Tag Archives: patriarchy

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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Where is God when our labour is invisible?

In case you need something less “over it” I will drop a link to what I wrote last time it was this gospel story…

Let’s talk about invisible labour. Let’s talk about pink collar jobs. Let’s talk about gaslighting, because it kind of feels like Martha gets gaslighted by Jesus in the gospel of the week and the lectionary does not help by it’s treatment of Sarah. We’ll start with Sarah, since that reading is the first.

So…three men visit Abraham. Because, you know our tradition is incapable of showing even the multiplicity and trinitarian nature of Godde without the masculine gender (rolls eyes). This is how we know that important things are happening in the public sphere

  1. It gets written down (logocentrism)
  2. The participants are men
  3. Women have to support this in ways that are trivialised or outright made invisible (eg preparing food, childcare)

“Let some water be brought” orders Abraham, claiming credit for the work of an ungendered, invisible servant. Class and gender privilege…there really is nothing like it! Abraham is happy to exploit the people of his household to gain blessings for himself (which will trickle-down to them supposedly too).

“Let me bring you a little food” says Abraham. “Me”, first person singular. The three men agree and he runs to Sarah and orders her to start baking.

We tend not to spot that in the reading, partly because we have grown up with a reluctance to really interrogate “holy” things, but also because this is such a common-place story that we forget to be angry or sad about it. Men achieve their self-interested networking by ordering women and lower-status men to do the shit-work for them. Whoever bakes the bread, only the male hands of the ordained priest is allowed to performatively break it.

Guess I am losing my faith again (don’t worry it’s behind the sofa or something, gathering lint).

So Abraham brings out the labour of Sarah’s hands, and finally this three-fold God (or is it just a bunch of men?) speaks.

“Where is your wife?” a liberative moment? A challenge to be reflexive? A call to examine the patriarchal/kyriarchal conscience?

Nah. Tucking my awkward feminist hopes back in where they won’t embarrass me…

The men are there to talk about Sarah not to her. They comment on her reproductive capacity and leave. The lectionary cuts it there so we won’t hear her give a little feminist snigger at their mansplaining (I am sure she knows about her own ovaries better than they do). Sarah laughs, but the patriarchal church is not keen to even give her that much voice. We will move on to see who else can be exploited, trivialised or dismissed…

The psalm extols the virtues of “he who does no wrong to his fellow man”. Bad translation? Maybe…we feminist certainly put in a lot of unpaid and underappreciated time trying to translate it better, dust it off, reclaim it and still love it unconditionally but today I am going to move right along…

The second reading is one of those sections that would make more sense with some context. I could probably labour to try to bring something liberative out of it but it’s not exactly jumping out is it? I probably get more useful theology from a feminist poem or a sunset. This by itself, is not going to keep me in the church.

So now the gospel. It has women in it, few gospel pericopes have that so I sort of feel excited…until I look closer. Do you know what? I will tell you how the gospel would look if it was not so gaslighty about women’s work.

Jesus and his disciples went and stayed at the house of Martha and Mary. Martha and Mary already had a very busy life, but were always happy to see their good friend Jesus and had asked him to take that liberty, nevertheless he was always conscious of the need to be a good guest, especially when bringing in 12 more mouths to feed.

Jesus was lounging around with his mates talking to Mary who was one of the smartest people he knew and always asked the right questions without making him feel dumb. Martha called from the kitchen, “Jesus can you get Mary to give me a hand?”

Jesus realised that Martha was not really even complaining about how hard she was working, she took pride in making the best food and in her wonderfully clean home but she felt like she was being taken for granted and was missing out on time with guests. He walked into the kitchen “what can I give you a hand with?” he asked.

Mary came in too as did a couple of the disciples. This way the meal still got made, but Martha was able to be part of the conversation as well!

This would actually be gospel, this would actually be good news. Instead of what we have here and the way the church has chosen to present it.

This is more than just whinging because I don’t like housework (although I REALLY don’t). This is about the fact that while women are unacknowledgedly and underpaidly (I don’t care autocorrect I will invent new adverbs if I want) doing all the caring and healing and feeding work and not getting fairly represented in the “public sphere” men are making an Icarus out of the human race. You think I am exaggerating? For the sake of macho things like GDP and military might we are all flying too close to the sun and conveniently forgetting that our wings are held together by wax. Already the wax is softened, even dripping and the buggers are refusing to turn back.

