Tag Archives: religion

silence and selfhood

By the end of the first week of classes, I am in tears. Half of my conversations make it obvious that I am a woman in a man’s world, or at least a man’s program. The other half of my conversations make it clear that I am no longer fully a student; my peers expect me to be something more—the opinion of women everywhere, the voice of a movement, at once leader and sacrificial lamb. In my last class of the week, the professor is discussing issues of women’s initiative and agency. It is exactly what I have been attempting to bring out of the mostly-silent women of my cohort, the parts of myself I have been expending on the students’ behalf. I am exhausted.

I share this with the professor after class; she understands completely, even better than I do. “It’s very bad to be exhausted at the beginning,” she states. I nod and unsuccessfully try to keep even more tears from falling. “I wonder,” she begins, slowly, with care, “if the strength that is in you could be for you.” Earlier, I would have claimed that others needed my strength on their behalf more than I needed it for myself, but it’s too obvious that that is no longer true, if it ever was. When she suggests that I practice silence, something in me feels the unfamiliar pull of hope. From my first weeks in this building I had been deemed The Woman Who Speaks (or, more often spoken, The Girl Who Talks). Silence feels like a good practice, one in which I could learn other ways to be engaged with the material, where I could find space within myself for peace, where I could demand others to allow me the silence they maintain, all while inviting those unheard voices to fill the space I leave open.

Silence is capacious. In silence, there is room for me. In silence, room is made for others. I hope that silence would also allow space for God to encounter me. I know myself to be too tired to chase after God. Still, I could make room for the Divine to come in, I could be watchful for moments to welcome such a Being.

I adopt the practice of silence in every class, and often outside of it as well. Even in moments when I want to speak, I allow my silence to fill the room. I notice my breathing. In extended silences, lying in bed at night, or observing the descent of rain while the heat of my morning tea passes into my palms, I put tiny breath prayers with my pneuma, my breath, my spirit. Most often, my prayer is the characters of the Ineffable Name: inhale yod, exhale he, inhale vav, exhale he. In moments of frustration, I use another Hebrew word associated with breath, and more commonly linked with meaninglessness, the soon-vanishing vapor of expelled ether, hebel. Both Hebrew words are scripted over my rib cage, and I watch them rise and fall through the shower steam as I contemplate God within this broken body.  I focus on sensation, I practice mindfulness. I feel cool air welcomed into my body, warmed, allowed to leave as space is made for another benevolent breath. When I eat, I try to really taste. As I fold laundry, I touch the texture of each garment. I knit and notice the delicate softness of the wool as I tangle it into a big and beautiful knot.

Each Sunday evening I drag myself to my version of church: the yoga studio. It is a safe space, an hour and a half in which no one expects me to speak brilliantly, no one looks to me for wisdom nor guidance. Unlike traditional churches, no one asks me to volunteer, host, lead, or give of myself—as though self is something with which I can part, a sweater to shrug off. One week my thoughts drift away during shavasana, as they are wont to do, as my mind begins to realize how beautiful this corpse pose is, how stunning that I, who can barely relax my muscles around those with whom I am intimately involved, choose to let go of all tension and awareness while surrounded by strangers. I am vulnerable, entirely exposed, and my eyes are shut. Despite my years of martial arts training, if anyone wanted to kill me right now, they could. I am thinking this, without anxiety, when I feel the warm palms and thin fingers of my instructor encapsulate my ankles. My inhale catches in my throat and ocean drops roll down my temple and God is with us, between us, in us. The same vulnerability that could lead to my death also opened me up to such warm, unexpected, and tender kindness. I am undone.

In school, silence continues. Nearly halfway through the term, people start wondering about it. One student approaches me while I am working at the front desk and says, “I’ve been missing your voice in Theology,” where we had been discussing feminist theologies. I choose my words carefully to convey appreciation that I was noticed, but underneath I feel the tug of the rope around my neck, students leading me to slaughter. The next Theology class, the conversation turns towards feminism once again. A couple students talk about how to find space for women to speak, the professor rightly points out that creating space can’t just be something that happens out in other places, it needs to start in this classroom, between each of us. “How can we be with one another, make space and find space?” We’re about to go on break, the conversation will end here—as it always does, as if asking the question is enough. I tentatively start raising my hand, put it back down, start putting it up again, lower. The professor sees me and starts unpinning her own microphone in urgency to make room for me to speak; she, too, has been both aware and supportive of my silence.

When I take the microphone it feels heavy and suddenly unfamiliar. “I haven’t spoken yet in this class,” I say, and realize the semester is half over. My pulse races, my breath quickens. This is unlike me; I’m familiar with the amplification of my voice in this room. “I hope that those of you who are often silent feel my silence as an invitation,” I look around to some of those women’s faces; their eyes are in their laps. I persevere, “I hope you feel that space is being made for you. And those of you who often talk, who speak every thought you have,” I’m very selectively making eye contact with certain students, “I hope you hear my silence as an invitation to join me in making space.” I shakily turn off the mic, we go on break. The next week is a jumble of processing, outspoken men thanking me for confronting them, quiet women avoiding me and their boyfriends explaining that they feel like I’m forcing them to speak, others just thanking me for explaining—my silence had been tangible and unknown.

I’m processing, too, but it’s tiring and trying and needs to stop. It’s early and will probably rain any minute, but I lace up, throw on a hoodie, run along the canal. The trees shine against the layered grays of the sky, branches sway in front of the stable lines of the bridge. The occasional biker whirs by, the whisper of leaves cuddling against one another, occasionally huddling tightly enough to offer glimpses of the water. It’s quiet. I run until my breath overwhelms my aural space and the sensation in my lungs overtakes all. The leaves are getting brighter and invite me farther down the path.

Suddenly the trees open up and there is a clearing leading to the water. I turn, leave the trail, allow my pace to slow as I approach the waves. I stretch the tightness out of my hamstrings and watch the inky blue shallows carry leaves as though they’re golden treasures, unexpectedly inherited and loosely held. I don’t know where they’ll be carried, but they’re here right now, and they’re beautiful. The water falls towards its unknown destination; it does not care how many gold pieces join it. A half dozen ducks glide by, or appear to. I know they’re not really gliding; under the calm surface, they’re paddling like mad, just like the rest of us. I decide I’d rather be the water than the ducks, held by the firm steadiness of the rock riverbed, with effortless and natural direction. I wonder if a duck can choose to stop paddling, allow the water to carry it, and survive.

The images stay with me for days. When I try to explain to my husband the warm darkness of the water, the brilliance of the leaves, the rocks that hold the stream and give it direction without ever moving—I can’t find sufficient words. I choke up. He understands, I think, or at least he surrounds me with his arms, and that’s enough.

Perceptions of me are changing. Previously, my struggle, tears, sadnesses had been viewed with a kind of courageous vulnerability. One woman told me, that first semester, that she wanted to sit at my table to see when I cry, because that would signal to her that she should be feeling more than she is. When even my emotions, my falling-apart-ness, were viewed as leadership, I was always on display. When I pointed out that such pedestals are tall and shaky and easy to fall off, people thought that even the falling was beautiful and taught them about themselves, so I was never allowed to fully crash off the pedestal. When I cried that it’s lonely on a pedestal, people said they were there for me, but it was clear that they were there to keep me on the pedestal. Now, students are finally starting to see that my struggle is real and the cost is deep. They still come to me with problems and questions, but more quietly. Most no longer approach me as a rockstar sage, but come to me as a person. They ask how I’m doing, too.

Back in the large classroom for Theology, and the professor is teaching on sin. She summarizes a feminist understanding in which sin for women is not pride, but is essentially a lack, underdevelopment, or negation of self, a dependence on others for self-definition, a deficiency of a center. Not owning one’s self and agency can be an affront to God. And such a shortfall often manifests in service and silence. I recognize this sin in many of my classmates. Is this my silence, too? No: my silence is on the far side of self-hood, a practice in centering and developing my self in order to find my place within community. I recognize that this is not a sinful way of being, it is a spiritual and God-directed practice.

Still, it’s clear that soon I will need to continue to move forward, to allow the waterway to carry me beyond this clearing. Practices and prayers may fit for a time, but they should lead us to a new place, a new way of being. Prayers are a practice of becoming. We each must be ever-moving towards the self we were created to be, the forgotten person we already are.

This paper was written in Fall 2012 for Pat Loughery’s class “Prayer, Practice & Presence.” Students were asked to discuss their spiritual growth and process through the term. It has taken me a year to publish this because I still cry whenever I try to edit it.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Sun Salutation

For whatever reason, God has felt distant. I’m from West Michigan, where it’s not unheard of to go multiple weeks without a glimpse of sun. God feels like that lately: I know she must be there, but there have been too many dreary days since I’ve experienced warmth on my skin, since I’ve seen a ray of sunhope to spark serotonin-certainty in my cerebrum.

In an effort to clear the clouds and re-establish contact, I purchased a book of common prayer. The first few days I read from it regularly—morning, midday, and evening—telling myself that even though I didn’t feel anything beyond the words, I would if I could just stick with it. Soon it became a twice-a-day habit, then down to one. At that point, it seemed to have proven itself unhelpful to me, and I stopped attempting to force it.

