Tag Archives: wine

“Gifting”, power and the celebration of privilege

I have already written enough about creeds for the time being (and will probably return to this topic), and so I skipped ahead to intercessions. So now I turn to the Preparation of the Gifts -partly to open up the privileged-centre of this liturgical moment to a multiplicity of possible symbols that can authentically be “bread of life” and “spiritual drink”. The particularity we are told we are not allowed to move away from (bread and wine, and then even particular set-apart versions of “bread” and “wine” that are divorced from the every-day materialities they symbolise are Eurocentric as well as having become “owned” and controlled by the male-stream clergy.

There is firstly the “material” reality of “gifts” the bread and wine and the ecological significance of “earth” being named as a donor of those gifts but voiceless earth’s generosity is presumed upon as we often violently wrest wheat and grapes from inappropriate or at least over-farmed soil. Eating of course is not likely to be something we can ever evolve beyond- but our habits of demanding specific foods at will without dialogue with the environment are problematic toward with our (first world) excesses. We are a people who eat too much, drink too much and even when we try to curb our over-consumption we tend to starve ourselves in ways that harm our bodies and fragile psyches without material benefit to the planet.

Then of course there is the invisible labour that goes into producing the real, material food that in an overly religious interpretation of Eucharist becomes mere “symbol” or a privleged “spiritual reality” while the “gifts” of the workers underpaid time, the sometimes starving third-world producers that are behind so much of our consumption do not figure in our celebration of “gifted” blessedness that we thank God for.

If God specifically guided this slice of bread (or bowl of rice or quinoa) into my hand and into my open mouth, then that same God must have consigned the underpaid laborers behind my bowl of food to starve and watch their own children fail to thrive. Thus we construct God as white and relatively wealthy and actually sort of middle-class. We can “choose” ethical things and make our peace with our consciences, but the fact is we don’t really think about the global implications of out gluttony when we say that through “God’s goodness” we have this bread to offer.

To offer?

We offer it as a symbol and then we take it back again and distribute it to people who look and sound like us and make us feel comfortable. Which is a good in some sense of course but what if we were to really offer the bread of our lives to deeper love of the voiceless earth and the invisible human struggling labourer and her family?

“Which earth has given and human hands have made.” What do we then give to the earth and place into the emptied human hands as a true “offering” to a God we say is love.

Even in less extreme ways, I have a feeling there is a classism within most versions of formalised spirituality. We tend to invite into our midst only those who are beautiful in performative middle-class ways, who have as little first-hand experience as possible of being “othered”, even in feminist circles we make light of the difficulties others experience because we blithely trust that the “system” does what it says it does and distributes basics like food, medicine, health-care, counselling, education, etc to anyone who needs it. It is not a perfect system but it is reasonably functional. That idea circulates even in groups that are dedicated to social justice. Real poverty, real suffering happens “over there, far away” and we live in a largely enlightened society. If someone who has less comes to our church then this is an isolated case and we can help them, without opening our eyes to the need in our own society.

Privilege is ignorance of course, always, always ignorance and when we dismiss the claims of people who have been wronged by the system without having time to waste on getting into the whole story that is perfectly understandable.

But like the earth that “gives” and the “human hands” unconnected to voices or faces (or gender for that matter) what is invisible to us seeps into the bread of our lives and the oppressions we casually consent to by our inability or refusal to see and hear them seep into our spiritual drink. After all the “body of Christ” is a crucified, bleeding, beaten body and the “blood of Christ” is flogged out of him in violence and with mockery. Easy to think that he suffered and died “for us” like the endlessly “giving” earth, because our good and ease is more important than any other concern.

When the priest washes “his” hands, this is symbolic of washing away sin. The idea of washing used to seem to me to be a liberating idea. We travel through life, we get soiled, it is all washed away through sacraments of one sort or another and we continue. If “Sin” is a personal failing and a slight hiccough in our generally well-meaning and caring movement through life then this still makes sense.

But what if with the traces of sin, our awareness that something has been soiled, we are washing away only the evidence, and not the fact. Just as overly harsh soaps and chemicals can wash away “good bacteria”, “necessary oils” our own skin along with the dirt we are trying to escape, so our spiritual “washing” needs not to be a brainwashing into an ecstatic “new reality” where whatever we did yesterday or five minutes ago no longer happens.