We will all die as a species if men are allowed to keep leading unchallenged and if only women who emulate them are allowed into the conversational spaces!

Please note, I am not claiming that all men are bad or that all women are innocent. This is far from being truth. But patriarchal ways of being and how casually we accept them are definitely part of the problem! If faith is at the centre of our lives, then how we perform faith will affect how we live. Many of my feminist friends are atheist (not all) but for me that is not the answer because I know a lot of CEOs and world-leaders are either atheists or have a “lip-service” faith that does not touch their eyes or their deeds.

We need more from church than the routine dismissing of women and everything women’s lives are burdened with, than the abuse and silencing of children, than ignoring the most underprivileged or lukewarm “thoughts and prayers” at best. We need to confront the climate catastrophe. Sarah, Martha and all the other silenced women are capable of so much. When will we actually take their concerns and their work more seriously. The “better part” is not sitting at the feet of a man, when there are children (or disciples) to be fed.

We know from experience that being kind and patient and just laughing quietly behind the lectionary won’t transform the church or politics. It might be time to be louder, less conventient, less compliant and call out patriarchy...even when inconveniently God seems complicit in it (but who got to present Godde to us?).

 

 

 

Scylla, Charybdis, Trans-Jesus and identity by foreskin

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.

This time…

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…

My prayer

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.

 

Within/outside and overthinking it.

I was talking to a minister today after a somewhat uncomfortable session on the (lack of) inclusion of LGBTIQA+ people into the church(es). She was telling me that in Luke-Acts, Jesus is always stepping out of the centre, out to those who are marginalised. I had looked at this week’s readings earlier in the week and kind of made my housework-face, I didn’t feel very inspired to tackle them. The first thing I see is a patriarch handing on the cloak to another patriarch which we inherit as an all male clergy who neither listen nor speak for most of us. I can use agility to see in this me taking on the role of my former mentor or…no. I don’t feel so agile. I am sick of playing contortionist games to fit scripture.

Then the psalm so smug and secure…everything is fine in this psalmists life. There is a place for that of course but I am supremely NOT FEELING IT.

The second reading is a mix of many different ideas but for me that flesh-spirit dichotomy dominates. As a “female” in a patriarchy, imprisoned not just within my flesh but in all the symbolic and material things that has come to mean in the sort of society we have (vulnerable, over-responsible, rejected if aging) I don’t want my “flesh” to take the blame for what my spirit does not feel up to. My spirit seems the only thing in the universe that can potentially be friend to my single middle-aged, flabby and sometimes strong flesh, and I refuse to force an enmity on them when I have worked so hard to overcome my own internalisation of the patriarchal gaze.

So when I look in the mirror the automatic deal was to see a failure on two fronts. Failing to be a man (failing to be superior) and failing to be a “proper woman”. I saw a dykey, sarcastic, uncompromising lump of a something that I thought I could never love. I have worked to see something different. I see an echo of my beloved but deceased mother and her father too. I see the foreshadowing of my strong and principled sons. I see a sarcastic glint that will melt into compassion when needed. I see a slightly mad light of wanting to know things and pursue thing. I see wrinkles and hair that is kind of maybe…let’s not see that yet. I see shadows under tired eyes. I see reddened skin from running the shower too hot in this cold house. I see I should probably exercise more or forgo the glass of red. I see a good house for my spirit which is also connected to people and context, which is also tired, which is also frail, which is also interesting.

So much for the second reading. So folded carefully I hold in my hand the hope that Luke’s gospel will tell me the story of a Jesus who steps outside to talk to people who can’t quite get in through the door (to the lectionary, to the church). Will Jesus make conversation with me or mansplain me today? Let’s walk together into the gospel.

The Samaritans are a bit like me (a bit like a queer, a bit like a feminist). I feel suspicious of this Christ on his way to the centre of the patriarchal faith. I am not sure I want to welcome him in, not unconditionally. Should I burn for that? Some of his followers might think so. “Jesus rebuked them”. There seems to be compassion here, or at least a healthy observation of boundaries and consent. We travel on.

