Looking to the future

“Once Honi was travelling on the road, and he noticed a man planting a carob-tree. He asked him how many years it would take before the tree would bear fruit, and the man answered: “Seventy years.” Honi then asked: “Art thou, then, sure that thou wilt live seventy years?” And the man replied: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” “

This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of Jewish Rabbinical scholarship (tractate Ta’anit, for the curious).  I found it when I was looking up prayers of blessing when planting trees (I was giving a tree as a house warming gift), but it made me pause for another reason.

You see, I anticipate moving house soon.  And although, in the ten years or so that we’ve lived in our current home, I’ve been happily doing what I can in the garden, knowing that it might only be the people who came after us who saw the full benefit, as soon as we had a definite horizon for moving out, something in my mindset switched.  I pondered only planting things in pots, that I could take with me when I moved.  I wondered whether it was worth maintaining what we had for the next few months, or whether I might as well neglect it, since I could not even be sure whether the person coming after me would want or care about a garden (or indeed, whether the people who bought our house might want to knock it down and start from scratch).  I was more interested in investing in the new place, which I would enjoy, than continuing to invest in the current one, which I was leaving.

So when I read this story, something in it niggled at my conscience.  What is the spiritual significance of my garden, and the legacy I leave here?  What does it mean to work for a fruitful future, even on my humble plot of land (and truth be told, I’m a very mediocre gardener)?

I’m not sure I have answers.  Part of thinking about that is second-guessing who might come after me.  Will it be someone who wants fruit trees, a vegetable garden, herb beds, fruiting vines over fences (everything I’ve fantasised about and only partly achieved)?  Or someone who wants something as low-maintenance as possible?  Or someone who wants to keep everything full of natives and encourage native bird and insect life?  All of these have worthwhile dimensions, so which one should I work with as a vision?

But even though I might only be here another three months, I’d rather wrestle with those questions, and do what I can, than write this garden off as no longer worth my attention.  In time there will be a new garden to shape, but for today, I give thanks for the person who planted the plum tree which now gives me a rich harvest, and ponder what blessing I might leave for those who come after me.

Of course, the metaphor extends beyond gardening.  There are many ways in which we plant for a fruitful future.  But I find this story an encouragement; I don’t need to see the fruit of my planting, or even know for certain that it will be enjoyed, to participate in the human chain of planting and blessing and openness to a fruitful legacy not entirely within my control.  There’s something of hope and trust and joy in that.  And that sits better than indifference to all but my own “success.”

 

 

In search of wholeness

My daughter is three and a half, and recently we’ve been having her assessed due to some concerns about what we thought might be a language delay.  That process has led to the significant possibility that she will be diagnosed with autism (the medical jury is still out).

This has left me with a lot of thinking to do, as I’ve struggled to come to grips with what it might be like to parent a child with special needs.  I always – based on the strengths of my husband and me – imagined that our child would be bright, an academic achiever, someone who loved to think analytically and debate big and sometimes abstract ideas.  Someone who lived in books and found that language came naturally (quite possibly more than one language).  Given the typical struggles of people on the spectrum, that mental picture of mine is likely to change.

One big question I had to grapple with was, if my daughter didn’t have the sorts of gifts I had imagined would come naturally, if she even found that her developmental delays added up to significant disability, what would my focus as a parent be?  What did I want to give her, as the non-negotiable birthright of a human being, made in the image of God?  What did personal wholeness look like for someone “different,” and how could I nurture that?

I sat down and jotted a short list of what I thought the basic bedrock aspects of personal wholeness – wholeness as a human being, regardless of ability or disability – might be.  I also hit up the journal databases to see what others had said, and was pleasantly surprised that while they fleshed out some of the items on my list, they seemed to affirm that I was thinking along the right sorts of lines.  Here’s what I came up with:

– A realistic sense of worth; one based not on external achievement but on the value and dignity of every human being, made in the image of God.

– Ethical/moral integrity.  A coherent ethical framework, (or, as some of the articles I looked at put it, a well-formed conscience).  An ability to approach the world with a sense of confidence in one’s ability to make choices in an ethical manner.

