speaks to those yearnings and questions I had as a young woman. I experience Jesus in this gospel within my own life where I have been a mother, and early childhood worker and in some degree and activist and I can relate to the way Jesus is being pushed and pulled and pressured every which way. So many different people demand things from him and each person’s need is urgent and real. Jesus sets off to help one person, is interrupted by another and as a result of stopping to help the second one, the first- a little girl dies.
Being Jesus he can make something of this, he can turn death into life which is certainly more than I can do. I don’t have the capability or the patient grace of Jesus in my own life as I juggle competing demands (all important) and try to discern where to turn my attention, where to channel my love. I often drop the ball, neglect something I should have done or arrive too late to something else.
I take heart then from the second reading that reminds me that God is not asking us to deprive ourselves for the sake of others, or to give more than we have. God is challenging us as relatively wealthy and comfortable people to give of our surplus. All it takes is allowing God to turn our greed and our fear into generosity and openness. Is that not an important lesson for our time?
How can we not pay heed to this call to share from our abundance? How can we bear to be part of incarcerating people and families on Manus or at Nauru? We are not just starving their bodies, we are not just taking away their lives we are starving them of hope. Of hope itself. I almost began to cry at this point as I often do when I consider the mother who lost her son or the man dying of cancer or the hundreds of others.
This cruel way of treating people, it really needs to be said is a sinful direction for our society to be going.
It is against God. The same goes for what is happening in the US where little children are being pulled away from their mothers and fathers (I didn’t mention our own stolen generations but I should have). I read this week about small children, some as young as three being forced to go to court to be sentenced and deported- all alone these children face this without even a loving adult by their side.
This is an evil beyond words, an extreme evil. I feel that word is not an exaggeration.
I have been reading bell hooks this week, “all about love”. In it she talks about our yearning for love and the way so many of us grow up not getting what we need from our families- not experiencing the emotional security of being loved. She talks about romantic relationships also frustrating this need and not delivering the love that is needed. I could relate to what she was saying the desperation and the lovelessness that she said is characteristic of people in the world today.
She said that people yearn to be loved but have never experienced it. That they do not know what it would feel like to be really loved and as a consequence they do not know how to love.
While I could see that there was some truth in what I was saying I could not agree with her that I had never experienced being loved. I feel that this is a community that has taught me a lot about love. I have been loved here and encouraged to grow into a more loving human being. I have had my gifts honoured, and my lack of giftedness forgiven. This is a place where we come to be loving and to heal each other’s capacity to love and to hope. How can we pour out our love to the world? How can we be the loving people that the world needs?
Let us think about that. Let us remember that God does not ask from us more than we are capable of giving. How can we be the love the world needs? How can we ask for and teach love to others? When we are pulled this way and that by the needs of others; and are poured out and fragile, how can we trust God to fill us up? How do we bring love, healing, and new life also to each other?
I don’t know what to think about these readings and about the recent election which made me cry tears of grief and despair (and sheer exhaustion it must be admitted).
On the one hand the first reading is promising a change in relationship- to God dealing more directly with an individual rather than through teachers and leaders. Nevertheless the words of the reading are authoritarian and the tone kyriearchal. I don’t want to be like the voters who fell for a slogan like “strong change” without asking what that will look like.
The God-voice in the reading seems grumpy and bitter about some sort of disobedience in the past and so the offer of a changed relationship seems like God having more direct oversight rather than a more respectful closeness.
Reading it leaves me in a spiritually empty space- resentful and without joy or hope. Is such barren terrain perhaps necessary to traverse in lent? But for what purpose?
It really is like being stuck in the wilderness with no idea of the destination.
In the psalm we have the refrain “create a clean heart in me O God”. Once again what strikes me is both an individualism (in “me” not “us” or “society”) and a being found to be flawed and failed. God is asked to “fix” me, the implication is that I am uncreated, dirty.
The implication is also that it does not matter what social world or time I live in God is interrogating “me” not inspiring or taking part in human society. These readings and the disappointing election led me to pray at church that we are earthlings after all. We are made from carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and minerals as much so as dreams and traces of Wisdom and free-will and tears. We are not just made to “rise above” everything and be so heavenly that nothing bodily matters.
