Tag Archives: tradition

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.

“Justice will be done for them”; remembering who we learned this from

 

I got to give the “reflection” at church this week so this is what I said. I realise there is so much more that could be said on these readings but I tried to keep it positive because the people who asked me to speak deserved that.

There’s a scene in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel and refuses to be give ground. He demands a blessing. I mention this because it is a form of faithfulness that I think we sometimes need to bring to our tradition and even to the scriptures and having found this week’s readings quite tough I bring to you my beginnings at wrestling, in the trust that each of us will find a way to continue that.

I used to read the gospel story as if God were the unjust judge and I in the place of the powerless widow was supposed to constantly harangue God with my prayers. I found this idea as appalling as a photo of a beloved that has had obscenities scribbled on it. God is beautiful precisely because of her justice and kindness and I don’t have to use prayer to bring her into line or force her to care.

If anything I am like the unjust judge, I like to be secured in my relatively comfortable life and ignore the plight of the less fortunate and God is more like the tiresome widow always nagging at me and dragging me out from my rest to talk about my supposed commitment to justice or to my vocation or to plead the cause of her children in some way.

So I question who we are in the story. When Jesus says “God will see to it that justice is done for them speedily” the use of the third person “them” is telling. When I studied Critical Indigenous Pedagogy we were asked to avoid using the third person “they, them, those people over there” because it is a set of pronouns for “others” for the people who are “not us”. But Jesus is using the third person to reclaim those who we have excluded, whoever they may be. God is interested in justice for “them” (he could have said “you” if he just meant believers and those who pray).

So it’s a bit of a stretch for us to ignore our privilege in this world, our comfortable and consumer-good heavy lives and to assume that we are the widow in the story. Are we actually so urgent in our desperation for justice? But I am not so sure that it is completely true either to say that we are not desperate for justice, to say that we are not also in some ways the powerless and the marginalised. The story may speak to us in two ways, encouraging me- the widow to persist and call for justice more loudly and naggingly and also warning me- the unjust judge that God sides with the nagging widows.

What does faithfulness mean then in the light of these roles I may play in my life?

I circle back to the first reading and leave aside for later my wrestling with the patriarchal and militaristic models of God’s relationship with human kind. I also pass over a model of God’s grace which is shown as success in mowing people down with a sword. I need to find a chink in the tradition that will let the light of Wisdom through.

Here is Moses, the great individual- larger than life and filled with power.

His body is exhausted so that his arms must be held up by others (this reminds me of one of the recent popes who was still brought out in old age and held up by others instead of being allowed to rest). The stress on an individual who is the ONLY conduit of God’s action is too great.

Whether we take a leadership role and beat ourselves up for our bodily limits, try to go beyond ourselves to cheat ourselves of rest, relationship and support or whether we take the passive followers role and stand back and let our leaders do too much, allow their hands to be held up past endurance I think there is a flawed model of church here.

Can’t we instead ask God to flow through all of us, so that my contribution becomes important but I can trust that another will do the work that I can’t get to? Can we learn by seeing that even this great leader, Moses was not able to act or wield that unbalanced amount of power without assistance. Our choices as a community support different models of leadership and it might be time to question who we are showing faithfulness to, why and how. Without having easy answers for questions like that I wonder whether at times it is better to stop holding up the hands of tired old structures and institutions and instead allowing God to come to each of us herself. In so far as we have power over others, it might be time to stop controlling, stop fighting even our own bodies.

The second reading invites me to be faithful to what I have learned because of where that learning came from. I need that encouragement not to give up on the church, to retain my membership to something that has been my family for so long and to respect my links with a history that is longer and more complex than my own life.

But I personally did not first learn to believe from a priest, bishop or pope and so it is not exclusively them that form “the church” that I am part of. My mother and grandmother spoke to me about faith on a daily basis. My dad read to me from the bible in my own language (Latvian). At church on Sundays all the older people put up with my toddlerish behaviour and tried to feed me lollies (although mum, a dentist, put a stop to that pretty quickly). Our parish priest was a family friend who went fishing with my grandfather. My teachers at school were mainly women, both the principal and the religion teacher were Mercy sisters.

Each of you has a different story of the particular way you learned faith but I would guess that you too did not learn it from patriarchs and crusading lords but from people who loved, accepted and sometimes challenged you (like my year 10 science teacher who upset me by telling me I was wrong to always use the male pronoun for God). Even now into my forties I am still relearning my faith from the same source. From love manifest in other people and creation.