– A meaningful network of relationships.  In this I’d include family relationships, friendships, the ability to navigate the wider community, and a relationship – if she wants it – with God.  One of the articles I read also suggested that part of this is the ability to connect with one’s culture and traditions, and while I’m not sure I’d give that quite the same level of importance, it’s certainly given me food for thought.

– A sense of purpose.  This is perhaps the hardest one for me to put into words; it has something to do with hope, and something to do with values (by which I mean, valuing something enough to want to invest one’s time, interest, energy, and/or money in it).  But a sense that one is not just a passenger in life but a participant, and able to contribute to something worthwhile.

I don’t know yet how to nurture all of these things effectively.  I’m learning as I go on this parenting journey!  And if my daughter does have autism, some of these things might look very different for her, than they do for the children around her.  But I’m okay with that; I think identifying these things as important is a good first step.  As a family we can navigate the next steps together.

The truth is, autism or not, I’m immensely proud of my daughter.  She’s inquisitive, determined, sensitive, happy, affectionate, full of beans and beautiful.  She already sings in tune, draws and paints for hours, and perhaps her gifts will lie more in the creative sphere than mine ever did (heaven help me, I’ll have to learn how to nurture that too)!  And I am determined that whatever life brings her she will have every ounce of my support, encouragement and care.  Thinking ahead about what she needs and how to meet those needs is part of that, but it comes with great joy as she grows into new skills and confidence.

What do you think?  Did I miss some important aspect of personal wholeness?  Is there something else I should be thinking about as well?  Or do you think some of these things don’t matter?

Entitled

Recent discussion in my household (and on my husband’s blog) has touched on the question of titles.  Just what do you call a woman in ministry, anyway?

It was all sparked by said husband referring to me (in jest) as “dear priestess,” a term which I particularly dislike, partly because it’s not a term Christians have ever used for their leaders, and partly because it is associated with Paganism (and therefore likely to lead to misunderstanding), and partly because it’s often been used by opponents of the ordination of women to belittle women in ministry.

But what are my options?  In this post, I give a quick run down of the possibilities, and some comment on how I find them helpful (or not), and my personal feelings on them.  Note: this post is not an attack on my sisters in ministry who do things differently.  It’s meant to be light hearted, and express my quite personal preferences and opinions.

So let’s start here:

I am, according to the order of the Anglican Church in Australia, a priest in the Church of God.  Priest can be a controversial title; for some people it carries overtones of a sacrificial ministry and a particular theology of the Eucharist (which I don’t share).  For me, I prefer to see it as a linguistic contraction of the old term “presbyter,” which came from the Greek word “presbyteros,” or elder.  I am, in that sense, exercising the leadership and teaching role of an elder, and if it seems odd to me to be an “elder” at the age of 35 (and often ministering to many people a generation or two older than me), at least I can tell myself that I’ve been well educated for the role, and that I’m now older than Jesus was when he died!  I tend to describe myself as an Anglican priest, partly because I don’t look like people’s stereotypical image of a priest, and thus it leads to questions and conversation; and partly because it is a precise term that tells people who know about these things that, for example, I can hear confessions or administer the last rites (unlike an Anglican deacon or lay minister).

One thing which seems to have happened organically as women have moved into ordained ministry is that, just as some of my male colleagues are called “Father,” that respect has been transferred to women in ministry as “Mother.”  I don’t particularly like this; it makes me sound like a nun (misunderstanding again; and people often assume I’m a nun anyway, but I certainly am not)!  Besides, I think it just tends to lead to people projecting their mother issues onto me (more than they would already).  But my biggest objection to “Mother” is actually that I object to “Father.”  Did Jesus not say, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father; the one in heaven”?  It’s a pretty simple principle, isn’t it?  There is a problem here about gender equality, though; because the use of Father is so entrenched, if a woman refuses to use Mother, it can make her seem less than her male colleagues.  So from some people who genuinely mean it as a respectful courtesy I grin and bear it.

Formally (for purposes of addressing mail and so forth), my title is Reverend.  Generally speaking, this is the title I prefer if you’re going to use one, and I encourage small children to call me “Rev” rather than “Mother” when their parents are teaching them to be polite.  Of course, Australian society is fairly relaxed about titles in general, so I tend to tell adults they don’t need to call me Reverend, unless they’re telemarketers.  But it does bother me when forms and computer systems give me the options of Mrs, Ms, and Miss, but not Revd, (or indeed Dr. or other titles).  Come on, it’s the year 2015; you think women don’t do anything to earn other options?  Is a little flexibility really so hard?