I have a life on earth and I am concerned with politics and food and how messy my house is (though I don’t do enough about it) and how arms feel around me, and what my hands can (or can’t) touch. I dream of writing fiction or academic work as much as prayers. I desperately want to feel that my children and their children will find joy and pleasure (as well as work and responsibility) in bodiliness and earthliness.
Isn’t this what God made for us? Is this not God’s will? If so how do we follow God’s will to keep these goods?
The second reading equates prayer with tears (relateable) but talks about obedience and necessary suffering. I am not completely on board with that but I suspect it has more to do with trying to make meaning in incredibly hard times than any sort of universal truth. Anyway the word “obedience” rankles most feminists because of the way it has been used against us. No I will not obey institutions that do not understand me, represent my best interests or even let me know my own inner truth.
If I am stuck in the wilderness forever because of my lack of desire to submit and obey then I will never enter the holy city but will look for what flowers and fruits may grow in the wilderness, what streams there might be. I am reminded of the time Miriam (the singer, historian, psalmist of the people) was thrown out of the camp and people were in an uproar.
I feel beloved enough to risk disobedience, as obedience is a kind of death (which I used to know when I lived it).
In the gospel the way to Jesus is through two male gatekeepers. Same old, same old. Obeying…serving…following.
The reader in church this morning made me listen by using both the words “father” and then “mother” in the reading. But will Jesus’ suffering and death really glorify God? What sort of a God is that? What sort of a father (mother)? Growth is only possible through the death of the grain which sounds wonderful in theory unless you are the grain. Who are we in the story?
The gospel stays dark to the very end, and I am puzzled how it is “good news”. I wish Jesus had not been persecuted and tortured actually -secretly I have always wished it and I have become stubborn and outspoken enough to say it (as if God didn’t know how I felt). We have suffering and death in our lives, but I don’t feel we should celebrate that fact, though naming it may be useful.
I was asked to be Jesus in the reading of the passion next week and despite my fear of the violence and horror of any sort of passion story (or any sort of corresponding reality) I was sort of star-struck and honoured to play the hero, Jesus. Since then I have worried over all the ways my voice and expression are not up to the task (but of course noone expects me to actually “be” Jesus). But much as I would never want to be Jesus in a reality version of suffering, shame and death, much as I would lack courage and strength for such a thing I think the worst role in the story is that of Mary.
That is the part of the passion that is the worst suffering, the most awful thing possible.
That makes the story even darker, when I consider that Mary was there.
And we are called like Mary to open our hearts to the whole world and have a maternal and patient love for all humanity, all creation. Well to work toward it anyway. We are told that God/Jesus has that maternal love for all creation and for each of us, that it is in the nature of God to care, nurture and protect. How does God bear the harm we do to humans and nature? How do we claim to be following God if our hearts do not break from the pain of our neighbour?
Lost in these hurts and our own helplessness how do we live? Where is the healing?
I am not looking forward to four years of my state moving away from renewables (before we were properly started) and to the “strong change” of the Empire’s soldiers.
My mood is dark, in the church year the cross is beginning to loom. All I can summon up before God is my honesty about how uncomfortable the darkness is. I don’t want anything to get worse.
The first reading today, is a couple of disjointed passages from a longer section where surprise, surprise the father (patriarch) of a household is setting up his own wellbeing and interests as “God’s law” over his children. There is a section defining the parent’s power over children as natural and right, God’s will, then he sensibly looks ahead to a future time when he may be feeble or have dementia and sets up taking care of him them as a virtue for his children.