Jesus speaks of his vulnerability- homelessness, is he a rough-sleeper? Is he a refugee? He has nowhere. He has nowhere. Am I asked to disinherit myself from the world and follow that? What does it mean? How does this break my heart? What will I have to give up? There are difficult places in my life where my loyalties are conflicted and contradictions abound. How do I navigate this?

Is it perhaps that the theological certainties on which I used to lay my head will not ever be replaced with a new set of answers. I will never be guided in that step-by-step certain way that I have craved. I may be wrong. I may waste my life. I may suffer. I may be terribly and ultimately alone! But there is Jesus here, can I not trust community? The act of trusting is not a matter of guarantees and groundedness it is a matter of vocation and love.

Somehow we leave the past behind us. We do not have time to bury (or obey) the fathers of our faith. I can’t quite come at the anti-family idea here. I need Christ to stop and see what “women’s work” means both to the person doing it and if left undone to the rest of the world. Someone who leaves off feeding and cleaning to preach is not really a hero (says the woman who avoids housework when she can). No Christ, not even for you will I leave aside my beautiful children and the emotional labour of being “village” to others.

I cannot believe you ask that of me.

So I am left once more ambivalent. Am I called and wanted or not? Am I loved or surplus to requirements? Jesus looks me directly in the eye with the eyes of all the friends and activists and co-workers my week was filled with, with the students and children and even my cat. What a stupid question, has it not been answered a hundred times this week? My communities have embraced me with the arms of Christ. Body and Spirit, my place is here.

Holiness, families, connection, otherness

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,

miraculous way

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

to all.

Amen.

Not being silent

So many readings to choose from for Christmas services…and many of them so well known they’ve almost become a cliché. But I will start with the vigil, which may sound like an odd choice (and in fact any Christmas vigil mass I ever went to used Luke’s nativity story which is more child friendly). The gospel is a bunch of this person “begat” that person. I didn’t bother using a more modern translation this time, because I remember when I was a kid referring to this passage as the “begatteries” (I think I got that from my Dad and thinking it was the most boring passage (and to me pointless) in the hole bible. I wondered who cared about hs patrilineal line that way as if he was a breeding animal or something. Jesus’ remarkable person was nothing to do with who “begat” who.

Later on, I noticed – or perhaps it was pointed out to me- that in this account of fathers and sons four women manage to squeeze their way in and for a time I thought it was a feminist victory of sorts. I don’t like “liberal feminist” ideas though that some women (often at great personal cost) can break into patriarchal places in small number, because of their own individual “empowerment” or some such- but the norm is still exclusion and low status of women in general. I sometimes see this in churches that begin to ordain women, it takes a long time for real change to happen (and to me it doesn’t matter so much these days who does or does not get ordained- it is the effect on the wider community that matters).

Then again this is God’s history, not “man’s history” and if you look carefully at what sort of women have got a mention in the patrilineal line they are transgressive types- Tamar and Rahab and Ruth, who in various ways broke conventions or used their sexuality and agency to achieve moments in the story of liberation of their people or themselves. Mary also, she has been colonised by so many artists and theologians- depicted as passive and submissive but if we knew her only from the scriptures then she comes across very differently- as outspoken, courageous and somewhat of a visionary.

So Jesus could be a male saviour in a male story of a male church- except God keeps calling women at various points in time (probably always) to transgress patriarchy (like Wisdom herself who is free from constraint) and to change history for the better. This text is not very feminist, the very few women mentioned are all mothers and wives, their other deeds unmentioned but they are THERE and if we look at the story in full then we know them. And we know who is missing- Jepthah’s daughter for example and other victim’s of men’s violence.

I’ll go back to the first reading with all this in mind, and proclaim together with it that I will “not be quiet”. The first reading is all about “Zion” depicted as female and needing advocacy (and waiting for God’s intervention). Unsilencing is a theme of Christmas, especially if we consider Jesus the “Word” of God- speaking and spoken (through Mary’s embodied production of “Word” and through Joseph making room for Mary’s work in this). God unsilences the voices that call for repentance, change, better ways of being and knowing and relating.