Ahem.  I digress.

One option many of my colleagues use is to call themselves a “minister.”  I tend to shy away from this, partly because I believe we are all supposed to minister to one another in the body of Christ, and so we should all be “ministers.”  And also partly because it’s a very imprecise term; a “minister” could be a lay person with a specialist ministry (eg. with children), or a lay person working as a chaplain or in a limited pastoral capacity in a parish, or a deacon, or a priest, or a bishop… it doesn’t tell you anything about what my role is.

Another option – not traditionally one used much by Anglicans, but it is becoming more common as the influence of American mega-churches grows – is “pastor” (and the associated use of terms like “senior pastor,” “associate pastor,” etc).  I don’t use this at all; it’s a title used for  members of the clergy in the Baptist or Lutheran denominations (and probably some others), so again, I think it would cause confusion to use it.  And while being “pastoral” is part of what I do, and in this I follow the example of Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep, it seems to me to really reflect only one aspect of the role.  And I react badly to uncritical borrowing from outside our tradition; what is wrong with Anglican titles, that we should need to ignore them in favour of whatever ecclesial phenomenon is flavour of the month?

Those are probably the main options out there.  Just before I finish, though, a note on the word “curate.”  I am, technically speaking, the assistant curate in the parish, but in common use that gets shortened to “curate.”  Technically, the “curate” is a person who has responsibility for the care or “cure of souls” of a parish, and so it properly refers to the priest in charge.  However, he or she is (in this diocese) generally called the “vicar,” and so the assistant curate is known as the curate.  Historically, it might have been possible to be an “assistant curate” for a long time – even perhaps one’s whole career in ministry – but today, it is understood to be a training role, generally undertaken for the first four years or so out of college.  After that one would generally be recognised as an “associate priest,” recognising the seniority of experience.  (Confused?  So are we).  Anyway, while that is my position and what I put at the bottom of emails and so forth, I don’t generally introduce myself as the curate, or even the assistant curate, because I find that outside church circles it’s unfamiliar and alienating; I tend to introduce myself as the “assistant priest,” which I find people do understand.

Look, here’s the thing.  It’s not straightforward, this business of titles.  And we find ourselves in difficulty translating what have been norms of address to men over to women, where the social baggage is very different.  And it takes time to work out what works for each person, with their personality and approach to leadership style, and theology of ministry, and all that stuff.  Just please, don’t call me Reverend Mother.  I’m not obedient enough for that!

 

In the body

This is the text of a sermon the third Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is 2 Corinthians 5:6-10.

I wonder how many of you feel at home in your own skin?

Our bodies can be an endless source of angst for us; from bad hair days or extra weight and stretch marks to chronic pain, struggles with mobility or poorly regulated internal functions, our bodies can leave us debilitated, frustrated and alienated.

It can be easy, then, to hear the words from our epistle reading this morning, “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” and hear them as a promise that our bodies, with all of their frailties and vulnerabilities, won’t encumber us forever.

But this passage is part of a much larger section of Paul’s letter which is, frankly, confusing. Paul seems to contradict things he’s said elsewhere and even to be unclear in what he’s saying within this letter. In general, Paul’s vision of the hereafter for human beings is a bodily form of existence; that at the resurrection we will each receive a permanent, incorruptible body in which to live out eternal life. For Paul, fullness of life was unthinkable without a body.

So what is he saying in this passage, about being away from the body and at home with the Lord?

It seems likely (the commentators tell me) that Paul is quoting, and then responding to, arguments which have been put forward to him by the Corinthians, and that would account for the seemingly contradictory lines of his train of thought. So this line, about being at home in the body and away from the Lord, is likely not Paul’s words at all, but those of the members at Corinth with whose ideas he is taking issue.