While I agree that looking after the old with compassion and respect is virtuous, as a whole this piece of writing leaves me cynical and disconnected from my tradition. I want to look for holiness instead at real holy families I know… two women who defy their church and some of their relatives to give loyalty and nurture to each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer…” and let their mutual love outflow to their communities… a single mother on the barest pittance who struggles to put food on the table but always finds some change or a cigarette for any homeless person who asks her, and refuses to give up her World Vision sponsored child…the couple who take turns running for election or supporting each other’s efforts, who work together to manage their household finances, chores, child rearing, extensive political involvement, gardening and still find time to each have personal interests and entertain friends (how do they do it all?)…the single person who knows s/he (I know more than one of these)is on a good income and looks for opportunities to be generous and transformative with their money, even while enjoying a good standard of life themselves…the elderly people whose love for their own (now grown up) children spills over into grandchildren and others who they can mentor, support, encourage…the teachers who are like family in the way they see and respond to an emotional need…the nurses who heal more than a physical wound by lingering or listening for a (precious and scarce) moment longer than they have to…the chef who finds an excuse to feed people even beyond the call of duty…the boss who genuinely cares about how unique her employees are and their individual needs and issues…the now separated or divorced couple who remain friends for the sake of their child, or add encouragement and support to the ex, rather than bitterness and judgement…”
And there are broken families too of course, people betrayed, abandoned, insecure, criticised, misunderstood, neglected…all families are Christ’s family whether we approve of them or not, whether we can see the life-giving potential in them ore not.
To extend this logically, the family called “the church” which is also extremely flawed and at times abusive is Christ’s family too…
The second reading starts off well, with all the advice about loving and forgiving each other, but also ends up devolving into patriarchal family hierarchies. Husbands over wives, parents over children. I don’t want to rehash all the apologetics here about “this is actually liberative for its time and culture because it is two-sided.” Maybe, maybe not but I am reading it on the threshold of 2018 and this way of putting it does NOT liberate someone who has experienced being a child and then a wife. As a lay-person in a church where there is so much power and authority accorded to clergy I am wary of this asymmetrical two-sided responsibility where my responsibility to obey is supposed to mesh with someone else’s responsibility to nurture me. That has often not been the way it has panned out. I also added back in here the verse the lectionary has swept under the carpet, because I think it illustrates our need for caution with texts.
God created all humans with intelligence, will, agency; it in no way makes sense for some to give up their own ability to reason, choose and decide and to hand that power over to others.
I am digging in my heels at these reading with a big fat NOPE.
In the context of these two readings, the gospel seems a little bit oppressive too. Here is Jesus’ family following tradition, celebrating his maleness and first-borness by killing some pigeons. I understand that this is not my culture and I try to bite my tongue as I read it (but there were those other readings to set the tone for me to resist this too). So here they are doing everything that is “prescribed” and Jesus’ specialness is affirmed by people outside the family, people important within their religious community.
As someone who never got to be “special”, as “only a girl” I can watch it from the outside but this story has never really captured my imagination much, nor has it given me any sort of useful concept of “holiness” so that as a child this feast-day was more of a puzzle to me than anything else. I was a pious little goody-goody so I took it for granted that they were holy, I was not and my role in the faith always was to obey and follow- never any more.
But when I was pregnant myself (no longer a child by then) I thought a lot about Mary and her struggles, about Joseph and his ability in other parts of the gospel to put his family radically first (which is pretty transgressive in a patriarchal context). I thought of Jesus’ contradictory attitudes toward his own family- now clear affection, now a seeming desire to escape and deny…of his need to be more than his origins or pedigree, of his resistance to being subsumed in domesticity or family expectations. Leaving the security of the family leads to the cross; the cross might have broken Jesus’ body, but imagine the wreckage it wrought to Mary’s heart?
I prayed that none of my children would ever in any way or in any movement be a “Messiah” and yet I also knew that whatever they were or were not, despite the first and second readings of today I would neither choose nor control. The holiness of “family” then, must lie somewhere in that contradiction between individual agency and call, and collective support, love, acceptance of one another. We yearn as human beings both to connect and to be free. We can achieve so little alone, as a pure individual and yet perhaps the most frustrating and perennial challenge is the attempt to be understood by each other (and the pain of stopping our own knowledge and emotions in their tracks long enough to know another).
So on this feast of the holy family, I look at my own flawed self as a mother of sons, as a sister and daughter, aunt and cousin and friend. I look at my single-state, my difficulty with managing intimacy in my life, but miraculously the relative stability of my friendships. I offer a prayer of thanks for the people who have with-held judgement (or even advice) and have offered encouragement and practical help, fostering my slow growth.