They sing that “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” which I suppose is meant to be a moralistic guilt trip on the tendency of children to talk and complain so much, but instead I think little Jesus screams his lungs out like the healthy, fully embodied human he is, like the voice of unquenchable Wisdom, like the son of the composer of the Magnificat (and of God and of the quiet and assenting carpenter), like the future preacher and threat to the status quo. He screams that unjust hierarchies and powers will fall and Herod hears enough to be frightened (that comes later of course).

When I went to Latvija, I was in a relatively atheist state of mind. I was “over” church and I didn’t know what I believed apart from the fact that church is too often boring, depressingly patriarchal and generally unhelpful (this is not true in the community  I attend but while travelling further from home I often find services that shut me out in various ways). After walking out of a service which seemed to be about the little, guilty me having to grovel to the patriarchy (which is a form of idolatry anyway) I went to visit my great aunt, Stefanija, for whom I was named and who has since died. I have posted her picture on this post so you can see her.

She told me stories of what it was like living under the Russian regime. Atheism was part of the ideology of the state. People who strongly advocate for universal atheism, often claim that atheists have never visited religious oppression on anyone. That is simply not true. In Latvija during the occupation you could be deported to labor camps even for saying “Merry Christmas” on December 25th, the state proclaimed that the correct festival was the secular “new year’s eve” and any religious celebration was forbidden. Church was not available, nor were decorations and the like.

Enforced atheism has shown itself to be every bit as horrifying as any other enforced religion, for all that atheists tend to claim a moral high-ground…educating ourselves about the (un)beliefs of others in a spirit of tolerance might be a better thing to try.

Anyway Stefanija told me that she and her husband had some Christian neighbours, that they knew it was safe to say “Merry Christmas” to (very quietly so no one would hear and report them) with a little smile of significance because Christmas is still a big deal to a Christian even when you are not allowed to celebrate it. And I realised that my faith does mean something to me after all- when it can mean quiet defiance of an unfair regime, it can mean a joy and hope we are not “supposed” to feel.

So like the shepherds in the reading I didn’t get to discussing, we stop work for the evening to focus on someone else’s baby in wonder and awe. Like the magi in a few weeks we follow even a star, even a rumour of a hope to connect across cultures with generosity and respect. Like Herod we might be threatened by the politics of the kindom of God, and need to resist the temptation to defend the status quo by making othered families suffer. Don’t you think you are Herod? What is your attitude to refugees? To trans-kids? To teenage mothers? To the unemployed or homeless? The wonder and transformative power of the Jesus story has been very resilient over centuries and it is part of our identity as individuals and as communities.

Jesus was grounded within his own Jewish tradition with its problems (eg patriarchy) and its possibilities (eg the radical call to social justice). I am Latvian, my relatives were courageous about having a “Merry Christmas” under an oppressive regime.

Merry Christmas to all my readers and your families. Don’t be silent- be advocates for the oppressed, be hopeful, be joyful. Let us be in the Jesus movement together!

It is good for us to be here

I wrote this reflection and gave it at my church. I used the lectionary readings, which slightly differed from the ones used in the service, but it worked OK. I feel very supported and inspired by my faith community, thank God for them!

Without taking more time than usual I want to do two readings of today’s gospel. The first way of reading it, is not one that I like but it is one that seems to be invited by the context of these first and second readings, and by the way we know our church is structured. I will as usual read through a feminist lens, although it may seem like safety goggles in this case.

Women do not appear in the gospel reading. Jesus, takes three men with him only and they go up a high mountain to have a secret “inner circle” experience that others are not yet allowed to know about. This earmarks them as leaders of the future community after his death. While there he gets the seal of approval from two dead men from the patriarchal tradition. Even the voice of God stresses masculinity, uniqueness and power “this is my beloved son”.