It seems that some of the believers at Corinth (who considered themselves “spiritual”) had taken their views of the body from Pagan Greek philosophers: the body is there to be administered, to be resisted, so that the mind should not be subservient to the body, but the body should be trained to pursue the goals of the mind. Thus they had a sense of identity in which their fundamental self was the mind, which just happened to be trapped within a recalcitrant body for the time being.

In contrast, Paul reasserts a more Jewish (and Biblical) view of the person; the issue is not one of body versus mind, but one of the whole person, body and soul, standing together before the God who would judge the “heart” – a sense of self which includes aspects of body and mind. In this view, true peace would come to a person not when the soul slipped off the alien clay of the body, but when resistance to its maker had finally melted away within the heart. (So the Hebrew Scriptures resound with promises like, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”)

Therefore, Paul argues, being in the body is not, in and of itself, what determines whether we are close to or away from the Lord; since our existence is always in the body, and what changes is, if you like, the mode of our bodiliness. What we should be focusing on, Paul says, is making it our aim to please the Lord.

So where does that leave us, as we try to work through our own attitudes to our bodies?

Elsewhere, Paul reminds his hearers that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, belonging to the Lord, totally infused with the presence of God. (So much so that Ignatius of Antioch, writing perhaps 50 or so years after this letter, instructed his flock that all marriages were to be arranged by the bishop with holiness in mind; a situation I suspect we would find intolerable today!)

But this idea of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit is one I personally find very encouraging. A couple of times I’ve been through bouts of debilitating depression; and one of the many difficult things about that for me was that it emptied my regular prayer life of any sense of meaning or connection with God. What I did find, though, was that in those times when I wasn’t able to put any sense of myself into words, my most honest prayers could be as simple as the gesture of lighting a candle; or of sitting in the presence of God and allowing myself to cry. Those were prayers of the body much more than of the mind, but they gave me some way to reach out beyond my own limitations.

In a different way, the truth of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit highlights for me the importance of the work we’re doing in Light Up!* That we can provide a space where people can explore and learn what it might mean to pray and to relate to God through movement, through dance, through creativity, rather than simply through words. It’s a way of affirming that relating to God in and through our bodies is real prayer, not inferior to doing so with our minds and in words. (Although perhaps we see the most vibrant fusion of both when we sing. Then our prayer reverberates through the singing body, music and words together, involving the whole person in their response to God).

Now, everyone will have his or her own comfort zone. The issue is not one of trying to force something unnatural, and I hardly expect that everyone’s going to want to take up liturgical dance. But it is forgetting or denying the body which can be dangerous and detrimental, leading to a disintegrated sense of self which impacts on our general well being and yes, even our prayers. Even very small things like paying attention to notice the way your body holds tension, fear or hope when praying can give us important sign posts in our relationships with God.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to make it their aim to please the Lord, not to get tangled up in philosophical concerns about the body. I would suggest that taking a healthy view of the body, and treating it with honour and care even while recognizing that it is provisional, is an important part of that seeking to please the Lord. It allows us to recognise that our bodies are an integral part of our identity, and ultimately the only instrument of worship we have; and encourages us to find the ways in which we can each worship best with integrity, whatever those are for each of us.

 

 

*Light Up! is a worship service designed for children with autism and related challenges, and which focusses on worship in modes other than verbal.

Clergy husband

So, my husband has taken to blogging.  Or, more precisely, to his other blogs, he has added a new blog on the experience of being married to me, and thus (in a way) to my job; he is a “clergy husband.”

I think it’s an important thing; he’s absolutely right when he identifies the social and cultural isolation of men who are married to women in ministry.  And men articulating and sharing their experiences can only be a good thing in breaking that down.

Now, I wouldn’t express everything in quite the way he has (I have a particular disapproval of being called a “priestess,” even in jest), but I invite you to head on over, take a look and see what you think.  Join the discussion if it interests you.  Help make this a broader discussion, which the church badly needs to have!

 

A God of relationship

This is the text of a sermon for Trinity Sunday, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 6:1-8.

Last year the vicar was criticised on Facebook for letting me (or should I say making me?) preach on Trinity Sunday, because some people felt it was a “wasted opportunity” for a mere curate to preach on such an important topic. I shall do my best to make sure that this morning’s sermon exceeds their expectations and is not a wasted opportunity.