I anticipate my need for more- necessary but slow and painful growth to better relationships and the best inspiration I can find in tradition can only be the prayer of St Francis,
Divine Wisdom make me an instrument of your peace,
where there is injury let me sow pardon,
where there is hatred, let me sow love,
where there is confusion, let me bring Wisdom,
(God I know the original said something different but I mean to bring creative doubt to over-certain faith as much as reassuring faith to toxic doubt)
where there is sadness, let me bring joy
where there is darkness let me bring your light
(and as a three-year old once pointed out where there is too much light let me bring the rest and peace of your darkness)
and to despair let me always show the chance of hope.
Oh beautiful and loving One teach me always to seek
more to console others than to need consolation,
more to listen and understand than just to be heard and understood
especially when I have privilege in worldly terms.
Teach me not to be needy in matters of love but to be generous and ready to pour out and be poured out in love.
Let me know with you that it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning and making allowances for others that we lose our own guilt and complicity in sin,
and somehow, in some hard to comprehend,
even death is not final as our eternal vocation is into You.
Make me an instrument, a way for you to play the music
that is peace and healing
Dear readers, thank you very much for putting up with me through this time of sporadic posting. It makes my heart sing to see that people have looked in on my blog nearly every day. This is what I will “preach” at church in a few hours. I hope you enjoy it. I used the lectionary for the second reading (1 Thess 2:7b-9,13) and the gospel (Mt 23: 1-12) but for the first reading I used Marina by TS Eliot because I wanted to undercut some of the kyriearchy in the readings taken together (although I would not presume to CENSOR the bible, I do call into question the way the church juxtaposes various readings). For the psalm I used a bit of Disney (Hunchback of Notra Dame) although Disney is not something I would ever recommend uncritical consumption of.
In the second reading today, apostleship is compared to being a nursing mother. Let’s just sit with that a moment. Gentleness, affection, tireless work, radical self-sharing. And then the joy and thanks-giving to have the living word received. Because that sort of preaching really works, we are always inspired when people live and work their love not just speak about it!
I had an opportunity this week to go to uni, and speak about my “Activist journey” about what over the years has politicised and motivated me. I kept God out of it, because it was a mainly atheist audience, but to my surprise they started mentioning “love, courage, justice, right relationship, being authentically human”. People everywhere in every context are looking for meaning even if they would say they don’t “believe” in God.
There is a goodness and a beauty in people when they seek the truth that makes life better for others, when they work tirelessly for something bigger than themselves. I tried to get away from “motherhood” as the main theme and metaphor of my talk, but other people clung to it with determination and then here it is even in the bible. The idea of “mother” is so evocative for so many people.
Imagine leaders who come to us like that. Not as authoritarian judges, but as nursing mothers. Imagine the trust that could be fostered, the community we become when we encounter that sort of a leader…well perhaps here it is not so hard to imagine.
The gospel flips over this vision to show us what happens when it all goes wrong. Sometimes leaders do not put the people first- we have all seen what happens when leadership is about ego or power or greed or even cowardice. The gospel gives us permission not to be overly obedient, not to be trusting- to remain faithful to whatever is true in the message channelled through such leaders, but to view the leaders themselves with a critical lens.
Having told us this, Jesus then moves the lens back to us, knowing that we must also be leaders. We are not to seek a higher status as a “teacher”, a “father”, a “master” setting ourselves over and above the people we serve. There is liberation for both sides in equalising the relationship- the leaders can have the support of an active, capable community where everyone contributes just as much as members of the community gain a voice and dignity and agency.
All of this by the way strikes chords with me in terms of early childhood where the higher our respect for the capability and dignity of the child, the easier our work becomes as children work with us to build a positive culture in the centre.
But these readings seemed to me to mesh with TS Eliot’s Marina because life is about more than status and responsibility, even for those of us who are leaders or activists, teachers, or healers. The poem goes through several movements, some of them dark in a journey over water and into memory. The driving force here is relationship, “my daughter” as well as the mysteriously intimate and distant presence that I think is God (or the atheists might call the same thing consciousness).
