Tag Archives: values

The fig tree, the burning bush and my lenten call.

I have been absent, and yet my graphs show that readers have checked in here (thanks for doing that). after a busy and somewhat stressful few weeks, my body and mind exhausted beyond belief I am seizing some time to rest and self-care. And so, with a sense of luxuriating in the thing I love, I turn back to the lectionary, trying to feel guilty neither about how long it has been since my last blog post, nor about the things I am leaving undone to write this. This after all is a better use of my time than any sort of procrastination would be (and I am so tired I would not be more productive).

The first reading is the story of Moses encountering the burning bush. Is that what it would take to make me fully human again? A great phenomena like a burning bush, a place to take off my shoes and know mystery? A reminder that activism is all very well but encounter is where God happens. I have an hour and a half to choose something and I choose this. Pondering the readings, taking off the shoes of my roles as teacher, co-ordinator, bread-winner and politician. Here I am just Stef the human, here I am small and confused and trying to listen to a voice. The voice is the God who liberates, telling Moses of specific moments in salvation history and reminding me that I am called to fullness of life not just busyness.

But God is also the God who will send Moses out into the struggle to liberate a people, a God who will put me back into the struggle with all the good activists and advocates and seers and comrades. This space is not a place of escape or retreat, it is a place of sustenance FOR THE STRUGGLE. God ultimately refuses naming, refuses to be owned or branded. God is loyal to her own values not to an institution. The bush burns but it is not consumed, rules may be broken. The Spirit blows wherever she will and I do not own, control or parcel her out. This is perhaps a warning to all would-be theologians and preachers (noted).

The psalm celebrates God’s kindness, commitment to justice and strengths-based approach to humanity (pardoning sins and restoring life and liberation). I weep with gratefulness at the thought of kindness and mercy- yes give me that as a relief from politics and the negative speeches of so many. But kindness and mercy are not just gift but also call. I am asked to be the kindness and mercy of God, as human beings we are meant to embody the divine, not just anger (even when we are sure it is righteous). The kindness is stressed again and again, as sure and surpassing as the sky itself. God is kind so I must be kinder. As my exhausted mind ponders this I feel that maybe this kindness could even extend to myself, not to pander myself in inactivity but at least to allow rest and joy back into the mix.

Always back to the good things, back into the struggle for justice and also back into the solace-point, the “home” that God is to our hearts.

The second reading seems to be reminding us that tradition and institutionalised religion are no guarantees against error. Admittedly the recent events around “Cardinal” Pell have led me to embrace this interpretation. We must remember the values of the family of God (mercy, kindness, justice, advocating for the little) instead of just following rules and rituals or relying on our history and tradition. Our tradition/s are not a place to stand secure and judge others (other religions, sexual orientations or lifestyles) they are places to take off our shoes and gain some humbleness about what we have…and what in justice we ought to share. I have no patience with people who abuse power and privilege to harm others, as shepherds called to tend the people of God we have a vital DUTY OF CARE. This is true for all of us, the unofficial and petty shepherds as well as the ones considered “great” by the institution. That mercy and kindness of the psalm needs to be shared to the last and the least and the one who we do not think has the strength to answer us back (you’d be surprised what is possible with God).

The verse before the gospel tells us to repent (be radically transformed for the better) and to see the kindom of God.

The gospel begins with Jesus threatening dire things to anyone who refuses to repent and be transformed. This could be as true for an institution/church as for an individual (maybe more so). Just when we are sure that the gospel is a terrible judgement, the parable at the end switches it. God is endlessly patient, tending and calling and giving the fig-tree more time (though beware because at some point even the extra time may run out). If we have not borne significant fruit YET then this lent comes to give us another chance and our lives may be cultivated and fertilized that we might finally bear fruit.

I’ve been a slow-bloomer in anything I have ever tried in my life. I have both a slowness to understand, a reluctance to really back myself and am endlessly ready to quit and concede failure. God bids me garden myself more carefully, give myself time to grow (amidst the great role-models and mentors who always told me this was possible). Noone says that it doesn’t matter that the fig-tree is barren, noone suggests that it should keep failing to thrive, failing to produce. But Jesus suggests that if all that is needed is more time and caring then that can be provided by a patient and relentlessly loving God.

This lent we are given the time and kindness to grow, and the warning that we must encounter God ourselves, not rely on ritual and tradition. I will seek the quietness of lent, the gathering dark of autumn, the parrots in the fig-tree, the super-worm moon and the promise that something will come again out of all the deaths of the world. I will give myself time.

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Rushed thoughts from the midst of the chaos

Welcome to the sieve that is life, that will shake you up and demonstrate what quality you are as a person, as a God-being-image, as an agent who thinks and speaks and embodies values. So goes the first reading. I have seen much of this lately, people being shaken and the best or worst of them appear. I am working on being kind and tolerant of people who are flawed when shaken and thus able to cope with my own limitations too. Some people surprise and inspire me even under the greatest pressure. I would like to have that sort of courage and integrity. Based on picking up values from people we choose to spend time with and listen to I guess I have a chance of developing that way.