It was then that I looked closely at those obscuring clouds blocking me from my Creator that I realized they weren’t made of vapor, at least not any less figuratively so than anything else under the sun. Their darkness is a locust swarm of ink smudges, wasp words buzzing, moths teeming toward the light. The mass is the accumulation of words around God, years of it from the Christian publishing industry, the words of many pastors, centuries of liturgies, manuscripts dating back millennia. The prayer book is just my most recent layer, each page creating moth-flies flocking toward the light. I needed to move beyond the words.

My yoga mat was waiting for me in the corner of my closet. I had tried to practice on my own since moving to Seattle, but never felt revitalized, couldn’t keep committed. There’s something to be said for a faith community, for a leader in liturgy. I’ve known for the last year that I needed to find a studio of good people with whom I could practice, but kept putting it off. Knowing this paper was due soon, I used it as an excuse to commit the time and money to reinvigorating my spiritual practice. Sunday night I arrived at a studio to find the temple hidden on my yoga mat, held within my body.

I didn’t know a single person in the studio, yet—as is often the case with yoga classes—there was an immediate sense of unity. In the first few moments, we align our breathing. I think of the tetragrammaton tattooed on my ribs and recite the Sh’ma in my head: Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad. The still-scabbed four-character name of God was inked the week prior, put on my skin as a reminder that every breath and sigh is an utterance of the name of God. As I use my inhales to lengthen my spine and exhales to bend deeper, it feels true.

As with other spiritual practices, the community sustained me. There are times when I, on my own, wouldn’t have held a pose so long, would have allowed the weakness in my thighs and biceps to win. But I look around at the others in their practice, spine-arches on a ceiling, from my inverted perspective, and I persevere. We breath together. I borrow their energy; I lend them mine. We’re all in this together, I think. We all suffer. Keep going.

We end our practice as dusk is deepening and the golden hour makes the room shine warmly.  Together, we inhale, and together, we exhale an ‘om’. It was powerful – a sound so large, warm, and round that it echoed not only through my vocal chords but my lungs, my body, my very being. My deep contralto grounded the higher notes, an interweaving between us that brought out resonances that were more than the sum of the parts. I choked on a sob, the ‘om’ not the same without me but going on nonetheless. My participation isn’t vital, but it is wanted. And when I can’t participate, the community sustains me. I have never attended a church as openly and calmly supportive.

I don’t think that my spiritual dry spell is over; I’m not naive enough to believe that one yoga class is enough to both clear away the swarm and destroy the nests. I think back to the time period of my conversion: it began with weekly yoga classes, grew to include running, and as I shaped my life around formative practices it exploded to include church service, krav maga, more regular yoga, a young adults group, strength training, becoming church leadership… . No, the problem isn’t solved, and I can’t re-trace the journey that’s behind me. Still, this feels like a move in the right direction, a place to be supported, sustained, and to listen for what God is calling me to next.

This piece was originally written for course called Prayer, Presence, & Practice, taught by Pat Loughery. Students were asked to reflect on their current spiritual practices as they are.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

September 11 Eucharist

In discussing what we could possibly say on this September Eleventh, the other pastors and I talked about the ways that the events of that September Eleventh twelve years ago  threw us into chaos, the ways we didn’t know how to respond as individuals and as a country, the ways in which our narratives failed us.

Our experience is not unlike, after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples were traveling on a road, lost in their despair. Nothing had prepared them for the violent and humiliating death of their teacher. In times of great stress and trauma and pain, we lose the ability to make sense, reason fails us, we don’t know how to narrate.

But there’s another way to be. From a distance, Mary stands pondering the crucifixion. She does not wail, does not protest. Scripture tells us she stood there. Ronald Rolheiser notes that for a Hebrew, to stand is a position of strength. Standing, Mary ponders, but not with the intellect; she ponders in the biblical sense, which means to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind.

And that’s what Mary does. She holds, carries, and transforms the tension so as not to give it back hurt for hurt, anger for anger, an eye for an eye. Sometimes, in doing the work of holding, carrying, and transforming, there is nothing to say. All we can do is stand, in silent strength, waiting until the work of transforming means we can speak and act in ways full of grace and peace.

We invite you to witness and ponder–not ponder with the intellect, but ponder as Mary did on the hill, ponder by holding events and images in the heart–without the cohesive narrative, without resolution. We invite you to hold, to carry, to transform, amidst all the brokenness and chaos. We invite you to notice where God is present in the broken bread, that the Divine is present and inhabits even the brokenness of creation.

Where is God present in your life?

This is what I read in leading The Seattle School community in Eucharist today.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

review of “our mother st paul”

In Our Mother Saint Paul, Beverly Roberts Gaventa explores the metaphors of Paul’s oft-neglected maternal imagery and examines his letters within an apocalyptic context. In Part 1, maternal imagery is examined to show that Paul is “an authority who does not conform to standard norms of authority.” Part 2 explores the Pauline letters with questions of apocalyptic theology at the forefront.

Gaventa recognizes that maternal images are complex metaphorical movements that are too often dismissed. Paternal imagery is of one-time begetting and is not the same category as maternal imagery, which reflects an on-going nurturing relationship. As such, it describes the vocation of the apostolic office and is associated with apocalyptic contexts. As aids in explaining the maternal imagery, Gaventa utilizes the history of traditions; the sociocultural context in which the letters were written, especially gender construction within the Greco-Roman world; and ‘metaphor theory’, which Gaventa explains as the use of metaphor as “an invitation to intimacy” and to change our minds.

Specifically, Gaventa is interested in the cohesion of Paul’s use of familial and kinship metaphors, noting that “metaphors having to do with nurture are almost exclusively associated with mothers” and generative metaphors that “may structure large aspects of thought.” The imagery has implications for Paul’s understanding of both leadership and women’s roles.

The first four chapters address specific maternal images employed in Paul’s letters, beginning with that of apostles as infants and nurses (1 Thessalonians 2:7), a mixed metaphor Gaventa explains through the social context. With this image, Paul is struggling to identify two aspects of the apostolic role: childlike in that he does not seek benefit, and nurse-like in that he is responsible in tending his charges with care and affection. Such metaphors of family life establish believers as a family, which restructures society and reconceptualizes conventional roles. The apostolic task is not ordinary, and “one must employ categories that seem outrageous.”

Next, Gaventa addresses the image of Paul in labor with the Galatians in his womb and the object of labor being Christ (Galatians 4:19). The metaphor may seem confused, but Gaventa shows it to be intentional. Through examining the Greek, Gaventa understands the verse to be about the apostolic vocation’s association with the anguish of the coming apocalyptic era, and the goal of anguish is that Christ be formed within communities. Paul’s work as an apostle occurs within apocalyptic framework that looks toward the incorporation of the entire cosmos into Christ. This is not about the action of Paul to another individual, but the action of God toward humanity.

The third image examined is Paul as nurse supplying milk to ‘infant’ believers not ready for solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). The metaphor here reinforces familial language within the community of believers while also undermining culturally approved masculine roles. Whereas other commentators focus on paternal imagery later in the passage and even try to link this image with it, a nursing mother cannot be replaced with a father. She examines the Greco-Roman cultural understanding of sexuality—in which women were understood to be inverted males, femininity was a threat to masculinity, and strict norms for ‘real men’ were followed—to conclude that Paul “effectively concedes the culturally predisposed battle for his masculinity” and moves to the margins of acceptability. Gaventa compares Paul’s loss of status to his later images as a planter of someone else’s field, a servant of someone else’s builder, and also to “the crucified Jesus, who is no more a ‘real man’ by the world’s standards than is a nursing Paul.”

The final piece of maternal imagery addressed is of creation itself in labor (Romans 8:22). Gaventa argues that “all creation” includes humanity, even non-Jew and non-Christian. The labor of creation births nothing, but rather waits for God’s action. Meanwhile, creation continues to be sold into slavery, although the resurrection means that the powers, ultimately, will not prevail. What Paul affirms is the future redemption of creation despite the fact that “anti-God powers” of Sin and Death continue to separate humanity from God.

Chapter Five transitions from specific metaphors into the overall theology of Paul. Questions of permission and prohibition are not Paul’s priority of vocation. Gaventa focuses on Galatians in order to see what might be gleaned from a letter that is decidedly male in its issues, characters, and decision-making. When the question is no longer primarily about Paul’s understanding of women, the letter is liberated to speak to theological concerns that affect all humanity. The reader is free to hear the ways in which the gospel’s arrival obliterates law, systems that measure achievements, and identity constructions that separate rather than connect, such as culture, religion, socioeconomic status, and gender.