All the different empty things we could focus on are listed and dismissed as meaning “death”- the need for power and domination, the need to be noticed and glamorous, the need for escapist pleasures and an easy life, the need for meaningless encounters. So many things we are supposed to focus on to advance us in the eyes of the world or to make life easy in some way.
So many things we can waste all we have on, all meaning death.
And even working hard for a good cause in and of itself can be meaningless, can be about ego and about how others perceive us. But there is (as Eliot points out) also grace dissolved in this place, the face of God becomes less clear and clearer. We remember connection, we remember meaning, we remember hope. Hope is what we need as we wonder how to articulate our humanity in the face of some very cruel happenings in our world.
Esmeralda the gypsy experiences life as part of an outcast people– she herself is capable and resourceful but her heart hurts for her people. In her song she comes out of herself to radically desire God’s blessing and healing for others. She begins tentatively “I don’t know if you would listen” and ends claiming “We all were children of God”.
How do we be nursing mothers to a hurting world? How do we practice the gospel and not just use it to make identity claims? Where is the movement that means something more than death? And considering the people heartlessly abandoned on Manus Island and others whose suffering is very urgent, how do we uphold our common identity as “children of God”.
Please take whatever inspiration you can from the readings, and after a short time to reflect share with each other as is our habit.
Please if you did not already, go back and click the hyperlinks to find out about the awful things happening on Manus Island. I usually put the links there with no issue whether people choose to use them or not but I would really urge you to look at the three in the final paragraphs anyway. May God give us all an active wisdom!
Please note: I know I can’t draw but I wanted to show what I meant. I never let children tell me they “can’t draw”, as I think we express something even if it isn’t a beautiful product. So try to see it as a child’s drawing. When I can draw it better I will change the picture
New year, new me and all that and I thought about how I began by writing a creed and had meant to write a new one from time to time- not necessarily to reject the old (though I would be allowed to outgrow it if it happened) but to keep trying to articulate to myself what I believe and what all this is about. So it would be time to write a new one.
Then I have been reading “New Feminist Christianity” and whenever I read things theological I feel a stirring to write it and preach it. I thirst to be a priest but at least I have my blog and a couple of side projects. And finally I have been watching “Call the Midwife” aided and abetted by my youngest son who bought me season 3 for Christmas. I have a love/hate relationship with the series but in all honesty more love for it’s emotional directness, themes of love, laughter and women’s friendship as well as birth and sometimes suffering and grief. Also I am a sucker for women’s history ESPECIALLY when they show it with nice frocks and hairstyles.
So then when I go to write a “creed” I have been affected by these influences of all the feminist theologians telling me to get over the kyriearchy (I agree) while Jenny Lee (a fictional midwife) reminds me every episode that the centre of life is love. And I think that my new “creed” will be not so much an “I believe” statement but more of an “I eperience love” statement which is more to the point. I often think about who and how I love and as an examination of conscience this is the right focus. But a creed is even more basic than that. A creed is not about me and how I am, it is about the reality around me. How do I experience and access being loved. When I finally realised I was loved and lovable, when I was 35 it changed my life. Up until then I had wanted to be lovable but had never believed it was possible. Once I was healed of my inability to know myself I became aware of love from a lot of different people and real love (not just grudging duty-love) from God.
So my transformed, liberated “creed” is an “I am loved” statement. Knowing and experiencing are ways of “believing” I suppose but without that rationalising and legalistic edge. Here is my attempt then:
As we awaken in the womb of God,
quicken in the depths of her who conceived us,
Jesus, our midwife reaches
to hold and steady us
on our terrifying journey.
Feeling squashed and stretched,
helpless and falling
Jesus takes and wraps us
to bring our newly born selves
back into the arms of the Mother.
The cord may be cut
but the milk flows.
The Spirit confronts us in the mirror.
We trace our ancestry:
the deepest reality of the universe
beating in each breast.
Beloved child, allowed to grow and choose
but never a stranger
from the arms of our Mother.