Peter behaves quite logically. Upon seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah, he humbly puts himself at the service of the more powerful alpha-male and offers to build some sort of semi-permanent structure to preserve the power and glory of this moment. Why should there be struggle and weakness and dissent when we can have certainty? Why not establish a religion based on rules and answers and infallibility? “It is good for us to be here”, it is good to be the powerful and the privileged and the inner circle, rather than being rebels against the system- rather than risking social ostracism and hardship and crucifixion. Given that their ministry has already meant blistered feet and hungry stomachs as well as being dogged by crowds and not allowed to rest, I don’t completely blame Peter for wanting to consolidate the shining, certain moment.

A voice from the cloud interrupts Peter, the vision fades and Jesus tells them to tell no one just yet.

Rereading, I want to insert my own “what ifs” into the story. What if this story is somehow relevant to me, who am not male and am not a leader within the church? I need to put aside my childhood baggage of Peter the stern first Pope and forbidding gatekeeper of Heaven, and shake the hand of the Peter I actually encounter in the gospel stories, to see if he lets me into the story a little more readily. Peter in gospel stories is actually a lot like me. He frequently gets things wrong. He is well-meaning, passionate, impulsive, at times his courage fails him and his vision is always at least one step behind Jesus. But he is persistent, reflexive, ready to be wrong and to bounce back and throw his enthusiasm in again. He follows Jesus with all the eagerness of a teenage girl with a crush (I hope that doesn’t offend anyone). He wants to impress Jesus with his commitment, his readiness to bounce into action, his willingness to see and know new things. Like anyone who really wants to impress their hero this makes him at times quite inept.

I feel this Peter can bring me up the mountain, part of a larger group of believers- men? women? As Judith outlined last week in her reflection the point is not to pick a gender but we are all children of God.

Peter’s motivation for offering to make tents may still be suspect- he may crave an easy road without the cross at the end of it, but don’t we all? He may want to have certainty and to feel that connection to tradition and to God that we all only feel in fleeting moments. A softer reading of Peter may allow him to be worrying not for himself only but for Jesus. He has spent time on the road, watching a beloved person who is utterly committed to his vision of better ways of being. He has watched people demand miracle after miracle from Jesus, and Jesus wear himself out and make enemies of the religious and secular powers of the day.

If he can make tents for his heroes- Jesus, Moses, Elijah- he can keep them near to nurture them and keep them safe. Peter can probably see the cross beginning to loom over Jesus’ fiery words. I imagine he could feel about Jesus, the way I feel letting my adult children out into the world (not that I can stop them). They bite off more than I think they can chew and face hurts and disappointments I wish I could cocoon them from.

Sadly for Peter, whether he wants the power of being an insider of an exclusive club or whether he wants to keep himself or his friend safe the moment fades. As the second reading reminds us, this isn’t some cleverly devised myth of “happily ever after”.

We also have this experience of life. There are bright, shining moments when we feel uniquely connected in with deeper realities and with the meaning of life itself. These moments may come in church, or through prayer, they may come in relationships or through experiencing the beauty of nature or art. Sometimes they come through our talents, when we feel really good about something we are doing or expressing or through having our work recognised by someone, especially someone we admire.

Those moments are fading and elusive, while every-day routines of paying bills and washing dishes take over. Nevertheless, the fading is not total. The memory of these moments infuses life to allow faith. We carry in our lives traces of meaning, the passion of knowing “it is good for us to be here”. We are reminded of that momentary joy in little things, in a beloved-one’s smile or words, in the flick of a dolphin’s tail, in the evocative soar of a piece of music, in the scent of the earth on our hands when weeding, in the taste of food shared, in the knowledge that today we have given something to God, achieved something for God, chosen the path of love and justice for God, noticed beauty that is God. Even in the greyest and most ordinary of moments there is always something of this, some echo of transfiguration.

I have spoken as if we are Peter, but through the sacraments we are invited also into being Jesus. Through our Eucharist, and through more mundane meals made from the miracle of earth and shared in love we take in mystery. The glory of Christ-Sophia cannot be preserved in a tent or a museum, as a reassurance to “us” or a sign to “them” that we are right. Instead it spills over in our opportunities to love our neighbour, and to walk gently and lovingly upon the earth itself.

We too are the beloved children of God. Let us know that God is well-pleased with our capacity to fulfil that identity. Let us sit with that a short while and then listen to each other.