Tag Archives: preaching

Shout for joy- daughter, sister, beloved

 

I have nothing against the Sunday readings and if I had more energy would do two blogs this week. But Tuesday was the feast of the Visitation, the one day of the year when the church lectionary passes the Bechdel test (Ruth and Naomi could be argued too I suppose), and the one Feast day of the year that actually talks about God’s work working not just through men, not even just through an individual woman, but at times also through women’s relationships and networks of support. This is such good news it ought to be on a Sunday! The reading from Luke is so rich in prophecy, in affirmations of women’s prophetic, leading, teaching and sacramental role in each other’s lives and in the lives of significant male members (Jesus and John though unborn) as well. So much richness here that writing once a year I could never find it all, and I hope each person finds even more in the readings than I can say. But let’s make a beginning.

The first reading (Zeph 3:!4-18A gives away that what is coming is unusually good news “shout for joy” and that this is specifically for women “daughter of Zion”. Even this begins a bubbling up of joy. Women we are not invisible in this Feast, we are valued by God and the silencing, dismissal of our needs and attacking us as “vain” for wanting for ourselves the basic dignity and consideration that we extend to others has been dismissed by God. God is onside with us. We “have no further misfortune to fear” and God sings joyfully because of us. This is a profoundly healing thought, the idea of being so beloved by God that we are not only vindicated but the cause of joyful singing. Here we reclaim our birthright since the opening of Genesis to be part of God’s creation, made in God’s image and assessed as “good”.

But if God is singing for joy, then we know that more good news is in store so we move on to the next reading. Once again the canticle (ie like a psalm but not in psalms) from Isaiah prophesies good things “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament we see the drawing of water as “women’s work” and the well as a place of meeting and socialising for women (well maybe we don’t see the latter in the text so much and are indebted to historians for reconstructing the world around the text for us). So that nexus of women’s social life and relationships, the well becomes symbolically a place of “salvation” a sacramental place, a place where the truth of God is joyfully encountered. Among us is the Holy one of Israel. The ancient promises of God are fulfilled in the mysterious depths of women’s flesh, the womb.

This is NOT to return to a view of womanhood as solely being fulfilled in motherhood. Clarissa Pinkola Estes has written about “wild mothers”, the way older women sometimes support, mentor and teach younger women, the way younger women find their own role models and need more than one. Even this is only a fraction of the whole truth. The patriarchal promise that can only be fulfilled in the male body of Jesus may come into the world through the female body of Mary, but if that is all that matters then why the Visitation? Why does Jesus also need the “Auntie” or “Wild mother” Elizabeth in his life? Why does John leap for joy at the voice of Mary? The voice is about more than flesh, it is about opinion and agency. The canticle goes on to bid us to sing praise to God for “his” glorious achievement. Well that seems only fair, in the context of the first reading where God was singing on account of us. The glorious achievement here seems to be a nurturing and reciprocal relationship with us who are lovingly created and affirmed. This will be shown in the gospel to have world-changing, radical possibilities – unseating the unjustly powerful and bringing in a new reign of God.

The other first reading (which I am going to treat as a second reading as I think the Visitation ought to be a Sunday) gives instructions on the “good life”. Even though usually I am feeling a bit like saying “give me a break” when I have these long and complicated responsibilities placed on me, by allowing the other readings and the feast-day to contextualise it, it takes on a non-oppressive meaning. In fact the God who has celebrated and affirmed my existance and our relationship in the first reading and psalm has every right to ask for this respectful reciprocation of that gift. The instructions in this reading are really a call to be authentic, to honour who we are as God’s beloved and as sacramental, priestly people. We are called to be sincere, loving, committed, critical, resilient, courageously forgiving and compassionate. We are called to be “more than” those who oppress us, not to cooperate with oppression but also not to retaliate with bitterness and hatred. We are called to be humble in ourselves too, not to put ourselves down but to see our good like our imperfections within a context of God’s love and God’s call and the shared dignity and humanity of others also.

This reading, within a context of good news for “daughters” and the gospel that is coming is for me a powerful call to remain in the imperfect church and to trust in God’s ability and desire to find me there and sustain me. The grace of God in actual fact cannot be stopped or blocked by patriarchy but we must continue to bless even those who have not blessed us. We are called to a holy partnership with God where we pour out love to the world. I turn to the gospel to see what possibilities for transformation this call may hold.