In Part Two, Gaventa places the maternal metaphors into the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s theology. Through examining, primarily, Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, she reveals Paul’s theology to emphasize (a) the presence of the ongoing apocalypse that invades all realms of life and (b) the gospel that God revealed victory in the ongoing struggle between good and evil through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Galatians 1 through 4, Paul focuses on the singularity of the gospel and on the relationship of believers to the gospel. He sees Galatians as seeking to please outsiders in the same way he had done previously, and instructs that they must not submit to the elements of the world. What rules the text is the conviction “there is only one gospel and that it puts an end to all prior commitments, conventions, and value systems. [Tradition, law, social barriers, and feast days] are alike insofar as they threaten to undermine the exclusive claim of the gospel.” Paul uses his own experience as an example of the gospel’s work and power, using his life to point to something beyond himself. Although the presenting problem of circumcision in Galatians 3 and 4 is a question concerning the law, Gaventa looks past the symptom to the central theological issue of the identity and accomplishments of Jesus Christ. “What the Galatians seek in the law is the certainty that they have a firm place in the church of God and that they know what God requires of them. It is precisely this certainty, and every other form of certainty, that Paul rejects with his claim about the exclusivity and singularity of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s Christology puts the crucifixion at the focus, through which humanity is freed not only from legal practices but from all identifications, whether within law or outside it. The new creation brought about by the crucifixion allows for no augmentation by the law nor any other power or loyalty.

The final chapters of Our Mother Saint Paul investigate Paul’s letter to the Romans to understand the cosmic battle between God and the anti-God powers as well as the community of believers. Gaventa examines the phrase “God handed them over” with the understanding that God surrendered humanity to the anti-God powers, specifically to uncleanness/impurity, dishonorable passions, and deformed mind. In Paul’s understanding, these are not human characteristics but powers; humans always live in the grasp of some power. Having already handed over humanity, the crucifixion is the point at which God hands over his own Son, which is not the victory of the powers but their unmasking and sure defeat.

Paul’s letter to the Romans emphasizes that the battle against evil is not simply a list of transgressions to condemn or avoid, it is God’s own enemy. Sin is not confined to behavior but is a power that entered the world, became an enslaving force, unleashed its partner Death, and corrupts even God’s law. As God once handed humanity over to Sin, he has handed over Jesus for its defeat. Baptism means the individual is dead to Sin, although capable of transgression (lowercase sin). On a cosmic level Sin is no longer the enslaving power; grace holds dominion. Ultimately, God will destroy evil on behalf of humanity.

Gaventa also considers Romans to see what it might suggest about community. She observes that Paul invokes a common memory of what has happened in the gospel with the hope that a shared interpretation will shape the future and unity of the community. The community’s behavior is characterized by an upbuilding of others within the community and reaching out to the outsider. Community boundaries are wide and yet distinguish a “line between those who are living and those who remain in the power of Death.” However, Paul does not stigmatize outsiders; he is caringly concerned for them.

Gaventa shows Romans to be a display of Paul’s theologizing. His theology is not a starting point but an end product that is fluid in light of changing events. God, for Paul, is ‘on the loose’ and uncontainable. The demands of such an all-encompassing God affect every area of human life and creation itself. Paul maintains that God is faithful, but faithfulness does not imply predictability. What may look like rejection to Israel is not unfaithfulness but is faithfulness to all creation, as God works to transform all. Paul’s fluid understanding allows room for a God who unexpectedly surpasses his promises.

Reviewers have much to praise in Gaventa’s work. McNeel writes that Gaventa shows maternal images to be “an essential part of Paul’s theologizing, both about apostolic ministry and about the cosmic battle going on between God and the anti-God forces of the universe.” The common critique is the fragmented argument of the work as a whole, especially between the two parts. Ascough relates that in early chapters the reader is left “wondering how the term ‘apocalyptic’ is being used.” The chapters on apocalyptic theology, McNeel notes, apparently “were not composed with maternal imagery in mind.”

While I agree that the book reads as two distinct works, her war-faring language is more problematic for me. Gaventa employs war imagery to describe conflict between powers. She states that “God wages war”, and that believers are God’s weapons. However, she also describes a God who “delivered up humanity”; the weapons (humanity) have been handed over. I protest: This God does not battle, he surrenders and dies on a cross. This God does not crush opponents, but becomes vulnerable to them. Feminists recognize the way language shapes cultural structures, and war-faring language is no exception. By employing primarily war imagery in theology and depicting a battle-ready God, Gaventa perpetuates philosophies of righteous war and systems of violence.

This review written for Feminist Hermeneutics with Jo-Ann Badley; all students were asked to write a review of this text.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

god/body map

SELF

I was raised to be a good soul trapped in an inconsequential body.

The soul was what mattered. It lived on forever, it was judged by a white guy up in the sky, it journeyed to some far-away paradise after death.

The body was merely an imprisonment. “This life is only to determine where you’ll spend eternity,” my father was fond of stating with certainty. After the decision was made, all that’s left is to wait for the body’s expiration date, and perhaps help move that date closer. Breakfast in my house was a giant class of diet Coke and a chocolate-iced doughnut.

“If it tastes good, it’s bad for you,” another favorite phrase from my parents. I remember the first time I bit into a fresh pear, handed to me by a friend’s mother. I was overwhelmed with the sweetness, surprised by the juice and the contrast of soft flesh within tough skin. A few years later, when I tried to lose weight, I ate toast, thinking the bland taste meant it was good for me. All the things my body and taste buds craved—crisp broccoli, fresh berries, raw almonds—had been deemed ‘bad for me’ by my parents’ rule.

It was difficult to reach down to tie my shoes.

In college, my violin instructor banned dairy from my diet and demanded protein (a foreign word I had to research) at each meal. Post-college I began a weekly yoga practiced and, for what felt like the first time, felt my body.

As my body taught me about my self,

As my body changed and my self along with it,

As I changed and the body reflected the difference,

I had to rethink the way I understood my self.

Obviously, everything was so much more interconnected than I had been taught. When I began eating food designed by the Creator rather than the corporation, my relationship with the environment around me changed. As I began to taste food in its particularity instead of as a means to fullness, I also found each person to hold a particularity that had previously gone unnoticed. As my soul moved into my body, I stopped barricading myself so strongly within my intellect. I allowed myself to feel, even when feeling hurt. I stopped being a soul and a body. I became one person.

Which is not to deny my complexity. I don’t think of myself as nothing more than an accumulation of cells. I am a body, but when I slice open my arm there is no confusion that it’s my intelligence seeping out. When I confer within myself, there’s no confusion at hearing multiple voices. I am in relationship with myself. Understanding myself as an integrated unity opened up more freedom within me to be in such a relationship. There are no clearly-defined borders of mind, body, soul; there is only relationships, on-going, ever-building in complexity, differentiating, integrating, including, transcending.

Don’t be misled by my frame. I am a big self.

——————————————————-

THE DIVINE. DIV(I)N(THRE)E.

I’m wary of using the word ‘God’. No one means the same thing by it. It’s often used (and capitalized) as though it’s a name, proper noun. It’s not. It’s a description, just as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Divine,’ or ‘Be-ing’, is. That said, I will use the word, but please, just as I do not want you to put your preconceived stereotypes about ‘white’, ‘women’, or ‘Michigander’ onto me, I do not want you to think you know the essence of this God Being.

Everything is included in God. Everything is transcended, surpassed, gone beyond by God. There is nothing that is not God. Just as your body includes organs such as your lungs, heart, and brain, you are more than the accumulation of your organs. You include all of them, but you also transcend all of them. God includes everything, but also transcends, and from that beyond-place, God calls creation to be more than it is, calls humanity to be more than we are. Why do we cringe to think of the way scripture was used to justify slavery but continue to use it to justify domestic violence, gender inequality, ethnocentrism and exceptionalism?

In some way, a first-century Jewish man embodied everything it was to be human while also embodying everything it is to be God. I do not pretend to understand this. What I do know is that this man prayed, and God responded. Which can be confusing. God responding to God’s own self?

Oh, whispers a warm internal voice, you know what that’s like.

That’s different, another I responds. We aren’t God. 

Well then what do you do with imago Dei? Chimes in that snobby theological intellectual that won’t go away, no matter how much the rest of us shun him.

On some level, I’m aware I might be making God into my own image, but I’m not without tradition in doing so, and the company isn’t terrible.

Or maybe it really is the other way around, and my inner relationality reflects something of God’s inner workings. Not that it helps; I still can’t claim any solid understanding of God nor of the way my inner self works.

So I put words to it as best I can with a giant shrug. We could be wrong, the voices agree.

——————————————————-

SELF AND DIVINITY

The best image I have to begin describing any of this is not an image at all. It was something that was barely understood to exist until just a few centuries ago: air.

We tell ourselves that air is all around us, it’s the thing in which we live. What we forget is that there are times the air believes humans to be the thing around it, that we are the thing in which it exists. Which is to say: we inhale.

I had a pastor who once explained that the reason the tetragrammaton—the four-letter Hebrew name for God that we lamely translate as Lord—is unsayable is that it’s actually unpronounceable. “They’re breathing sounds,” he says. He talks about pneuma meaning both breath and spirit. Another friend, also a pastor, likes to say that the answer to the question “Where is God?” is only an inhale and exhale away.