So that source of faith

-The love of God shown in loving communities or individuals

-The beauty of God shown in the beauty of the earth

That is what we remain faithful to. This sort of faithfulness is not our Sunday best, but our every-day gear that comes with us into every situation, spreading that love and beauty to the whole world.

And then the persistence in demanding justice from worldly powers, or help from God will be grounded also in our faithfulness to the source of our knowing that God. Which is love

Thank you for the love you show by allowing me to speak. Please take a moment to reflect on your own path of persistence and faithfulness, or to wrestle with these readings and then if you choose, you might share your thoughts with each other.

 

 

Penumbra

This is the second part of Original which is a separate page on the site and I wish I knew how to stack its sequels under it. I recommend you read the first part first as it is not designed to stand alone. It’s fiction. You could see it as fan-fic for the bible if you like. My limited understanding of Midrash (I do admit I lie outside the Jewish tradition), is that this sort of meaning-making is a valid form of biblical interpretation.

Penumbra

I wish the damn snake hadn’t said that about Adam. Oh how I wish she had kept him out of it, or that I had had more wisdom! I should have stuck to the original plan and eaten the fruit and been kicked out without him. The problem was my panic at the very thought of being alone, even Adam was better than noone in some God-knows-where strange place for eternity and ever.

I am ashamed to say that I thought about the power I could gain over Adam if I took him something so dangerous and powerful, something he would never have had the bottle to get for himself. I thought I could force him to leave with me and turn the tables on him. That was my downfall, that moment of temptation, the thirst for revenge when a better whatever-I-am would have walked away. Because can you imagine what it would have been like without Adam?

But I gave in to the pettiness.

I went to the tree.

“Daughter” said an anxious voice. Was I so crazy now that I was hearing trees talk? I pulled off one of the apples from a low branch. There was a loud cry and the sound of something ripping in the sky, the fabric of reality – I had made a permanent change. I plucked another apple- such beautiful, shiny, silver apples. Innocent apples. Flat disks with a face printed on them. On the tree it had looked like a happy and gentle face but now in my hand it was clearly the face of sorrow.

I felt unable to stop now. I needed more, needed them all, so that Adam would not be able to pick his own and claim it had been his idea all along. A storm raged over and about me as I took them all, climbing, stretching, breaking branches to leave not one apple of another’s hand. 30 silver apples in my hand. Glancing down I noticed my body in disgust. Horrid, disfigured body shaped so differently from Adam’s strong, powerful one. I hated its curves and its softness.

I bit into an apple and tasted its sharp, metallic taste- the taste of fear. My hated body was wracked with pain beyond imagining and blood dripped out from between my legs. I felt strange angers and hungers and a desire to strike out and retreat all at once. Terror overcame me.

“I hate you!” I raged at the tree and at my own mutant, built to serve self. I stopped the blood with a fig leaf. I used another to wrap the silvery fruit in. The snake laughed, “God won’t like that.” she said. Was she talking about my bleeding body or the apples? I wondered whether to get more fig leaves to cover the entirety of my ugly body, but then I heard my Lord and Master’s voice.

“Eve, Eve. Where are you? I’m hungry. I’m bored. I’m cold. You’re a bitch for leaving me alone. Go away, you irritate me. You must be cheating on me. You’re laughing at me. You need to get me some food. I deserve. I need. I want. I will have.” The voice echoed through millenia that seemed like they had already been. My temple began to throb at the noise, the clamour of voices, the grasping pinch and pull of little and big hands on my flesh, on my space.

“I can’t take this shit any more!” I hissed. I sounded more like the snake than like myself.

“Adam my love” I said in my honeyed, insinuating slave-voice.

“Look at these lovely silver apples.” His eyes glittered avariciously, but before I could strike a deal he struck, now snake-like himself. He pulled my hair, slapped at my breasts and wrested the figleaf with the apples away from me.

“What is this shit you bitch?” he asked, looking at them suspiciously for a moment.

“Something you’re too piss-weak to have got for yourself,” I taunted, “fruit from the forbidden tree.”

“Why keep a dog and bark yourself?” he asked, thinking no doubt that he was very witty. I get a flash of a future where he says this about me to children in his image and bids them laugh at me, while paying lip-service to a “respect” that has never been there. I feel dizzy with fear and despair but I have tasted the fruit of objective knowledge and the inevitable is clear and set in stone.

But now in this raging storm-swept moment it is the serpent who turns to me. “I am sorry” she says, and seems surprised at herself for meaning it, or perhaps she is only surprised at me for listening intently to her, as though she is my only link to something saner. Adam crams three of the apples in his mouth all at once and swallows them and the same terror overcomes him.