In the gospel, Mary is not wise in her own estimation, that is she is not complete outside of her ability to reach out to others. Her good news needs to be reflected by Elizabeth’s good news. She has a need to support and be supported, to be in a community where each can rejoice in the other being blessed. Each has a relationship with a husband that in some Christian circles would be assumed to be the most appropriate arena of rejoicing. But each is part of a larger network of support, each needs also the ministry of women in her sacramental life (and don’t we all?). Mary, pregnant though she is goes on a journey that would possibly be dangerous and certainly be difficult. There is something in Elizabeth’s company that calls to her, something precious in the relationship or some need she sees in Elizabeth and responds to.

The great prophet John hears the voice of Mary, who is about to offer one of the great prophecies of liberation and hope. John recognises in this voice the same call that is already whispering into his baby heart the potential for a committed spirit-filled life. He leaps for joy! Elizabeth recognises this leap and knows what it means. Mary’s preaching will shake the church and the world. Elizabeth says that Mary is “blessed” for hearing and heeding the call of God. She recognises Mary’s priesthood. Elizabeth and John become church to accept Mary’s priesthood as Mary both literally and sacramentally carries Christ into their lives. Mary preaches her joy and hope in a God who reverses oppression and liberates. There are strong forces in a world where Mary’s people have been colonised by the brutal Roman army, she lives in a patriarchal society with limited opportunities. But her hope is in God’s power to be greater than the powers of the world.

Mary aligns herself with a utopian view of radical justice and voices her commitment to God’s power to bring this about. She grounds this vision in faith history. Then she stays with Elizabeth for three months. The relationship of sacrament is about more than words. She is there for practical support and shared affection. Faith and ministry are not about a ritual once a week but are about companioning and loving our fellow humans on the journey.

My heart like unborn baby John leaps for joy at the good news of the Visitation. I want to shout it aloud and sing it, this dignity and hope in the reality of God’s call to me as daughter and sister. My response needs to be loving and faithful to the dream of transformative justice. My spiritual hunger is filled with this good thing. I can look to the unofficial priests, when the official church leaves my pastoral needs unmet. No wonder these readings mentioned singing and joy so many times!

Only Love may preach

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 is one of those oft quoted, widely beloved but I suspect underestimated pieces of wisdom. It makes us feel very connected in, as though there is meaning to human love (and yes, there certainly is) so we trot it out at every wedding and quite a lot of funerals too. It says something so powerful and true about the human experience and the source and nature of the divine that is in us. And it says something so powerful and true that perhaps after it moves us to tears it is easy also to then let it rest, our bit of escapist “catharsis” having washed us out.  Unfortunately if we cleanse out our dissatisfaction of all that is shallow and hollow in our lives, we also cleanse out our drive to be better than.

The reading is certainly a warning to blog writers like me who try to be clever with God’s word. What am I really doing week to week? I hope I am motivated by love, love of God, Love of scripture, love of my vocation and love of people who may receive my words. But even if I began this task out of love, there is no place for complacency and excessive comfort when working with that burning coal, the Word of God. The first reading reminds us that a vocation to speak is real, there is no getting out of it because I am “only a boy” or not even because I am “only a girl” (please only click the link if you want to cry tears of angry frustration) in the patriarchal church. I may be the lowest of the low in terms of the church, but in terms of God I am as trusted a messenger as any. And that is true for anyone.

But the words that God puts into my mouth, those words are not concerned with aesthetic beauty; to simply be as eloquent and stirring as the speech of an angel. It is not just about the unsilencing and it is not enough to open the mouth and preach.

There needs to be behind every preaching, a life grounded in love and a soul rooted in love. This love needs to be manifest in how a life is lived, in how choices are made, not only big choices but the smallest moment to moment choice to speak, to act, to be present. Love, the beautiful ideal we can all swoon at the thought of but when I think about real nitty-gritty love in each boring decision of my life, I have recently become aware that in fact I am a complete beginner. So many things other than love motivate me from moment to moment. I wonder how often those preached to could actually hold up a much greater model of love and much more real and keen examples of how to live in love than the preacher who rises above ordinary things to speak with the tongues of mortals and angels, but runs the risk of becoming too far above to know love.

I have certainly known some love in my life. Love is dirty nappies and pleading for an extension for overdue school-fees (and doing it again). Love is scratching together money for Christmas presents for my children and at their bidding for “Jesus” (ie charities) as well. Love is returning to people you know will accept you, building bridges with people who don’t understand you, tending people who are vulnerable, challenging people who are full of the toxins of wrongly used power and holding your arms open to welcome back someone who failed to accept your love at a time when you had wished they would. Love is holding back criticism, believing in the impossible, giving with a generosity bordering on foolishness. But for a better way of putting it turn back and read the original words.