I remember being taught as a child to kneel to you because you were Lord and God and Almighty and Better than us and all the rest of it. Kyriearchy I mean.
I bought it because it came with a very convincing side of inferiority which quickly fermented to self-hate and that seemed logical in terms of the bigger picture in so many ways.
It was not until I was about 17 that I had a close friend who questioned religion and refused to see herself as “unworthy”. No more kneeling to grovel before a judgemental monarch. I began to feel uncomfortable with the classist aspects of religion.
But there was the stable scene at church with almost life-sized statues in real straw and we knelt to see it, to see you as a baby and all the figures that surrounded you in love and awe. We looked at the joy, the sparkle and the mystery and we were little ones ourselves we did not deconstruct this story and all the ways it makes no historical sense.
What we saw as we knelt was everyone’s eyes downwards to a baby: the beauty of God. We felt inspired to kindness, to live a better life with each other and see sacredness even in animals and stars and straw.
That my little Darling was the other side of kneeling.
Now I am all grown up and I work in early childhood and I had my own children who were so little but now I have to look up to talk to them and reach up to hug them. But at work I spend much of my day close to the floor on seats that are too low. I crouch, kneel even crawl all day because the little ones I am working with and teaching are so small. To really see, hear and notice them I often have to get down a level or two. To participate with them I have to also give up the adult dignity of standing (also give up comfort).
So then kneeling in my profession does not mean worship of the powerful dictator, it means getting down to give voice to the vulnerable, talking at a respectful eye-level, being authentically with someone small and in need of protection.
At work baby Jesus you would relate with my day where I sit in the sand and pretend to eat meals the little ones prepare. I construct a better train track for their trains, do up their shoes and wipe their noses. I find ants to watch, sweep up tempting but dirty crumbs and sit with children crowding onto my lap and snuggling in from all sides complaining “I can’t see the story”. I sit on the floor between two mattresses patting tiny backs to stillness while quiet music plays. I crouch down to take a picture that isn’t “from above” or to clean a variety of messes or to see what is out of reach (and move things as needed).
And that is “kneeling”.
So how then do we kneel down to the level of vulnerable and emotionally needy, the ones who are you little baby Jesus? How do we touch the little heartbeat of wisdom that needs care and nurture and even reassurance? To me this is one more call to social justice. Any adult can walk into a room and perform the basics for the child- hand them food, tell them off, even smile and clearly like the child and perform a variety of services for the wellbeing of the child but it is just not the same when we don’t get down to their level (your level, my God) and deeply listen.
All our Christmas charity to the poor and general “niceness” to people is fine, we ought to still do it because it is like feeding and clothing and keeping the child safe. The weather is particularly bad in my city this year and I will take them something if I can and it is good but it is not enough.
Who are we to give out our generous gifts from above people? Who are we to decide for others as an adult decides the fate of a child?
Baby Jesus, you need a closer encounter, for us to get down on the floor and enter with you into play- to hear and see and know the vulnerable of the world, to share laughter and tears as well as the leftovers of our bread. Like any child, you are demanding Word of God.
Even when we are exhausted may our hearts allow your little fingers pulling at our clothing and reaching for our hands and calling us back into play with cuddles and smiles and sometimes tears. Like the childcare workers who well and truly earn their ten-minute breaks just to get out of the room and try to restore sanity after a few hours of it, or like the parent who has been sleep deprived for many long months we don’t always respond to you as quickly and tirelessly as we want to.
So we restore ourselves this Christmas with good food and good company and Christmas carols and lights and all the rest.
But what about those who can’t? How do we work together to support each other’s work and self-care? What love and attention can we bring to you Jesus in the “least of your siblings”, in the babies who need better supported families, in the women whose gifts are rejected by their society or church, the homeless people, the refugees, the unemployed and unemployable, the aging or dying and those who used to make Christmas wonderful for others and now barely manage to enjoy a moment of it because of age or stress.
That is where we kneel, we can’t solve all the world’s problems but we be with Jesus and with the “least of my siblings”. We come down to eye level when the baby cries. Sometimes there is no solution there is only love and presence.