The psalm continues in this vein, telling us to be grateful to God and to keep our integrity because ultimately we will thrive or perish according to the health of our values and our inner self. I am not sure that real life always demonstrates this well, but on the other hand I was cheered when in answer to a question about her “legacy” at Writers Week Gillian Triggs said “I don’t think I am anywhere near finished yet”!!!

Maybe this is what: “They shall bear fruit even in old age” means.

I myself feel so week and fearful and dependant on others but maybe I can learn. Triggs talked of being mentored and supported at times, she talked of benefitting from systems that were there to support her. None of us can do it alone and I need to have some faith in the integrity (spoken and lived) of the people who are in my life.

The second reading talks about our human preoccupation with the deaths and hurts of this life but claims that through God we can hope through that to a greater depth of meaning and success. We have to find the incorruptible, immortal things to clothe ourselves in, and the implication is that these are values. We must be “firm, steadfast and fully devoted” to God’s work, but let’s remember that God’s work is not nitpicking the lifestyles of others but upholding the vulnerable (the “widow and orphan”) and loving those who need our love, calling to account the powerful (see eg the Magnificat), feeding and healing the world in LOVE. We must have integrity even in how we treat our enemies, we can attack the position and corruptibility of people like Cardinal Pell and decry the words of people like Andrew Bolt, but it is not God’s work to personally attack these people (although when victims of their crimes do it we should be understanding).

Death is swallowed up in the victory, the immortality (“legacy” if you like) of the good work we do. I want to think of immortality as some good people have left or are leaving the university I got work at, where I would have liked them to continue on and mentor and befriend me. Some people do remain who understand what has been achieved and my task is to hold firm. Things of value are larger than one person, they are larger than human cycles of loss and death. Meaning is never something we hold forever but always something we must chase and wrestle with and contest with others and find in fragments.

I don’t like that it is always so difficult, but the tone of the readings is comforting, that God will reward all our efforts even if the world does not.

The gospel mocks me for my reliance on my teachers. They also are human and “blind” as I am and I must learn to be equal to them and work like them not simply follow them (not even heroes like Gillian Triggs). The other side of the coin is that I as a teacher and a leader should not be grand about my own status, but should accept the rights of people to disagree with me, challenge me and find their own way to work alongside and not beneath me. It’s easy to always criticise others instead of looking at how we can contribute something of worth, or at what is blocking us from doing better.

But reassuringly if we are good and healthy on the inside (grounded in values) if we are fruit of a good tree (a tradition, a person, a way of being) then we in turn will produce good fruit. We will speak the truth of what we truly believe which is what we truly are. I will seek to embody (and ensoul) in myself love and radical, healing hope.

I am afraid for the future but God’s will be done. I will learn to stand fast!

Against the grain this week

 

Oh yay! I can choose between two readings from the book of kings to begin with this week. Serves me right for having a sort of week off (posting nothing but a poem) last week, when it was my all time favourite psalm (63) which I had been waiting for. Oh well, I will see what shreds of faith are left me after I deal honestly with the readings of the week.

These lovely readings from Kings exemplify for me what the whole book is about. The book is sort of a kyriarchal self-justification for an organised “church” (I realise this is an anachronistic word but I am being political in choosing it). The great Elijah and the great Elisha work on their succession plan. Elijah also anoints kings (that idea of church mandating state that caused so much trouble in later times- see e.g. Eco’s The Name of the Rose).

The whole book of Kings seems to me to be about “great” men (great meaning full of self-importance) and murderous men, some get the dubious honour of being both. If I ever start to feel warm and fuzzy about the church (and I was starting to) these two books are a great wake up call. We are grounded in patriarchy, militarism and colonial thinking. We still seem to extoll and admire what is legitimated by earthly power and politics and we still seem to silence nearly everyone, and most of all women.

The triumphalism of both psalm choices echoes the first readings. God is almighty, powerful, in control and we rejoice because we are chosen for privilege and ease. Give me a break! Against such a “god” I would side with the children and adults incarcerated on Manus for the “security” of this society and its supposedly Christian values. I would side with Penny Wong speaking out against homophobia and not with Scott Morrison who says he has been “persecuted” for his “Christian” beliefs (recently in Orlando there was a shooting of homosexual night-club goers. This is the “persecution” lgbt people want to counter, not just the “persecution” or people daring to sometimes disagree with them and their tepid religion). I would side with the single mums doing it even tougher by increments because apparently austerity is good for the economy, and with old people who have earned the right to be supported by society but may be forced to work later and later into what should be their years of doing what they like (and possibly doing good too). I side with exploited workers having even their measly penalty rates threatened, and principals facing funding cut that mean students are increasingly frustrated and some turn violent. I side with farmers wanting a decent price for the fruit of their labour, and wanting to keep the irreversible damage of fracking far from their livelihood. I side with the reef and the bight and the old growth forests.