In the reading words are used like “patient… kind” these are the same words I teach to my preschoolers, and yet they are words I also need to constantly find meaning for in my own life’s choices. They are words to practice and grow into not know once and then feel gooey over. Love is not boastful or arrogant or rude. Maybe love understands that other people have needs and strengths and weaknesses and a complicated dance-path through life and does not try to control others. Can a controlling, blaming, excluding church preach such love to us? If not then it must be us, “only a girl”, “only a single-mother”, “only a lesbian”, “only a loser”, “only an aging and still confused wanderer” and only whatever any of us are.  Whatever our low status and lack of qualifications, God anoints us to preach and somehow we must manage to draw from our experiences of being loved and of loving and preach love to the church.

But of course the church knows us in the casual dismissive way they knew Jesus as “Joseph’s son”. They might know me as the “mad-woman” or as the “underachiever” or as one of “those dratted ever-complaining feminists”. I don’t understand Jesus’ words in this gospel as he seems to be reifying “chosenness” which is an idea I cannot accept. But what I do see, is that when this Jesus person they know, and have tried to form, and have been community for, says things they don’t like and acts in ways they don’t control and tries to preach back or speak back to authority; then they are angered to the point of wanting to kill him and he has to disappear.

It’s validating for those of us who have needed to take a “break” from church at times isn’t it? To think that at times we are so at loggerheads with the church that it is ok to fade away and go onwards alone for a while rather than let our spirit be completely crushed by their anger at who we are.

So there is a lot of challenge in the readings this week, but equally affirmation and encouragement. You, (yes you whoever reads or writes this) have a valid point of view that comes from your unique dance with God. In so far as you let yourself be inspired by and grounded in love (the love as it is described in the reading) you are also called, empowered and anointed to preach your subjective truth as part of the ultimate truth that is love. It doesn’t matter whether your words are eloquent or beautiful because the love you live will shine through, because love is everything. When you are misunderstood and under threat it is valid to disappear. But love is patient; “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” so there may also be a season for returning.

Live, work, be, speak all in love and all things out of love. Because faith, hope and love are the things that won’t fail you. “and the greatest of these is love”.

Stop enabling

I tried to write a blog about this week’s readings and I felt angry at all the different ways that exploitation of humans (women in each case) was reified as part of God’s plan and then I tried to pull back and find some good news in there to try to say that God was actually on side with the oppressed and we should…we should… and here I drew blanks. How do you respond to what is essentially a text of terror? And especially when the church uses it as a model for the Christian life that a good Christian is like Ruth or the starving widow or the almost penniless widow and is prepared to be used up and spat out in the service of God’s kingdom (or only to be nurtured by God as part of a greater plan of faithfulness to more important figures).

I want to radically follow God out of love, but not to be exploited and especially not to be part of a long tradition of the clergy and other all-male groups trivialising, exploiting and casually using women. NO FUCKING WAY.

So I wrote it and didn’t post it, I thought I would sleep on it. And then I checked my email and a friend of mine who is a sort of feral priest (ie too female to get any compensation or even acknowledgement from the exploitative Catholic church) had a rant in there about being “preached” to by people who have just got no idea. I won’t steal her story or her ideas as such, but that seemed a very productive track to go down to consider how dare I “preach” at all and who would I “preach” to and what presumptions and privilege might be contained within my preaching.

I don’t tend to like being “preached at” actually. I often feel like the person standing out the front going “blah, blah, blah, blah” wrongly assumes that I am many steps behind them on my spiritual journey and disrespects the ways I might be their equal or even ahead of them. I don’t believe we should preach that way as if to inferiors. I am not Jesus if I elevate myself (the first part of this week’s gospel makes that clear before moving into the text of terror which gets zoomed in upon in the opposite way to how the context sets it up).

The (mostly male) superior preachers who want to teach little old inferior me how to live (all without ever walking so much as half a step in my shoes or even bothering to make the smallest effort to find out anything about my life or experience) lack what we in qualitative research call REFLEXIVITY. They don’t stop to analyse who it is who is doing the preaching, that they are not just a wise conduit for God’s infallible wisdom (with a small “w” because it is not really Wisdom when it is bound by patriarchy) but that they are human beings caught up in webs of power relations in a society riddled with inequalities and that not only are they the relatively privileged, but that they also within the reign of God are pilgrims and sinners as are the “congregation”.

I am not saying that priests never examine their own conscience and never engage in their own spiritual journey, it would be wrong of me to speculate on that and God I am sure sees whatever good work or gaps exist in that work. I am simply saying that by setting up a one-way power relationship where “the people” are not meant to see “the priests” humanity there is a sort of dangerous hubris that leads to the greater and more dangerous abuses of power. It is also both discouraging and unhelpful to have to humour these people by listening to their self-satisfied and often superficial drivel week after week with little or no opportunity to speak back.