I want to find something positive in all this, so I will return to the idea that gifting goes with feeding and allow us  a measure of “becoming-ness” like the babies whose meal-times I also help to preside over. The babies begin in the simplest way, by crying when they are hungry or wish to be held, within a few months they are sitting up and looking at each other’s faces at the table, they are tapping their spoons together and giggling and generally reacting to the “humanness” of each other, then they begin to invite teachers to sit and eat with them and gradually they learn that there exists a kitchen from which the food comes and to say “thank you” to the kitchen staff and teachers who make it possible. Over the next few childcare years they learn to participate in cooking, cleaning and even in the kitchen garden, their sphere if understanding slowly widens from just demanding the gifts of the meal to learning how to participate- to receive with gratefulness and to give to each other and to the adults.

In the same way, our smug words of feeling “blessed” and “gifted” as the haves of the planet, do need transformation, however there is the beginning of understanding in the fact that the earth and humans are at least mentioned as part of how “God” gives to us. We cannot be more than we are and we must love ourselves and each other as we develop more aware ways of taking what we need and truly “offering” to others (all others) in a more meaningful way.

I return then to an old favourite Proverbs 9:1-6 

Blessed are you Wisdom, caller to the table of all creation. Through your goodness we will learn to build your house and set your table with you. We will leave our toxic ways of being behind along with our ignorance. We will eat your bread (rice) and wine (soup) and we will learn to walk softly upon the giving earth and touch with love and abundance every human hand. Your bread and word are our life.

May God accept our desire to share in the abundance of creation, in ever widening circles of welcoming and gratefulness, may we seek our good entwined with the good of our neighbour.

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Ways of (not)Knowing

Is it good to bite into

the crusty, doughy wheatiness

of Word made Flesh made Bread;

to drink the cup- the complex bouquet

of birth and stars and long roads,

friends, stories, long roads,

betrayal, suffering, short road to death

but also hearth-fires and washed feet?

 

Is it good to remember

that love had courage

to speak out, stand tall,

stand with, be told;

learn and grow;

to hold firm and die?

Dare we shed a tear?

 

Is it “him” and is it even me?

Where is the place on earth

where love bakes, breaks bread

and wine is shared;

where suffering is acknowledged?

What does it mean

to have “life”?

Some of us have run out of wine

I have run out of wine! I started this blog because my heart was heavy with the burden of a ministry I had failed to realise. I was full of negative feelings such as guilt, anger, blame toward both myself and the church(es) that had not nurtured me better. For a while I felt that me blogging was a pointless exercise, and yet it was an outlet for feelings and thoughts which needed to be expressed and served also as a spiritual discipline focusing me on lectionary readings each week whether I liked them or not and forcing me to engage with them either adversarially or in an attempt to glean something of value.

I was grateful for the very, very small number of friends who made it obvious they had read my blog entries and encouraged me to persist. And as I put my words out there, I came to see that it was not all just about “preaching” in the narrow sense, where I think I have something of value and others need it but it was about my own struggle with my faith journey and engaging in that struggled moved me back toward church: surprisingly enough to the church of my childhood (though a transformed and transformative community). Once I was “back” in the church there was no fanfare or immediate reifying of my ministry and I am ashamed to have felt so anticlimactic about the whole thing but there were crumbs of encouragement in liturgies, in things that were said and in the readings themselves.

I was asked to preach one day and I felt euphoria and joy as if that one event was some sort of realisation, and end of a struggle (but of course it was not). From that event, and from my now more frequent attendance at church as I am relearning that maturity means sometimes honouring the community not just acting like a selfish individual has grown an opportunity to participate in writing, collating and delivering liturgies and the desire to make them meaningful and affirming is still strong in me. I have learned that there may be more readers of my blog than is obvious to me week to week and have laughed at myself for still being weak and childish enough to need people’s approval and “praise”.

This journey is mirrored by the progress I have made in my professional and in the beginning steps of my academic life too. I have learned much, changed and grown and begun to experience a hard-won success.

I have identified a purpose and a direction to my life and all should be as a wedding feast. I ought to feel full of confidence and energy to extend hospitality to people and to bring the best of my inner gifts to the table for sharing with people who bring so much to me! “Ought to” I say, as though I hadn’t learned by now that the world is not governed by “ought tos” and “shoulds” and that whatever deeper reality we feel is possible and right is always one we need to struggle for (and forgive ourselves for frequently failing).

If we can reclaim Mary, not as a hyperfeminine vessel for the patriarchy of the church but as first apostle and nurturer of all that is Christ-like and wise then perhaps she at this time in my life, in all these times in all our lives turns a motherly glance at me/us. “Poor darling” she might say, “you have run out of wine”; and then the good advice has to follow (I did say motherly) “Do whatever he tells you”. “He” in this situation meaning Christ, meaning the God who has embraced and lived humanity but somehow at times transforms and transcends the exhausted and uncertain humanity that is all we know.