Inside me, that affirming voice resonates warmly. Breath and spirit are connected. God is in all people, even when they aren’t aware of it. Each inhale, the spirit is being lent to us, and with each exhale we return it to the creation. With breath, God is in everyone. And the animals, they breathe. Plants, too, in their way. All the green plants, all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it—holds a piece of God.

At times, God feels far away; I try to get close. I recite from prayer books, I force myself out of bed to church, I taste the bread dipped in the cup. This is all a chasing after the wind, only to eventually discover the wind is held in my own lungs.

I must take care of the spirit that is lent to me with each inhale. To do otherwise, to waste this fragile life breath by breath, is to take the LORD’s name in vain 28,000 times a day.

I have questions about how breathing works. Is my diaphragm pulling air in, or does the air enter thus move my diaphragm? Put theologically, it’s a question of who is initiating: am I inviting God in, or is God entering into me? The answer, as it often seems to be in God matters, might be: Yes.

But I could be wrong.

——————————————————-

SELF AND EVERYTHING ELSE

If God is in others, I must be kind to them. I must see them in their particularity. They carry a piece of God, and I can only have eyes to see if I forget God and any other notions I have of what lies behind the face in front of me.

Animals are included in God, too. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I do have the sense that we are are to take care of them. Genesis agrees with me: ruling over the creatures is God’s first commandment to humanity. I also have the sense that raising them on food they weren’t meant to eat, in group sizes they don’t naturally live in, for the purpose of slaughter and consumption, all does not fall under the category of ‘taking care’.

The rest of the environment, as well. God includes and transcends all. Nothing is an accident; everything is beloved. I share air, breath, and therefore spirit with the tree that blocks my view of the harbor. The tree is inside me: I have no more health to despise it than I do to despise my own breath.

Which brings us back to where we started, as seems to happen when discussing relationships that inter-connect in the dizzying trail of a celtic knot. It’s hard to remember, but my lungs, too, contain breath, hold spirit. I have a hard time remembering this, but I must remember, I must remember: I carry images of the divine.

In ragged breaths,

In tearful sobs,

In shallow panting,

the name of God.

Intentional inhales,

lungs are broad,

Mindful exhales,

the name of God.

This was written for Theology I in Fall 2012. Students were asked to consider the way they understand themselves in relationship to God and others.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

feminists, christians, corinthians

In USAmerica today, everyone is talking about sex. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that throughout history everyone has been talking about sex, and USAmerica is in the midst of the present manifestation of an ancient issue. Today, sexual behavior for women is often presented as a choice between two extremes: purity or promiscuity; prude or liberated. However, neither stance is helpful for a fully human life: firm answers applied to everybody lacks compassion and imagination, as Paul can help Christians understand.

Sex-positive feminists believe sex to be natural and beneficial. Sex between consenting adults is encouraged as sexual desire is understood as a natural part of human experience that should not be denied or repressed. Indeed, desire cannot be repressed without negative consequences on the individual; sexual repression and anything that promotes repression are treated as the primary enemies. This view of sex is often criticized as being irreverent, but that is an oversimplification. Many sex-positive individuals have a high view of sex and use language of intimate connection.

The sex-positive way of life can be problematic for women. If sex becomes a high priority, then a woman’s value can become tied up in her sexual accomplishment or ability to find a partner. Also problematic is when attention shifts from equal abilities and equal rights into a desire to prove that women can behave as men in ways men have been criticized, such as deception with regards to the intention of the relationship beyond sex or libertine “Don Juan” behavior. One woman notes that “the feminist sex-positive cultural attitude boiled down to … ‘I’m more sex-positive than you.’” For women who adopt this competitive mentality and find it unfulfilling, “the failure of this approach in their own lives became, in their minds, the failure of postmodern feminist philosophy as a whole.” In a reactionary move against the lifestyle, such women sometimes jump to the opposite extreme: chastity and submission in the name of Christianity.

Presently, the Christian stance on sexuality emphasizes abstinence, chastity, or purity outside of marriage. The primary enemies here are promiscuity and premarital sex. Tim Stafford speaks for many when he asserts that “Christians can tell young people when it is right to have sex for the first time: on the day you marry.” Stafford characterizes sex outside marriage as “a compulsive need,” an abuse of self and others, and depersonalized “biological stimulation.” Without debating the truth of such statements, it is enough to say that such language does not match many individuals’ felt experience of sex. Many find an outsider labeling consensual sex enjoyed by both partners as ‘abuse’ to be offensive, as is the notion that sex is depersonalized based only on the evidence of not having a marriage certificate.

The emphasis on virginity is problematic for, as Julia Duin emphasizes, “we only give away our purity once.” What is told to widows, those who come to Christianity later in life, and—perhaps most distressingly—rape victims? The downside of the purity narrative is one of damaged goods, defeat, and despair. Also problematic are the solutions to denying desire recommended to celibate Christians, which carry tones of avoidance and repression that set up bad habits for marriage. Julia Duin suggests Christians “find something to care about more than sex,” exercise, and “figure out what stimulates wrong desires and avoid that.” The language of avoidance simultaneously makes sex more desirable—the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ of morality—and creates problematic expectations for sex in marriage after a lifetime of denying desire to be felt. “Wrong desires” aren’t instantly renamed “right” when a marriage license is signed.

Helpful in mediating such extremes in the conversation are Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Whatever the problem the Corinthians brought to Paul, they justify it by saying they have the right to do anything. What’s notable is that Paul doesn’t disagree. As a community who lives post-resurrection, they know that sin has no ultimate power, and thus all things are lawful. It is on this point that much of Christian language around sex fails to convince, for by focusing on sin, the good news of the forgiveness of sins is denied. There is no question of lawfulness: because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Crucified, “all things are lawful.” It is on this same point that sex-positive feminists are correct: they have the right and the ability to do anything.

However, Paul adds some nuance to the argument by pointing out that not everything is beneficial and can become enslaving. He draws attention the large gap between what is permitted and what is best for living a life of wholeness. We are free to do anything, but that doesn’t mean we should; true freedom is the ability to go without whatever is craved. Again, many Christians have missed this nuance. The Driscolls dedicate an entire chapter of their recent book to addressing various sexual issues, answering if they are (a) lawful, (b) helpful, and (c) enslaving, as though the evaluation of three separate issues can lead to a clear answer of what is permissible.

But what Paul writes here is not a clear answer. He doesn’t respond to the Corinthians’ concern by explaining that it is unlawful, why it’s unhelpful, and how it’s enslaving. Instead, he opens up readers to a stance of evaluation and discernment. Creating a new law is not only unhelpful, it is detrimental to when it becomes a barrier to entering the church community. The difference between permissible and beneficial has been forgotten by many feminists as well, both sex-positive and anti-pornography. Paul reminds us all that what is beneficial for one person may be enslaving for another: a nightly glass of wine might mean heart health for one and an awakening of alcoholism for another. Paul’s response honors the fact that in the breadth of human experience, there are no tidy answers.

Paul’s openness to the complexity of human life highlights an underlying problem of both sides: they lead to either/or, black-or-white thinking. From the Christian side, a woman is either labeled pure or damaged; more crudely, virgin or whore. From the sexual liberation side, women are either free or oppressed, slut (used with a reclaimed positive sense) or prude. Neither lens allows for a wide variety of human experience. For example, where is there room for widows—are they ‘ruined’ for a second marriage? Or are they prude because they enjoyed sex only within the confines of marriage?

Another underlying problem with both sex-positive feminism and chastity-focused Christianity is that the focus on sex is unimaginative. Oftentimes, both sexual behavior and the debate around sex emerges as a symptom of much larger issues. For example, Duin states that “People are looking for something big enough to die for. Not finding that, they’ll settle for comfort and pleasure.” However, she herself becomes sidetracked into believing that the root problem is the sexual impulse when the real issue is boredom and safety. Rather than asking “How can we help Christians not have sex?” she would do better to be asking “How can we help others find and commit to something big enough to die for?”

Stafford is equally unimaginative. He emphasizes legal marriage even as he acknowledges that ancient Israel had no such customs because of the closeness of community. Rather than advocate involved community—a genuine problem for many in USAmerica today—he relies on the legal system to guarantee that a couple will fulfill obligations to one another post-sex, a solution that relies on a gentile system in order to discourage a gentile way of life. Why not advocate for improved, involved community, the real lack from which our culture is suffering?

There are no easy answers in the realm of human sexuality. Rather than becoming entrenched in arguments, may the conversation shift to an imaginative exploration of the root problems and discuss them compassionately with space made for one another’s experiences.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

some thoughts on sin

Here’s what I wrote when handed this exam question: How does ‘sin’ fit into your own theological anthropology? What are some helpful and/or detrimental aspects of how sin is understood within the Christian tradition?

My understanding of sin is strongly linked with my understanding of the doctrine of imago Dei. If each human carries a unique image of God and is called to gift the world from such an identity, then sin is defined as anything that is not living out of that identity. It is working for acceptance and approval and love rather than from a the belief and knowledge that one is accepted and loved. It is the ways in which desires and passions become distorted and misdirected. It is the ways we inhibit others from knowing and living out  their own identity and agency.