Having said that I hope that anyone who wants to take issue with what I am “preaching” is free to leave a message disagreeing with me, which provided it is not abusive I would allow on my wall. And you also are not a captive “congregation” but can tune in or out of what I choose to write as you wish.

I have tried to make it clear in this blog who I am- a disenchanted “Christian”, a graduate of theology, a single mother, a lesbian, a white middle-class person with a job and all the rest of it. In all those claims about my identity I am identifying what my bias might be and realising for me to try to speak from some ivory tower of “knowing” to you whoever reads this is arrogant, unless I realise that your different “knowing” might be equally enlightening to me, and unless I show that my struggles with these difficult texts are part of my Christian journey of NOT having all the answers and NOT always being “right”.

So Ruth makes herself available to Boaz so that she won’t starve and conceives a son for Naomi. The widow and her son are saved by God ONLY because of God’s interest in the survival of Elijah. Despite Jesus’ words about the exploitative hubris of priests, all the church sees in the widow’s donation of more than she can afford is a great role model for the poor and down-trodden in the pews to be guilted into following. Jesus is the ultimate high priest, advocating for us before God not constantly haranguing us that we are “not good enough” but other priests do NOT advocate for the oppressed within church and society and just preach spiritual opium and escapism to the masses.

The church is riddled with cancerous growths called patriarchy and privilege. It is bound into service of the ruling class and regularly commits adultery by serving the interests of capitalism rather than its spouse, Christ/Wisdom. It is addicted to its own cleverness and relatively easy place in a troubled world. We, the people must stop enabling. We must stop making excuses for the black eyes and hurt feelings, stop separating ourselves from the things that can give us life and stop being unconditionally faithful to the abuser, the patriarchal church. We must stop hurting Wisdom herself by blindly following and excusing, stop collaborating in the myriad oppressions of the world and the church.

If we have one coin between ourselves and death, we must use that coin to buy bread for our children not let it be sucked up by a not-even-grateful church. If we have a vocation we must dance it away from those who steal our labour and our dignity…somehow this must be possible. We must glean some sort of future for ourselves the widows and orphans of the institutional church!

Walking humbly with…?

I didn’t look at the readings for the week. Instead I wrote about an issue which has been cropping up in my prayer life and the reading I am doing to try to make better sense of my own vocation. It is so time consuming to wrestle with readings while also doing other spiritual work, real-life work, parenting, study, etc. I will continue to try to “preach” properly but I felt that God wants me to really grapple with the problematic idea of humility. Here is an imperfect beginning…

I have long been enamoured with Micah 6:8, where we are told that the only thing we have that can please God is justice, loving-kindness (hesed) and walking humbly with our God. For me I focus on them in the order they are given- I am passionate and full of rants when it comes to justice, I seek to be full of a sincere and tender kindness particularly in the face of anyone who is less powerful than me or vulnerable (which considering most days I feel like a fire-breathing dragon could be anybody) and then….well usually I try to mumble over the third one and let it take care of itself.

Because humility and me have a long and problematic history.

I was raised to be “humble” to self-abase and to self-mortify. Every time I recognised anything good about myself I was (for the sake of my own soul I am sure) warned about the “sin of pride” and the necessity of humility, modesty, obedience, subservience. The problem was the way these things were conflated with femininity and embodied femaleness (my father was certainly not very humble, neither were the priests who preached this). The problem was that this view of great female role-models (such as Mary and all the virgin martyrs) was quite objectifying of females and also trivialised the value of words, actions, leadership when clearly God has called me to preaching, teaching and leadership. My real and God-given (I believe) vocation was constantly at war with this sort of “holy” modest model of proper femininity.

The problem was that no one noticed the symptoms of self-hate, depression, anxiety, toxic underconfidence, anorexia, dysphoria until these habits of thought and action were deeply ingrained and even then did not make the connection between the continuing call to be “humble” to “weep with loathing” over my own shortcomings.

So I broke away from that sort of humility. It was killing me. It was preventing me from God, from even my own self, from relationship with anything or anybody. So I came to hate the very concept of “humility” when I noticed the men who talk about it so very much and maybe practice it in male contexts have a very different unhumble way of relating to women and children (and othered men). When I noticed that women allow and welcome all sorts of abuse from men on the basis of proper submission, humility, modesty.