“We must hide” he says curtly,

“I won’t” I say but he pinches and slaps and pulls at me and forces me to flee into a thicket of thorns where my skin is scratched. For all I know his skin might be also, but I have ceased to care for him.

“Why are you wearing leaves?” he asks as though jealous, as if I have some sort of power over him by covering. Adam covers himself also, his small serpent-like member hidden. We stay there several days until he is driven mad by hunger and fear. At times he rips my leaves off and forces himself roughly into the bleeding mess between my legs and other times he leans on me sobbing like a baby, whinging out litanies of self-pity, blaming me, blaming the serpent, blaming the tree and even from time to time blaming God. It seems poor Adam is the victim of all of us.

+++

We have eaten all the apples now, there is nothing else and I wish the intense hunger would kill me. I want death more than I have ever wanted anything else. My greatest fear is eternity when all around me is thorns and Adam and his self-pity, with the growing hunger and the discomfort and humiliation of him inserted into my flesh, between my legs in the no-longer-bleeding dry desert of my self-disgust.

The snake brings me a dead mouse or bird from time to time. Even less frequently it seems to understand my different diet and brings a mushroom or a lettuce leaf. All these offerings are brought as if in apology and I accept them with what grace I can. Better the snake’s company than Adam’s. I repress my vegetarian squeamishness and eat- not with a vain hope of actually assuaging the hunger but as a small and symbolic act of treachery against the totalitarian rule of the whining, pathetic Adam. He has had nothing to eat all this time.

After 28 settings of the sun I bleed again and we stay and stay there. I have time to wonder what causes the bleed, since my first idea that it was sin was clearly wrong. My body and its inexplicable bleeding seems grotesque to me. I am hazily aware of the snake saying “blood is life”. But surely I imagined that. Animals don’t talk.

I have gone crazy with despair and loneliness and I hear voices. I tune into them, to anything and everything that can relive me from  Adam’s self-righteous lectures about how he has sacrificed everything to protect me from God’s wrath. One time I am foolish enough to admit that I would welcome God’s wrath, especially as an alternative to what we have. Adam backhands me across the mouth.

More blood, but I am used to the stench by now. The stench of blood is the stench of the silver apples, it is the stench of objective, immutable knowledge of stable, ironclad categories of right and wrong, of the God-given order- man over woman over animals over plants. Knowledge and rightness and despair.

After 40 days of this knowledge, I hear a voice calling me.

“Eve”

“What on earth do you want now?” I snap, although if I stopped to think it is not Adam. He has ceased to even use my name.

“Why are you hiding?” I am still trying to identify the voice when Adam answers for me:

“Because we are naked and ashamed.” This is not the answer I want to give, but by now I have learned that when I am silent I get hit a little less.

“We are so ashamed of our nakedness oh great Lord.” Adam says in a syrupy voice, grovelling at God’s feet. I feel and itch to kick him but I am still as the lesser being. I do turn my shoulder- refusing not only to take part in the grovelling but even to witness it.

“Did you eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?” God asks

“You said “of” five times” I miscount, irritated by God’s tone.”

“Lord, the woman you gave to me. She gave me the fruit and made me eat it.” Adam complains. There is a silence but I won’t lift my eyes. I know that God is looking at me.

“She is stubborn.” Adam offers after a while, the spotlight off him.

“I want to leave,” I croak out, “The serpent tempted me but…”

“It was all the serpent!” Adam seizes on what I am trying to say and twists it.”

“You can no longer live in my garden.” I look up, struck by the sadness in God’s voice. God’s eyes are the deep brown of earth; of the diamonds on the serpents back.

“Do you know what it is you have done to me?” I ask the sad brown eyes of God.

“Free will is a double edged sword.” God says. I bite back an angry retort, wanting to understand.

“My will. Is it really my own ?”

“Please…” God whispers, smaller than I would have expected

“I want someone like me!” I scream

“Me too” says the small voice of God and the serpent hisses.

“I will put enmity between your child and the woman’s child.” Who said that to the serpent?

“You will not!” I said coldly, “My will is my own, and my child’s will is her own.”

“The serpent tempted you.” Adam reminds me.

“Tempted not forced.” I look at him with scorn, “and she was sorry after. She offered…” I paused, reluctant to admit I had eaten dead mouse, “brokenness and healing” I temporised. Someone – the serpent? – God? kisses me on the forehead and the gates clang shut behind us. There is an angel there with a flaming sword. He looks Adam up and down appraisingly but I am already walking away…

Photo by Mattpix 2015- spotted by Sebastian and Chloe