Sin, then, is highly unique. As feminist theologians such as Saiving Goldstein have pointed out, sin may be pride but can just as easily be the opposite: a lack of organizing center, a dependence on others for one’s own self-definition. What is detrimental in the discussion of sin is blanket statements, as there are very few actions that can be deemed sinful for absolutely everyone. Oftentimes we focus on behaviors when what is really at stake is a question of character, an issue of identity and agency. The focus on behavior is a narrow lens and does not address the complexity of a human life: for just a few examples I’ll point to the debates around homosexuality; masturbation; plastic surgery and viagra; alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use. I’m not saying these categories are unimportant. They are real areas of concern for many Christians, but they are symptomatic of deeper issues, and when we focus on fixing the symptom we are refusing to handle the complexity of that individual’s identity and the image of God he or she holds.

Most importantly, as James Alison reminds, sin is “that which can be forgiven.” Indeed, that which already has been forgiven: there is no room for shame nor condemnation in the gospel, and it is here that some understandings of sin have been most detrimental. By attempting to shame others into “repentance” rather than informing others that they are already loved and no longer need to live in sinful ways in order to gain love, the gospel message is not only distorted, it is inverted.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Translating the Theories of Atonement and Attachment

The following is a paper written in collaboration with Ben Shafar for a theology course at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. The work being referenced, “And Did My Saviour Bleed,” can be read in five parts, beginning here.

Although conversation is commonly a major form of connection within relationships, the relationship itself exists outside of the confines of language in the relational space between individuals. In attempting to explain what it is that happens in that space, various disciplines use various vocabulary. Psychology has a vocabulary and research system for discussing styles of relationship rooted in attachment theory. Theology has a vocabulary for discussing relationship between God and humanity rooted in atonement theory. An individual’s style of relating will be consistent with other humans as it is with God. We seek to demonstrate that such correlations exist in lived experience of relationship.[1] To facilitate demonstrating the correlation, we will be referring to the short story “And Did My Saviour Bleed” in order to discuss how we see these theories playing out within individual characters. Essentially, this paper is a preliminary work of translation.[2] This investigation marks a first attempt to bridge understandings from two separate disciplines and to propose the need for quantitative research to investigate attachment styles as they are lived out in churches that hold various theologies. Within “And Did My Saviour Bleed,” characters’ attachment and atonement styles correlate in such a way that reflects an overall way of being. The way a character relates to other family members is similar to the way a character understands the atonement and relates to God.

There are many influences to consider in a discussion of styles of attachment. Current research draws on evolutionary theory as well as contemporary findings in neurobiology. A brief history of the theory of attachment begins with John Bowlby’s definition of “the attachment figure’s ‘availability’ as a matter not just of accessibility but of emotional responsiveness as  well.”[3] Essentially, Bowlby and his research partner Mary Ainsworth observed a strong correlation between levels of attunement in the mother-child dyad and the child’s ability later in life to relate well with others. More specifically, the ways in which a child is soothed by the primary caregiver in the child’s early life serve as a simple set of rules by which the child is likely to continue to live as an adult.

The work of attachment begins even before birth.[4] A child’s neurochemistry is affected by the state of the mother’s brain from the earliest stages of development. The neuropathways that are formed before birth situate a child for certain ways of being in the world. Even as a child enters this world, there are forces at work inside the brain that will assist or hinder in development. The type of interaction and care the child receives has been observed to trend towards one of three general resultant areas: avoidant/dismissive, preoccupied/ambivalent, and/or disorganized.

Attachment styles, or styles of relating, have been observed to exist on a continuum. Distinctions are offered as paradigmatic frames of reference, each blending into the next in the chaos of actual lived experience, yet offering insights into our distinct ways of being in the world. No one relates to others using just one of these observed styles, but for simplicity in discussion, four different classifications of attachment styles are offered. Secure attachment is observed in the behavior of infants that “appear to have equal access to their impulses to explore when they feel safe and to seek solace in connection when they do not.”[3] In adulthood this plays out as a kind of flexibility and resilience in and surrounding one’s relationships with others. The remaining insecure classifications are avoidant/dismissive, preoccupied, and unresolved/disorganized. Each of these styles of relating is characterized by certain types of attachment-seeking behavior—whether positive or negative—and can be identified within a broad range of more healthy or less healthy ways of being in the world. One impetus behind the conversation of this paper is the observed correlations between these styles of relating and the various ways we (the authors) have seen ourselves and others live out these models in the church and in their theologies.

It is our experience-driven observation and reflection that this same work of attachment is at play in the nature of how one conceptualizes and relates to God. One’s God-concept is inevitably influenced by the paradigmatic impact of the primary care one receives, although conversion or outside influences also hold impact. We do not propose to state that theologies themselves are more or less correct, accurate, or even healthy, but rather hope to illustrate that the way an individual believes his or her relationship to God is similar to the way he or she lives in relationship with others.

Atonement is at the heart of the Christian message and of humanity’s relationship with the Divine. Different understandings of the process by which the sins of humanity are forgiven or not forgiven are central issues of theological inquiry. Atonement is the way in which sins or wrongs are reconciled between two parties. In Christian theology, human “reconciliation with God [occurs] through the sacrificial death of Christ.”[5] The need for reconciliation is implicit throughout the Old Testament texts which assert that nothing impure or sinful can approach God. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has provided a way for humanity to be reconciled to Her without need for further sacrifice. The question that atonement theorists seek to answer is, how is such reconciliation accomplished?

Theories of atonement seem to fall into distinctly nuanced categories, but the way such theories are lived out by Christians covers a wide continuum. In the relatedness of these approaches to viewing reconciliation, the intersection is messy. New ways of rethinking beliefs of how God, resurrection, and community are understood come from within the mess. As this is an introductory conversation, the aim is simply to show the associations between various styles of attachment and their likeliest atonement-theory counterparts in an attempt to open up the importance for future conversation and research. Each of these systems is loosely held, allowing not only for systemic integrity, but also for the persons who inhabit the various systems of thought and styles of relating.

Secure attachment comes about in a relational environment where exploration is possible. If a child experiences the mother[6] as available and dependable, the periods and varieties of exploration can become more vast and varied. In interactions with a primary caregiver the child experiences a rhythm of rupture and repair[7] that leaves the child’s feelings somewhere on the spectrum between cared for and abandoned. The child interprets this data and bases her or his own future actions around the likelihood of eliciting a positive response from the caregiver. The nature of this rhythm will set the cadence for the rest of the child’s life. A child whose mother is adequately in tune recognizes the infant’s needs and meets them in a timely fashion. This very basic interaction communicates that the infant is important, and that asking for what she needs will not result in a negative consequence. The less attuned caregiver sends a different message to her or his infant. Securely attached adults exhibit a well-defined sense of self and a strong sense of worthiness for belonging and love.[8] Her ability to function in the world is less dictated by how others view her than by her own thoughts and desires for the communities in which she functions.

The central character in “And Did My Saviour Bleed” is Caron, a concerned and outspoken young woman. Caron is an individual who comes close to an earned secure attachment. That is, although her primary caregivers were not safe people with whom she could become securely attached, such security was developed outside the immediate family. The story does not address the way in which Caron earned secure attachment. She is involved in the church; it may be that she has a community there who has helped develop her. It is just as easily something much more difficult to explain: a conversion experience, an in-breaking of God in the life of a young woman who is paying attention.[9] The reader sees Caron’s secure attachment because she repeatedly proves that she has a sense of worthiness, belonging, and being loved, and is willing to risk and explore in ways that securely attached individuals are. She demonstrates a profound willingness to engage in the rupture and repair necessary in seeking a new way to relate her parents. This willingness is grounded somewhere in her own experience. She has learned somewhere in her life that exploring is safe, and even healthy. The reader sees Caron’s risk in relationship out of a secure center within herself in the second scene as she calls her sister to a more legitimate apology, “You’re sorry for what?” She has a strong sense of boundaries and thus does not greatly fear rejection.

Also notable is Caron’s demonstration that she holds a sense of worthiness in high value not only for herself, but extends it to others as well. In the first scene, the narrator notes that Caron strongly believes that if Kayla “just felt loved, she wouldn’t have to do all this every night,” and believes it to the point where she is willing to risk personally in order to instill such a sense in her sister. In her final plea to her parents, Caron extends a similar invitation to belonging: “I don’t want us to be against each other keeping track of who owes what to whom.” She opens the possibility for them to accept belonging, if they can just accept that they need not do anything to become worthy of it, if they can accept that they already are worthy.