Yes even against “god” because the god of patriarchy and unquestioned power and capitalism is no god at all, no matter how many candles we light and how many times we chant “Lord. Lord” (and didn’t Jesus have something to say about this?). So uneasy and defensive I move on to the second reading.

The first part of the second reading seems to be in the same head-space as me. It says to throw off all this slavery and be brave enough to demand that the consequence of faith is always liberation. Then the focus is on turning this agenda onto the good of others, not just selfishly seeking self-interest. My only uneasiness, is seeing the law of love “love your neighbour” made excessively personal, it is easy for elite and powerful people (and all of us in first-world countries) to have a sort of interpersonal ethic of kindness and “decency” to the people we mix with, the people like us. That’s not a bad thing of course, but it is not the full deal with “love your neighbour”. Because Jesus is always in the last and the least, not just in our good friends and loveable family. So where it says become “slaves to each other” I think that is a dangerous rhetoric open to at least two damaging sorts of interpretations.

“If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” seems to be a good caution against hypercapitalism and neoliberalism. It seems like the exact rebuttal of Thatcher’s claim that there is “no such thing as society, there is only the individual”. In the reign of God of course, the interests of the poorest and the weakest are the interests of God, and God’s interests become our interests through relationship. So there is “society” in the sense of relevant “other”, and relevant other is always broadened. Because God hates nothing she created.

But then the author of Galatians (I can’t remember which ones Paul actually wrote) goes down the predictable and silly path of individual behaviours. I am sure it is better to be sober and chaste and all the rest of it, but the church DOES waste a lot of time telling individuals how not to have a good time, instead of reminding us constantly that we are responsible for whoever is paying the price of our ease. So the point for me is less to avoid drunkenness and excess, and more justice. In a more just world, or in working for a more just world I will in fact have to curb the excesses of my appetite, in order to ensure a just distribution of work, leisure, resources and a light touch upon Mother Earth.

But Paul (if it is him) here is focusing on the symptom and ignoring the cause. Drunkenness and carousing are symptoms of spiritual emptiness, caused by selfishness, despair, desperation or blind privilege. Becoming austere patrician saints without changing the imbalances in the world is both very difficult and I think ultimately unhelpful. Instead I think Robert Herrick has it right when he talks about starving “sin not bin”. It’s not about curbing appetites per se, it is about refocusing on the source of the real hunger, the real deep desire. We are starved for justice and we lust for meaning. It is a sort of escapism, like playing computer games (which is one of my chief vices when very depressed). Drinking, eating too much and having an unhealthy attitude toward sex similarly are ways of trying to quiet the uneasy or roaring voices in hearts that do not want to face the true extent of their brokenness. In a world where we have too many whims catered to, we are profoundly disjointed from one another.

On some level I think even the people who think justice for refugees is “too hard”, “too expensive” [please note it is actually less expensive than the current practice of incarcerating them], or “too dangerous”, I think even those people’s hearts secretly yearn to think differently. We must dare it! As a society, as individuals we must begin to build values into how we live. And maybe that will mean less drunkenness and carousing. I stopped having time for drunkenness and carousing only when I found myself and was able to step into meaning and hope.
The gospel is puzzling, and wiser heads than mine have written a lot about it. There seems to be a level of otherworldliness about Jesus in this reading. He rises above the need for revenge, to me the clearest part of the reading, and then he speaks of the heavy price he has paid for his strong commitment to his vocation. He does not have a “home”. This is where I am puzzled. Does this really mean that we have to be unanchored in this life in some way? Do we always have to wonder through as a sort of an alien? And then when he does not even allow a would-be follower to look after his family responsibilities I frankly feel angry (look at how the Catholic church views both legitimate and illegitimate children of clergy for example!).

But I remember at uni learning about the symbolism of the plough. A plough represents power and mastery over the (feminine) earth, it can be equated with a rapacious relationship. So putting your hand to the plough could represent and overinvestment in the powers of this world. The minute you start to take what is not rightfully yours, to try to control and force your way into wealth and ease you have turned your back on the kingdom of God. But of course if no one plants a garden then we will all starve. Metaphors are limited that way.

The readings are little pericopes, dividing up the long and complicated series of texts that is our “Scripture” into bite-sized chunks. They are a gift to be used carefully and in context. Just as “the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath” so the scripture was made to help, challenge, enlighten or comfort us but not to rule us. Although I felt hostile and suspicious to these readings, they help me clarify what I think is wrong in the world and the church and to ally myself to the values I think God calls me to.

I don’t think it is arrogant to do that. I think it is irresponsible not to.

Forward in prayer and love.