But it is a problem, this question of the Trinity. In holding on to the idea, we are alienated from the faiths which are otherwise closest to our own, we grapple over whether to accept some church groups as properly Christian, and we remember a history of long and bitter struggle – even martyrdom – over what can seem like a very abstract idea. It’s hardly surprising that teachers in the church can struggle to explain why it’s been such a central issue.

There’s a temptation, I think, when confronted with the idea of the Trinity – especially if, like me, you don’t find it an easy thing to get your head around – a temptation to decide that what we think about the Trinity doesn’t really matter. But I think it does, and I want to focus on just one aspect of that this morning.

If you think of God as being not a Trinity, but One person, there is one thing that that God does not have which the Trinity does; and that is relationship as part of God’s very nature and eternal reality. A God which is not a Trinity must create others – the physical world, angels, human beings – with whom to experience that relationship, and those relationships are always profoundly unequal; the worshippers and the worshipped. I think this morning’s reading from Isaiah conveyed the depth of that gulf beautifully.

In contrast, if we believe in a God who is a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all uncreated, each eternal – we believe in a God who is intrinsically and eternally in God’s very nature a relational God. In the relationships within the Trinity – says the Creed of Athanasius – “none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another.” But these three are united in purpose and perfectly cooperative in action, each contributing their part in submission to their shared dream for creation.

And here’s the important bit about that, for us in our everyday lives. If this is how God relates within Godself, then this is the model for ideal human relationships. Within the home, within society, and within the church, we are given a model for relating to one another in which position and hierarchy are suspect; in which power is relativized, and in which the importance of shared vision, shared purpose, and mutuality in taking up the work involved are set forth as the highest possible example, and we are shown our opportunity to reflect and even participate in the divine glory.

This way of relating to one another is important because people are important. The Trinity – like the home, like society, like the church – is comprised of persons in relationship. True healthy, Godly relationship will build one another up, creating unity which celebrates our diversity, never impoverishing us all by marginalising or reducing to silence or stillness people who are an integral part of who we are.

Here we have a stark judgement of our continuous failings; because in the light of the Trinity, we have no excuse for any domination of one human being by another, or of one group of human beings by another. No excuse for war; no excuse for economic exploitation; no excuse for leadership structures which silence the voices of the powerless; no excuse for patriarchy; no excuse for racism; no excuse.

In particular, an understanding of the Trinity as a perfect relationship of equals undermines the patriarchal view of marriage put out by some Christians as reflecting eternal submission of the Son to the Father. If Jesus’ submission was not eternally of his nature, but an outworking of the cooperation of all the persons of the Trinity to achieve their will for creation, then we cannot use belief in the Trinity to argue for wifely submission, but have to acknowledge that the ideal set before us is one of unity, cooperation and mutuality.

I’m not saying that there will never be leadership and authority exercised by some, that’s a necessary part of our human relationships; but it’s about how that is exercised, with reciprocity, consensus and concord, in a spirit of mutuality and service.

This understanding of God also calls into judgement our individualism and our consumerism; our belief that fundamentally, we stand alone in this life, and our tendency to relate to one another for what we can get out of it, rather than who we can be to, for and with one another.   How we relate to one another shows clearly how deeply we have been shaped by the worship of a God of perfect relationship. This vision of God as Trinity challenges directly each of us when we, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuates division within ourselves, and between ourselves and others. We all have our share in the making and the perpetuating of these wounds. There is a need for the healing of these rifts; a healing which for us, lies in our Lord and God whose inner life of loving relationship overflows into and renews the life of the church.

All of us are here today because something about God has been attractive to us. The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us. Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy. God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

The Lord be with you.

10,000 views

Today, I note that I have had a total of 10,000 views of my blog.  For a blog I started for my own interest, and haven’t really promoted, that seems a fair number over the last couple of years.

I can see where some of those viewers have come from, in terms of other places on the web, but it seemed like a good time to pause and ask some questions about you, my readers.

If you’re visiting my blog, how have you found it?  What interests you about it?

What would you like to read more of?  And what do you dislike about what you’ve read?

If there’s anything about this blog that’s disappointed me it’s that relatively few of the posts attract much comment, so I’d be really grateful to hear from you all.