Just as Caron feels a sense of worthiness of love and belonging in order to function with bold vulnerability in her family structure, she operates similarly within her church community. It is not only that her voice “blend[s] into the unified voice of the community”, but that “she allows” the unification to occur. During the sermon as well, Caron “allows herself to believe she’s worthy of such love, allows herself to be vulnerable.” This is the language of a woman with earned secure attachment: the security is not inherently natural, but surrender is chosen. She is not unwillingly melted into the congregation, but she is secure in her own self and chooses to belong; on some level she feels not only that a sense of worthy but also a sense of agency. Later, the reader again sees that Caron feels safe with this community: she both cries openly and “unashamedly wipes tears.” There is a sense, in the celebration of the crowd, that Caron is not the only one with her emotional guard lowered. What both binds this community together and shapes their acceptance of one another is the theology around which they gather.

In the second Easter morning scene, the reader receives a summary of Caron’s theology of the atonement. What is taught by her pastor is, in short, a nonviolent atonement theory. In this theology, according to James Alison, Jesus is understood at once as “the authentic high priest, who was restoring the eternal covenant that had been established long before”, and the sacrifice, “substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices.”[10] As Caron’s pastor phrases it, Jesus “at once fulfills the Jewish atonement rites while exposing the sacrificial violence of humanity.” Such a theology allows room for sin to occur because “the definition of sin becomes: that which can be forgiven.”[10] More on that theology is explained within the text of the story, so the focus here is on how Caron lives such a theology.

Caron applies her theology to her life and relationships. The hope is not only for tolerating this life while anticipating an afterlife but for a different way of living this life now; as her pastor states, “it is not a continuation of the same life that was … what we talk about is a new way to live this life now.” Because her theology emphasizes this life, she believes in the possibility of living a new way and of having a new style of relating. The reader sees this bridging between theology and attachment style in the final Easter dinner scene where she addresses her parents, “I want to have a better relationship with you. You know, going forward,” and later “let’s do something different, let’s find some better way to do this.” Caron’s hope is for improved relationship in this life now, and she is willing to risk for it. “Because love wins, we don’t need to be defensive, we don’t need to be self-protective, we don’t need to be afraid,” as her pastor teaches. She becomes, like Christ, the victim who approaches her abuser without accusation and with capacious forgiveness to offer new life. Just as it is only securely attached people who are able to emotionally risk and make mistakes, it is only individuals who believe themselves to be truly forgiven that are able and free to make mistakes, even to sin boldly, and Caron’s loving confrontation and vulnerability are certainly sins within her family system.

However, Caron is not ideal in a secure attachment style. Although she is healthier than the other characters in the story, she has a tendency towards the insecure style of relating characterized as preoccupied/ambivalent. Insecure styles of attachment tend towards avoidant/dismissive or preoccupied/ambivalent and are the result of significant and/or unresolved trauma.  Preoccupied individuals such as Caron come out of homes where their own efforts to regulate themselves are often thwarted by the additional need to regulate or soothe their caregiver(s) as well. This style of relating has been aptly described as “no room for a mind of one’s own.”[3] Characterized by a tendency to withdraw into one’s own mind for solace, or to act out erratically in the face of poorly demarcated boundaries, the at-times calm exterior observed in this style of relating is a false guise for constant internal struggle. Another description of this struggle is ‘always worrying about how to please others, but never knowing how;’ an apparently calm duck paddling like mad below the water’s surface. In this constant inner chaos, the only help to be found is in the fantasy that others are unnecessary. Then it is practical and helpful to relate to others with ambivalence, or to appear preoccupied with one’s own thoughts. It is important, however, to recognize that there is no rest or escape in this strategy. Anxiety is not absent, it is being dealt with in the ‘best’ fashion that the individual has been able to learn.

Caron’s anxiety is most clearly observed in the first scene of the story, “Good Friday, 2003.” She is herself anxious about her sister’s nighttime activities, but senses her big sister’s unmet need for love and belonging as well. Rather than having the opportunity to soothe herself, she attempts (however unsuccessfully) to soothe Kayla: “If she just felt loved, she wouldn’t have to do all this every night.” Although the risk involved in soothing another requires some level of security within one’s self, taking care of others emotions is a distraction from the ability to self-soothe. One might suppose that Caron’s anxiety is also a cause of her inability to impact Kayla, given Anais Nin’s definition of anxiety in relation to love that “anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might, when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.”[11] Perhaps Kayla’s glare can be interpreted as a sign of feeling Caron’s anxiety. The story does not resolve whether Caron has sufficiently reduced her society to offer her parents an invitation to relationship from solid ground.

In the following scene, Caron is again the parent of the family as she calls Kayla to better behavior, offering boundaries that are more defined and manageable than those offered by the girls’ parents. The narrator notes that “So much has never been demanded of her [Kayla].” Caron is also the parent in that she is the one who recognizes the nature of Kayla’s behavior and attempts to bring it to her parents attention. Similarly, she is active to the point of distraction in attempting to draw her father’s gaze into her own life. She repeatedly corrects the distinctions between influential instructors in her life, again without success: Jim takes no notice of his daughter’s desperate plea for recognition. In a sense, she is attempting to parent Jim and Ann into being better parents.

Also characteristic of preoccupied individuals is withdrawal into the realm of the mind. During the evening of the first scene, as Kayla leaves for the night and Caron experiences high anxiety, retreating into her mind is exactly what Caron does to self-soothe: “retreats back up to the stairs to her bookshelf.” Caron also resorts to cutting. Her flight away from her feelings results in her infliction of pain in order to experience calm. She is all too aware of the quiet chaos of her family life. Although she is on her way to escaping the drama, she is not free of it.

As stated above, it is difficult to make solid claims about young Caron’s theology. The author imagines that being in the home of a family who (assuming the theology professed in 2010 also applies to 2003) professes that humans are sinners, indebted to God, and responsible for Jesus’s death, would provoke and maintain some anxiety in Caron. Just as her parents are unpleasable and distant, so too is God, requiring perfection—which may not even be good enough. Whereas her parents can dismiss the anxiety that such a theology could provoke (discussed below), Caron becomes preoccupied with the relationship and need for behavior-based affirmation. Caron recalls this anxiety in the final scene—“I tried so hard to be the perfect”—before re-affirming in herself that perfection is not demanded of her, especially not by God.

What helps define Caron as more secure in her style of relating is that she does not live in the fantasy that other people are unnecessary. Indeed, her relationships with her family members—no matter how chaotic and frustrating—remain so central to her that she continues to return to the family table in adulthood, continues to emotionally risk, continues to hope that something better is just about to arrive. Caron is a living invitation to community, akin to that expressed by Kathryn Tanner when she writes of “a community of mutual fulfillment in which each effort to perfect oneself enriches others’ efforts at self perfection. One perfects oneself by making one’s own the efforts of others to perfect themselves, their efforts too being furthered in the same way by one’s own.”[12] Something of this miracle is at work in Caron’s investment with her family. She longs for the interrelatedness they could experience if they were all willing to work on their relationships.

In addition to preoccupied attachment, another insecure style of relating is avoidant/dismissive attachment. This style of relating is characterized by a tendency to think of others as unnecessary to the meeting of one’s own needs. This is generally observed to develop out of a primary care relationship wherein the mother is experienced as less than optimally available. When a child learns, through her own experience of the world, that regulating her own cycles of joy and distress is necessary without much assistance from a caregiver, it becomes patterned for her as a style of relating.

Within “And Does My Saviour Bleed,” avoidant and dismissive styles of relating are noticeable in Kayla, Ann, and Jim. Kayla is absent from the Easter dinner, and likely from the family in general if the reader can infer as much from Ann’s words “Dad hasn’t heard from her.” Caron’s easy acceptance of the excuse implies that such excuse-making is familiar. In short, Kayla has chosen to be absent from family life, to avoid events and conversations. The root of unresolved trauma that leads to such a style is not made explicit in the story, but Ann’s obvious distraction into the crafting world is a clear example of a less than available mother, and Kayla’s youth experiences (as summarized by Caron) of alcoholism, drug-addiction, promiscuity, and anorexia point to a deeply troubled young woman. Because of her absence in the later narrative, not much can be surmised about the correlation of an atonement theology to such a style of relating. Fitting with an avoidant attachment style and presented knowledge of the character, the author imagines that Kayla is in the atheist/agnostic spectrum and uninvolved with any type of community of believers.

Ann offers a clearer picture of an avoidant/dismissive attachment style and its theological correlation. Perpetually at her craft table, she is obviously disengaged from conversations and emotions, beginning with her silence in response to Kayla’s apology in “Holy Saturday, 2003.” She cannot be provoked into emotional engagement even by her husband’s angry outburst—“You entirely missed the point, Ann!” She simply shrugs off the anger and distances herself from it with a dismissive comment, effectively avoiding any further confrontation. Even being confronted more lovingly by her daughter during Easter dinner, she fails to say anything that is helpful and relevant. The rare times she does speak, it is either an attempt to soothe away the problem, although with great insensitivity—“We couldn’t read your mind, honey”—or to distract away from the emotional confrontation by asking “What was the name of that [burger] joint?” Ann’s inability to connect emotionally, either to fulfill others’ needs or to be vulnerable in seeking to get her own needs met, is characteristic of an avoidant/dismissive attachment style.