How then does Jesus respond to us running out of the “wine” of our ministry, the “wine” of our wisdom and the “wine” of our energy for goodness and beauty? Does he say “that’s ok then you rest and I will do everything?” It is tempted to read a God of miracles in this way. To see us as able to do nothing more than ask for grace and wait patiently for Jesus/God to accomplish all. But Jesus demands a more exhausting collaborative approach. You have run out of wine, out of the good stuff? Alright then bring water. Bring the mundane stuff of your labour and good intentions to me. That is so unbelievably unglamorous to do isn’t it? To spend long stretches of time bringing nothing but our ordinary labour and out common place accomplishments to God. These times lack the euphoria, the deep feeling of connection with God or the universe, the lightning-bright glint of revelation and the winged-feet feeling of success. We simple plod and plod and plod and bring boring old water to God to be blessed.

That is the “coal face” of faith, the place where the euphoria ends and we are still our own boring and fallible selves with our own boring and somewhat (at times) unfulfilling lives struggling to make meaning and struggling to grasp the moral politics of the reign of God from a place of exhaustion and uncertainty and surrounded by less than ideal understanding and nurture.

So when at Jesus’ word we give a taste of the water to the “chief steward” to those who are able to receive, judge and distribute our ministry and when the chief stewards of our ministry tell us that our ministry is the “good wine”, they may tell us we are good at preaching or good at counselling or good at leading- the temptation after all our hard work and despair is to feel pride, not just a healthy sense of accomplishment but an identifying of the self with the accomplishment. Then it is easy to get fancier and fancier, to fall in love with our own cleverness and success and perhaps popularity too and to lose sight of the need to be bread broken, not just a fancy and overly rich gravy.

And this happens to me.

Because of the depth of despair and cowardice and emotional pain and failure that I have experienced, when I begin to succeed then I want to see myself as forever transformed into a “wine maker” that can do no wrong. My pride in this situation holds many dangers, the obvious one is the narcicissm of forgetting to self-question and assuming your own infallibility. In the past I have been very critical of this lack of reflexivity in successful and charismatic others, so I need to keep that in my own mind as I at times experience success.

Other dangers are the loss of empathy and kindness as I become impatient with those who do not understand what I am saying, or who think differently. There is also the very great danger of despair when I fail to live up to unreasonable standards within myself- there is the all-or-nothing approach where a bad day or a bad week or a misstep damns me right back into perpetual failure and self-hate. All of these are the blights of pride, if I see any part of my ministry as bigger than it is, or as all my own work.

In preaching for example, it is entirely possible that my words could be wrong and therefore others who hear them need to always be free not to agree with me. But it is also possible when others gain something of value from my preaching, that the water was only water but that God turned it into wine not at its source, but somewhere between me and the person who heard the words. The wine might only become wine in the chief-steward’s mouth for all we know.

So in this grey time, when I cannot seem to put a foot right; when I have become addicted to a spiritual feeling of connection and euphoria which I ought to have been experienced enough to know was unsustainable; when there are simply not enough hours in the hot and sometimes lonely days and old anxieties resurface to drive a wedge between me and my support networks. When the temptation once again is to “drop out” of studies and church and even of my friendships and simply go to work and read novels. In this grey time all I see before me are water jars to do very ordinary tasks. I have run out of wine for others, for myself.

I have nothing to give.

I will continue to bring water then, since I don’t have wine remembering in the words of the second reading that my gifts were “for the common good” not for my own ego or individual success. I will follow the apostles like Mary, who point me toward Christ to take my cues from the one who makes meaning from my mundane, who changes my water into wine.

Sometimes the best wine comes much, much later than we would expect.

“Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed”

I know this is an idealised account of Solomon and we could read him in the context of his patriarchal world and the patriarchal text as a whole, but I want to consider this idealised image in and of itself. I have a romantic liking for ideals, sure I fall short of mine but I can’t help always thinking it is good to have them and when I don’t get everything I want out of life it is comforting at times to have lived by ideals- hedonism in my experience only leads to emptiness and doesn’t stave off disappointment and hardship.

So Solomon realises his privileged position, and the fact he has it by fortune, not merit (which is a lot more humble than you would expect from one of those larger than life Old Testament figures). He asks for wisdom and understanding. If only he was able to take the tiny extra step of realising that the understanding that privilege must ask for is the understanding of the “other” the ones who are not the king, not wealthy, free or male but we can insert that into the story when we remember that for us the “other” the “least of our siblings” is always Christ. So to ask for understanding from God is to seek to listen to those with less privilege than we do.

The overtone of judging and discerning in 3:9 then becomes a matter of justice and advocacy. Solomon is often presented as wise and unbiased but God in Jesus in fact never presented as unbiased. God is constantly biased toward the poor and oppressed. For us first-world, relatively comfortable people this may be a hard pill to swallow- we often try to present a “balanced” God. But to act is to be biased and God takes the part (consistently throughout many biblical texts) of the widow and orphan (and refugee).