I had some choice swear words about the huge con that has been pulled by the privileged (white people, males, heterosexuals, the wealthy) over the humble doormats they craft out of anyone and everyone else. I stopped constantly apologising to God for existing and I spent a couple of decades yelling at God furiously about how unfair it all was. “I know” said God tiredly, “I know”. “Humbly fiddlesticks” I snapped, “I’ll walk with you as I am, a hyena in a petticoat, a fire-breathing dragon. I am what you made me I will not shrink down into this fragile petal of submissive humility” God chuckled, “I knew it” she crowed as if this was just what she had been watching for. So that was that. Me and humility were done, we had nothing further to do with each other.

As I grew in this new sense of self, there kept being surprises. I was actually sometimes good at stuff. Sometimes I was naturally good and more often I could gain skills through hard work and confidence. Slowly, tentatively I began to sometimes feel confident and make surprising discoveries about myself. “I knew it!” God always smiled and laughed whenever I achieved, whenever I was celebrated, whenever I didn’t sink back into the mud of self-hate. “Well why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. God just looked me in the eye with that sarcastic look that she gets when I am being unreasonable. How on earth would I know what God was telling me? I hadn’t really learned to listen. My “humble” self-talk took over any sort of listening to anything, to creation, to the heartbeat of the universe, to my own heart. Where would God speak to me if not in those things? I had dreams…vivid God-filled dreams but I used my patriarchal “objective”  self-effacing knowledge to erase and trivialise what the dreams told me.

When the dreams told me that God loved me then I added “even though I am so unworthy and unimportant” to my interpretation, even when the dreams told me God was calling me I added “but I am a sinner so I will fail to reply” and cried self-loathing about being too weak and pathetic to reply, but didn’t consider that God would not set me up for failure in that way. I hated my femaleness, my weakness, my lack of certainty, my desires, my exhaustion, me emotional neediness. God gave me a dream to radical love and faithfulness an offer of partnership with others and with God and I forced an interpretation overlaying what was there.

In the dream God claimed me and called me and carried me, I awoke and sternly rebuked myself not to begin to expect this sort of treatment from God, not to think I was “special” for having dreams, to realise that while God loved me and didn’t want me to kill myself it was not given to me to have God always whenever my desires dictate it. And that of course was partly true, because in fact I do not own or control God and God doesn’t come to comfort me on demand (or by my manipulation). But it was also untrue. When God gave herself to me in scripture, in sacraments, in creation and in human relationships she actually meant it. THERE ARE NO ONE-NIGHT STANDS WITH GOD.

So then I retreated from God to give her space, and to not be this clingy human needy person that I still secretly hated myself for being and that actually in a way was the opposite of humility. It’s not humble to hate yourself for being “only human”. We are human and God is fully aware and accepting of this. God loves me, the human. God unconditionally, committedly, faithfully and possibly sometimes exasperatedly loves and desires me. Humility is not the denial of the beauty and specialness that I have in God’s eyes. Humility is accepting that as precious, being grateful and responsive to it and also recognising that God has an equally deep and true love for other humans and in fact for all creation.

I am reading Mysticism and Prophecy by Richard Woods at the moment and it is humbling to find myself agreeing with Aquinas (who as a feminist I have been pretty dismissive of all these years). And I see that God is calling me to the humility of coming back toward the tradition that hurt me so much and rejected me so deeply and coming with an attitude of strength and courage to listen. There is wisdom in Aquinas when he talks about how ultimately unknowable God is and yet how fervently we must seek her (please not Aquinas never to my knowledge uses this pronoun for God, but I do)…that is such an exact echo of the dream I had as a confused young woman where God told me that I would never gain certainty, nothing but traces of “truth” but that it was my calling to always seek this “truth” and then after I despaired of what sounded to me like futility God held me and carried me and brought me to her heart.

And to see that these patriarchal writers (as I saw them) were actually in between being wrong about so many things also lovers of the same beautiful Wisdom that calls me, is to be called to a sense of humility about all the ways I could still be wrong and oppressive but also a new appreciation of the everlastingness of God’s love in the walk with humanity. If I walk humbly with my beautiful God I will never hate myself, I will glow in the radiance of her love and I will accept that love. But I will learn that all people and all things are called by her to participate in that love, I will learn to look beyond imperfections to the Truth of Her love for us all.

Seeking justice means continuing to angrily call the powers that be to account. Loving-kindness equally demands that I am uncompromising in demanding that the vulnerable receive what is their due and when necessary stand up for them. Walking humbly, means remembering to hope, remembering to love; daring to forgive and to listen and not allowing those She loves to become my enemies. Walking humbly means forgetting my fear that I am “unworthy” of her and accepting that only beautiful, persistent Wisdom can understand the fullness and apparent foolishness of her love. I am humble when I forgive myself for being “only human”, and bring even the seeming triviality of my human experience and my human fickle love to her heart to be blessed and broken and shared as her sacrament to her beloved world.