Such dismissiveness correlates strongly to her theological stance. As her pastor preaches the goal of the atonement, reconciliation is not at all about this life: it is about avoiding eternal pain and suffering in Hell and being rewarded for professed Christianity with life in God’s presence after death. Because hope is placed entirely in the afterlife, there is no call to action for this one. All that is required is weekly sermon attendance, even virtual attendance; in Ann’s mind an hour a week of church is what is required to be a Christian and thus receive “eternal life” after death. She interprets such attendance even more loosely than her husband, never ceasing to work on her project as she “occasionally glances at the screen to fulfill the obligation of attendance.” Here it is obvious that her style of relating is true not only with people, but also with God: she refuses to be emotionally drawn in. It is just as easy to imagine Ann fulfilling the obligation of attendance with only occasional glances at her child. Crafting functions as a way to distance herself from other humans as well as from a message that she believes is of God. Such distance from everyone, and specifically from God, leads Ann to live a life that is functionally agnostic. Although she professes a belief in Christianity, her life looks no different than that of a professed agnostic; the belief that God exists does not influence her lived experience outside of the hour a week she glances at a sermon.

Jim serves as an example of on the continuum of a preoccupied style of relating. Many of his behaviors can be interpreted as either dismissive or preoccupied, which serves as a reminder that these ways of being in the world exist on a fluid continuum. In the “Holy Saturday, 2003” scene of the story, Jim makes it clear that everything must go on as usual. He is not interested in actual relationship with his daughters but only in maintaining the calm that he so cherishes. His wife, Ann, is allowed no impact into his affairs and is only expected to maintain the status quo. The interactions afforded the reader are vacant of emotion except when things are getting uncomfortable for him. His need to keep the peace, at the cost of any true interaction, can be thought of as coming from his own sense of abandonment. His “parents would go antique shopping for weekends and leave [him] five dollars.” His preoccupation with the need for stability dictates his capability of relating to others. It also correlates with his receptivity to and interaction with God.

A great need for debts to be balanced is evidenced in Jim’s threat to Caron: “Unless you want to take on her punishments? That worked when you were kids. You told on her and I’d give you her punishment. Remember that?” Jim is outwardly calm and controlled, but inside he is often frantic. He has a hard time identifying this feeling, as it is all too normal for him, yet it guides his need for the external world to make orderly sense in an immediate timeline. The words of the Easter sermon affect him; the price paid for his redemption is what catches him. It speaks to the frenzy of longing inside him saying: ‘your bill is taken care of.’ The tears he sheds don’t flow from an in-breaking of the joyous spirit of God, but from the sadness that the words touch in him of which he never speaks nor allows to be visible. Jim ‘believes.’ He prayed the prayer and lives a good life. But he is missing the full blessing of Christ’s message for him in community. He is held inside himself by his own need for order. The theology that speaks to him fills a need, but it also perpetuates his stuck-ness by not challenging his assumptions and experiences concerning redemption.

Where Ann is happy to pay her dues of church attendance, Jim is consumed by living by the rules. “Through his cuts, we get healed. It’s what God had in mind all along: to crush him with pain to pay the debt of our sins, all the things we do wrong, our adulteries, our alcoholism, our lies, our lust–,” Jim takes these words to heart by making sure he doesn’t give Jesus any more reason to suffer. His preoccupation with the importance of following the strict structures of scripture eclipses his ability to comprehend the nature of what Jesus fully and already accomplished. Instead, Jim lives in a tightly controlled awareness of the pain that it costs (both Jesus and himself) to make things right. Needing to take care of all his own emotional needs as a child situated Jim in precisely the right location for this sort of theology of retributive sacrifice.

These styles of relating are helpful as diagnostic-like tools for identifying strategies through which one’s attachment might be moved towards more secure. Many believe that this is the central work of psychotherapy. We believe: it is also the work of the church. One’s style of relating affects how one interacts with others. It also influences and is affected by one’s view of the nature of God and the processes by which we claim to know or interact with God. All of these influences intersect in one’s style of relating, in how an individual lives. What a church teaches is both influenced by and influences the people in attendance. These reciprocal influences craft both the institution and the people over time. More research and study is needed in order to assist in learning more about how theology informs the lived experience of God and relationships with others as well as how the church can add to conversations around helpful styles of relating. Simultaneously, in examining how styles of relating influence and are influenced by the theologies to which we cling, the hope is to add new textures to the layers of meaning that are co-created in the dialogue between these disciplines.

Future study may lead to healthier ways of telling the gospel story. It may afford us new and better ways of thinking through and about the gifts God gives. In exploring this terrain free from worry about the status of our salvation, there is great freedom. It is this freedom to sin boldly and to love well that we wish to make more abundant in our families and in our churches, in our nation and in our world. Everywhere that dogma and relationship intersects can be mined in the light of this relational hermeneutic.

* All quotes that are not footnoted are from the short story “And Did My Saviour Bleed,” which can be read in parts: can be found in parts: one, two, three, four, five.

[1]As this paper was a short-term project, we have not analytically researched support for this belief other than the observation throughout our lives that an individual’s way of being tends to exhibit consistency across relationships. The general correlations we draw will not be representative of the wide variety of human experience, but rather relationships as we have experienced them and as portrayed in the story “And Does My Saviour Bleed.” Much research is needed in order to demonstrate a consistent truth to such correlations. Additionally, we do not seek to demonstrate causation in either direction: theologies impacting a person’s human style of relating nor a person’s attachment impacting his or her professed theologies, though there are causal threads worth investigating in the inter-related nature of this dyad.

[2] We understand this translation to be an essential component of inter-disciplinary communication, where each discipline has manufactured and issued language to convey a truth about an experience or reality that exists outside of language.

[3] David J Wallin, in Attachment in Psychotherapy, (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2007).

[4] Thomas Lewis, Fara Amini, and Richard Lannon, in A General Theory of Love, (New York, NY: Vintage Press, 2000).

[5] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[6] The language of the discipline still resorts to using the word “mother” here. It is now fairly well assumed that the word “mother” has been generalized to refer to the role of primary caregiver. The tendency to associate a particular gender with this role is no longer useful. The word ‘mother’ will henceforth be used with the caveat that no gender nor biological connections are being assumed.

[7] One can trace a similar theme in the history of the nation of Israel in which humanity’s relationship with God is constantly ruptured and repaired, both directly with God and through the levirate priests. Furthering this conversation will require attention to the ways in which the believing community has seen God’s grace play out in the history of Israel as well as with the church of our current age. Both histories are rife with rupture and repair between God and humanity, between peoples, and between individuals.

[8] Brené Brown, “On Vulnerability”, in TED Talks, June 2010.

[9] There is vocabulary in Christianity of adoption into the family of God. If such an adoption has the power to change one’s attachment style, Caron may be one such example. Research needs to be done on what Christians can learn about the process of attaching securely to God from the process of adoptee attaching to adoptive parents.

[10] James Alison, “God’s Self-Substitution and Sacrificial Inversion” in Stricken by God? edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, (Abbotsford, BC: Fresh Wind Press, 2007).

[11] Anais Nin in Diary of Anais Nin: 1944-47, 7 vols. Vol 4, (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).

[12] Kathryn Tanner, in Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001).

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

And Did My Saviour Bleed: Scene V

(To start with Scene I, click here.)

Easter Sunday afternoon, 2010

Caron walked into her childhood home and tossed her coat over the arm of a never-used chair. “Hi, Mom,” she said as she leaned over the kitchen island to kiss her mother’s cheek, the oven-mitted hand patting her arm.

“Hi, honey. I’m just about ready to pull the ham out of the oven. We should be ready for dinner any minute.”

Caron glanced at the three place settings. “No Kayla?”

Ann’s voice dropped low. “No, Dad hasn’t heard from her since that new job started filling up her schedule.” Caron nodded in understanding right as Jim walked in.

“Hey, kiddo!” He smiled and patted her shoulder, “How’s our scholar?”

“Hey, Dad. I’m good. How are you?”

“Oh, not too shabby. Tired but keeping myself busy.”

The incomplete family moved to the table, Grandmother’s rarely-seen dining set making an appearance, a liturgy of the china cabinet announcing a resurrection of its own. A disproportionate amount of traditional dishes gathered around the ham before the trio sat down at the same seats in which they always sat down, Kayla’s chair left empty at the western end of the surface.

“Shall we pray?” Jim asked rhetorically as he folded his hands and bowed his head low. These days, Caron usually prayed with hands held open to receive, her eyes focusing on whatever the sun happens to put a glimmer on outside the nearest window, but she did as was expected of her in this place.

“Heavenly Father, thank you for the food before us and the many gifts you bestow upon us. Thank you for the turn in weather. And on this day above all other days, we thank you for sending us your Son to pay for the debt we’ve incurred with You. Forgive us our many sins. In Jesus’s name we pray, amen.”

Jim reached for the carving tools and allotted portions of the honey-baked sacrifice to his wife and daughter, all three taking pieces of the many gifts bestowed upon them. The tiny clinks of forks and knives clanged as loudly in the empty dining room as church bells on a crisp winter day.