The alternative first reading (I realise I am not using the lectionary correctly here but I don’t really care) has Wisdom inviting us to her house for a party. It’s a party with food and wine in a house with seven pillars (I guess a nice house then) but it’s a party that will change you forever. You go in to eat her food and drink her wine and you leave your old foolish ways and become irrevocably enmeshed with her (she’s upfront about that at least). It’s a pity you have to choose between these two first readings if you are running an actual church (as opposed to ranting online) because they are actually beautiful read together. Solomon has been seduced by wisdom, she invited him in and he can’t lust for anything else.

I want to be in Solomon’s shoes and as I read the readings I feel that even wanting to be there is a good thing – it’s not everything because there is still the old immaturity that must be laid aside when entering Wisdom’s house, but desire is the beginning of such an intimate and life-changing relationship.

I’ll ignore Ephesians because even though it basically says the same thing it couches it more negatively “stop drinking and having fun and instead do what is right” whereas I prefer the Old Testament version which was “come and get drunk and be seduced and you will begin to want to do what it right”. The beer o’clock Wisdom is a lot more enticing than the grumpy preacher/ schoolmaster Paul.

In the gospel, Jesus echoes Wisdom, offering himself now not only as the hostess with the mostest but as the food and drink in itself. This is more than life changing, this gives us life forever. I find it hard to know what to make of the “life forever” imagery all through John to be honest. As a child I thought there is this place called heaven where we all end up and then when I got older I thought – it’s not a physical place but our internal essence and personality is somehow preserved in relation to God and everyone. And now I just don’t know. I don’t know about “live forever” when even things that are good in this life never last forever. The weather or your mood changes, the people you love move away or get busy, you find you have to be preoccupied with new concerns. The positivity and optimism with which I begin any project, endeavour or relationship at some point begins to flag.

We eat the bread that we believe is Jesus and even if we get on some sort of a spiritual high (and in the past I have done just that) then we return to real life, to ordinary life and not only is life mundane but we are still flawed and mundane too. So is Wisdom a liar? Is it really just a one night stand? At times I have felt that as well, I have felt that this whole “faith” deal that I have been seduced into is a huge con and I have felt very angry. And when we read on about Solomon, sure he did some impressive things but he’s not perfect ever after.

But then when we get back to Wisdom she asked us to leave aside that immaturity; the need for constant reassurance and convenient on-demand grace, the expectation that God will take all the responsibility for this relationship and we don’t have to work at it at all. If I am honest I don’t always “work at it”; I used to dutifully “pray” every day, by set formulas that I was taught and that I did to prove my commitment and I used to beat myself up about how much my mind wanders during those times. What I did I did out of guilt and feelings of unworthiness, out of a commitment that was more fear than love.

Now as a border-line atheist…well not a very good one…I rarely force myself to pray. Now prayer is more something I fall into when I walk in nature, or at work when I am patting the children to sleep or late at night at my best friend’s house when my head is spinning with the wine the writer of Ephesians doesn’t think I should be drinking. And at church too when the vibe happens to be right. I fall into a prayer which may be hard to give words to- or which might just quote words of songs or bible texts, poetry or something I read. I fall into prayer that says “I am here, please help me find meaning in that” prayer that says “please let me feel that you are here”, prayer that says “I want things to be different” “I want to be different” and lately preciously “I now know you love me and I want to weep with relief at that knowledge”

And from moment to moment I have not always been able to find traces of grace in my life, I have not always felt the transformative presence of God and I will still have the grey empty days of weeping and the night terrors of God’s absence. Part of any relationship is absence, emptiness and disconnection after all (it took me a long, long time to accept that). From moment to moment I can’t and don’t believe that I have eaten something remarkable, the bread of life. But when I fall into prayer (like falling in love) then I trace the eternity within that moment not only as an ecstasy or euphoria (which marked more of my “spiritual” experiences early in life) but as a quiet acceptance of self and other and a quiet dissatisfaction with injustice that I feel was planted in me the first time I met Wisdom and now makes up most of what I acknowledge as my identity (even though I don’t always know what to do about it).

And when I look at the journey of my 3 year old self, my childhood, adolescence, turmoils of my early adulthood to middle-aged me – at the same time that the aging process begins to make ideas of “eternity” more ridiculous than ever there is some sort of faithfulness and stubbornness by the presence of God that makes me cautiously hope there is meaning somewhere in the journey. And why would an eternal God be faithful to a slow-learning and non-eternal me? So I am always up for some of Wisdom’s bread and wine and transformative possibility.