Caron was moving leaves of her salad around her plate when she blurted, “I want to have a better relationship with you.”

The silverware chimes stopped as she made eye contact with her father.

“I know we’ve never been close. You were always so much closer to Kayla, and there were real reasons for that, and that’s fine.” The words were coming out with such speed they slid together like cars on an icy interstate. “I just want to have a better relationship with you. You know, going forward.” There was no slowing down the pile-up, so Caron focused on her shallow breathe as she anticipated her father’s response.

Jim sighed and lowered his knife and fork. “I don’t know what you want me to do, Caron. I can’t change the past.”

She shook her head, “I’m not asking you to. I know you can’t. That’s not my point at all.”

“Then what is your point?”

“Growing up,” she began, shakily, “you compared me to my alcoholic, drug-addicted, promiscuous, anorexic——”

“Even with all that, “ Jim growled, “she was still easier to deal with than you.”

Caron nodded, feeling a different and equally familiar wetness on her cheeks; not the cleansing baptismal tears of that morning, but hot shamedrops reddening her eyes. “I tried so hard to be the perfect—No, it’s ok. I can accept that. I know I was sometimes——”

“Her issues were all on the surface, at least. You, we had no idea what we were dealing with. It was all so hidden.”

Ann tried to be helpful in her most soothing tone, “We couldn’t read your mind, honey.”

“Did you ever think to ask me? Ask me what was going on?”

Jim snortlaughs. “Please. You were so stubborn, you wouldn’t have told us.”

“So you didn’t even try?”

Jim’s shaking his head and smiling so Ann steps in again, “We paid for your counseling.”

Outsourcing relationships doesn’t work, Caron nearly says, but stops herself in time and remembers her priorities. This isn’t about arguing over the past. If she moves directions, she is not absorbing debt but throwing out the ledgerbook. Another deep breath. “Look, I’m just saying, I want things to be different going forward.”

“I can’t change what happened.”

“I just want us to have a friendship. I want to invite you to that.”

“There’s nothing I can do about any of it.”

Caron sighs and looks away at the remnants of the carved ham. Jim matches her sigh as he leans his elbows on the table.

“Look,” he begins. “My parents didn’t plan on having me. I ruined their retirement plans. In junior high, they would go antique shopping for weekends and leave me five dollars, told me to walk to the burger joint if I got hungry.”

“Was that when you were out on forty-fifth?” Ann cut in, “What was the name of that joint?”

“They got me a motorcycle even before I could legally drive one. And I’m grateful for it, I have good memories of that bike, friends I wouldn’t have otherwise had.” He paused before remembering his point. “They never said they loved me or were proud of me, and I tried really hard to always tell you that much.”

“I know, Dad. I just want more than just those words. I want a relationship with you, just like you always wanted more from them.”

“The difference between me and you, is I got over it. We didn’t have to talk it through. I just absorbed the debt, and I moved on.”

“I want to move on, too, Dad, but I want to move on to something different. I’m sick of this pattern. I don’t want you to pay a debt to me, and I don’t want to pay the debt for Kayla’s mistakes, and I don’t want us to be against each other keeping track of who owes what to whom.” She can hear her voice sliding out of control on this icy patch again, but she knows her brakes will lock, there’s nothing but to slide through it. “I want a relationship without debts. I want us both, us all, to be able to look at what happened and say ‘that sucked, let’s do something different, let’s find some better way to do this.’ Can we do that? Can we all acknowledge that it sucked and find a better way to do this?”

A cardinal hits the window, and all three turn to the east at once, together for the first time, to notice the anarchy and the glory of spring’s arrival.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

And Did My Saviour Bleed: Scene IV

(To begin at the beginning, start with Scene I.)

Also Easter Sunday morning, 2010

Near the university the next town over, their daughter is singing accompaniment with her church, her people, her tribe. The drum pushes through her chest, her shoulders brush those of the pastor beside her, she allows her voice to blend into the unified voice of the community. The hymn ends to applause as a man dressed in black denim bounds onto the platform. As the congregation sits, Caron feels the final exhale of a community that breaths as one as it sings as one.

“Good morning!” he shouts with great sincerity.

“Good morning,” comes the enthusiastic response.

The pastor has the genuine smile of a child on Christmas morning, or perhaps better and less metaphorical—that of a theologian on Easter morning. “He is risen!” The proclamation is met with cheers, applause, and the traditionalists who shout back, “He is risen indeed!”

“We have come through months of darkness followed by months of snow. We have journeyed through Lent. And in that darkness, we have crucified our God.

“Humans, historically, have been confused. We believe that God is angry and needs to be placated with human sacrifices, or if the culture evolves then God is placated with animal sacrifices, and then sometimes those sacrifices evolve to grain and fruit: bread and wine.

“But in Jewish tradition, God is not angry. The rite of the atonement is about the priest-representing-the-Creator emerging from the Holy of Holies so as to set the people free from their impurities, their sins. The whole rite was about God coming down to his people to do the hard work of restoration, of love, of forgiveness, all on their behalf. In Jewish ritual, the people are the beneficiaries of God’s work.

“Jesus, then, at once fulfills the Jewish atonement rites while exposing the sacrificial violence of humanity. In Jesus, God substitutes himself in the place of the  victim of our typical sacrifices. He overcomes our violence by exposing it for the murderous desire that it is, by substituting his human self for our grain or animal sacrifices. He inverts the sacrificial culture: he takes bread and wine, and makes it human. By revealing that sacrifices are murder, he reveals the lie, depriving it of power. Jesus is the authentic high priest, not only representing God but actually God, acting on our behalf to restore the relationship between God and all humanity.

“The good news is that God is not angry. The only angry divinity in the story is humanity, and the good news is that we don’t need to be. In the cross, we see our anger and violence for what it is, and in the resurrection, we are released from having to protect ourselves against death, because death cannot win against love. The one true sacrifice, the sacrifice of God giving himself for us in our midst as our victim, has taken place. It’s done. And love wins over death.

“What generally happens is that when people are dead they stay dead. That’s the way it works. But the Crucified One is risen. He was dead, and now he’s not. The tomb is empty, he is resurrected, and because that happened, we now know that love always wins in the end, even when hatred shouts and fear rages and God is dead on a torture device, the quiet whisper of love outlasts and cannot be silenced by death. Because love wins, we don’t need to be defensive, we don’t need to be self-protective, we don’t need to be afraid.”

Caron takes a deep breath in, savoring the capacious inhale as she allows herself the weightlessness of forgiveness, gives herself permission to believe that these words are true, allows herself to believe she’s worthy of such love, allows herself to be vulnerable.

“Today is the day of Resurrection. Now is the time of epic new life, the fresh day of a new creation. Today, we celebrate that we are able to enjoy the fullness of creation as though there were no death.

“Sometimes resurrection gets confused with life after dying, but while resurrection includes that, it transcends it. What we talk about is not life after death. It is not some disembodied evacuation to some other place. It is not a continuation of the same life that was; we are not interested in mere resuscitation. What we are interested in is Resurrection. What we talk about is a new way to live this life now. It is a new, transformed physicality. It’s about this world, and this life, and these bodies. It’s here, it’s now, and it’s physical.”

Caron is surprised by the familiar wetness of her cheeks. She has wept oceans since she began attending this church, but this week she helped write portions of the sermon, and somehow the words are still shocking in the freedom they announce. Something about being with your tribe, she supposes, and unashamedly wipes tears as they cascade.

“So, if you’re visiting us today, you might be asking: what does all this matter? What does it matter that one time one man’s love won over death, even if that man was God? What it means is that we have seen Jesus, our victim, approach us and forgive us. We have been thrown off balance by grace, we have been confronted by someone who is entirely outside our structures of vengeance and power. We are undone by a victim who approaches us without accusation and makes our world bigger, opens us up to new life. We are a community who testifies to the truth of the resurrection, not because we have evidence that it historically happened, but because it happens, and it happens to us and among us and in this world all the time. We are a community who testifies to the resurrection not because we’ve said the ‘right prayer’, but because we testify with our lives, we have seen ourselves resurrected, we have been loved into new life.

“The worship team is going to come back up, and there are elements for the eucharist in the front and an open table policy, everyone is welcome, and we are going to have us a celebration. We are going to have some church in here. For those of you who are not in a season of celebration, allow us to spiritually carry you.

The drumbeats are starting to pulse through Caron’s chest and people’s feet are already moving in anticipation of the coming music.

“Grace and peace of the Lord be with you, for He is risen!”

The pastor might as well have ended with “let the wild rumpus begin” for the reaction of the congregation, drowning out the first lines of the song. As he walks back to his seat beside Caron, they smile at one another, knowing that the work they have done was good. It’s not just that lives were changed that morning, it’s that in the fresh reminder, their lives are changed too.

It isn’t until the chorus that the congregation manages to find its place in the song all together:

We have been blessed—now we’re going to be a blessing;

We have been loved—now we’re going to bring love;

We’ve been invited— we want to share the invitation;

We have been changed to bring change, to bring change.

(Final scene here.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,