Tag Archives: seminary

rule of life

Last year, as an assignment for Prayer, Presence & Practice, I received the assignment to write out my Rule of Life. While not exactly a Rule, what I turned in are some principles that I try to live by, and I share them here for whoever might find them helpful.

  • Have a voice. Know yourself.
    • Commit to living out the image of God that is within you, to allowing identity to overflow into actions.
    • Follow your joy.
    • Be interested in growth.
      • Allow events to change you.
      • Ask basic, stupid questions, and find unexpected answers.
      • Ask complex, interesting questions, and research for the most satisfying answers.
      • Look for more livable ways to define and live the good life.

This piece stems from my practice of silence, in which I not only learned the power of my voice but how to handle it with care and strength for both others and myself. My search is not simply for a career but a vocation, which I understand as identity-in-action. No one can tell me what this is; I must know and hear my own voice. It is not sufficient to have a self that is only a self in relation.

  • Have courage.
    • Courage to say no, courage to say yes. Remember that saying yes “to will the one thing” means saying no to lots of other things.
    • Remember that we all suffer. Keep going.
    • Lean into the pain, find what it has to teach you.

As someone who knows narrative and is intuitive, I often know where a trajectory will take me before I get there. I must remind myself that all good stories require conflict. Often, the work that must be accomplished requires leaning into the pain of my story. It’s those moments that I want to stop that I must find courage to keep going into the discomfort and hurt—nothing has taught me this more clearly than  writing. Additionally, I must have strong boundaries in order to accomplish what I’m meant to rather than becoming distracted in others’ callings.

  • Be vulnerable.
    • Pursue relationships that might not work out.
    • Show hospitality that will likely never be returned.
    • Risk emotionally.
    • Laugh, loudly.
    • Cry, openly and without shame.
    • Believe in the holy contour of life.

Relationships are important for a full life. My life is not only about my work but about being with others well, which requires such openness and risk for a certain level of intimacy.

  • Be grounded in physicality; know your embodiment.
    • Sweat often. Sweat is your prayer.
      • Practice yoga. Run. Practice krav maga. Go dancing.
    • Breathe deeply and mindfully. Breath is your prayer, too.
    • Drink lots of water. Eat colorful plants that died just recently.

Beginning to articulate body as prayer has been a theme in this term’s other papers, so I won’t reiterate here.

  • Value your creative process.
    • Mantra: good artists borrow, great artists steal. Keep a swipe file.
    • You are powerful enough to make new words and new symbols.
    • Listen attentively and carefully.
    • Take field trips.
    • Remember. Carry a notebook and pen. Write things down. Revisit journals.
    • Fail. Fail again. Fail better. Fail faster.
    • Collaborate. Everyone has something to offer.

I do believe that writing is a task I am mean to be working at. Guidelines are helpful in achieving that, in figuring out the way and the content.

  • Live with simplicity.
    • Know kinship with creation.
      • Garden. What you do the earth, you do to yourself.
      • Enjoy the sun. Sit in the grass. Enjoy rainy days, too.
    • Don’t be cool.
      • You don’t need more clothes, gadgets, social media presence, or anything else trying to sell a false version of the good life. Consume less.
      • In general: reuse, repurpose, and make what you can
      • The pursuit of [material] happiness is the source of much unhappiness.
    • Find a rhythm of work and rest.
      • Daily, weekly, yearly.
      • Keep a daily routine… but don’t be rigid. Stay up late when ideas are happening. Get out of bed when they wake you up. And keep human! See people, go places.

I’m concerned about the consumer-driven narrative of today’s culture; there are other ways to live that have been livable and well lived for centuries and centuries.

  • Find a third way.
    • It’s not just about looking forward to Resurrection on the other side of Death, it’s about finding a third way, a way in-between the black/white paradigms.
    • Think in terms other than good/bad, or find other ways to define those terms.
    • Follow your joy.

I’ve always struggled with darknesses; this past year has been especially difficult and I don’t expect that to go away as I start to work on putting words on pages. I need to find a way to navigate, a way to hope more than I despair and to know glory without being overwhelmed by it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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the works of lady gaga, one of the prophets in the reign of obama

Israel had many prophets, but today the church isn’t adding anyone’s words to the Biblical canon. When did God stop speaking? Did humanity stop needing prophets once Jesus lived, died, and lived again? Perhaps a better question is: when did we refuse to see the prophets in our midst? Pop star Lady Gaga is more than an entertainer, she is a prophetic voice of today. Through her fashion and performance art, Lady Gaga functions as prophet for secular USAmerica, which can aid the church in learning how to better engage contemporary USAmerican culture. This piece will define the traditional role of the prophet, evaluate how Lady Gaga can be understood to fulfill such a role within USAmerican culture, and reflect on the ways that Gaga’s work as a prophet questions the church’s engagement of today’s culture.

The primary role of a prophet is to fight injustice. Dan Allender explains that a prophet is one who actively stands outside of society in order to critique the injustices within society, with the hope of bringing about sociocultural change and reconciling groups of people who have been opposed to one another. The prophet “creates a vision for the future and exposes the reality of the present” by provoking her or his audience. Traditional tools of the prophet include “piercing narrative, powerful images, prescient poetry” and a willingness to “bear the consequence of being viewed as an enemy of the status quo.” Such artistry and suffering is employed by the prophet to create a compelling vision of what the situation could be if justice were carried out, if love and mercy were lived.

Perhaps most notable is Lady Gaga’s prophetic work against injustice against the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) community. She came out as bisexual to both acceptance and criticism from the queer community: she has been “accused of not being gay enough” to claim bisexuality nor to be a representative voice. However, claiming bisexuality to a national audience, regardless of the depth of its truthfulness, was a prophetic move: Gaga chose to align herself with the marginalized, removing herself from the hetero-normative mainstream culture. As many prophets before her, she actively stands outside of the cultural norm in order to actively engage and critique culture’s treatment of a marginalized people.

“Born This Way” Live Performance

Lady Gaga adopts the prophet’s work of reconciling groups by working to reconcile LGBTQ and heterosexual individuals, who often have been viewed as oppositional. “Born This Way,” the chart-topping track on an album of the same name, has been accepted by many within the queer community as a new anthem, much like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Cher’s “Believe” have been in the past. What is significant about the song is its overt shout-out to the LGBTQ community; even more significant is that she includes heterosexuals:

“No matter gay, straight, or bi,

lesbian, transgendered life,

I’m on the right track, baby,

I was born to survive.”

This is more than an effort to speak on behalf of LGBTQ individuals, more than a matter of advancing rights for the gay community. The lyrics of “Born This Way” unites the LGBTQ and heterosexual communities. Live performances of the piece end with Gaga and her male and female dance company bending towards one another in a circular, all-embracing hug. The performance offers an image that speaks to a vision of what our reality could be, one in which gay individuals are not only equal, but lovingly included. Her image calls us toward the possible reality in which we are one, united humanity that includes multiple sexualities and sexual orientations.

Prophets must bear the consequence of provoking controversy and disrupting the status quo. As a result of Lady Gaga’s involvement with the LGBTQ community, many rumors have been started in an attempt to slander and shame her. One of the most direct attacks on her sexuality has been the rumor that she has a penis. Rather than retaliating (and effectively proving that she would be ashamed to be part of the transgendered community), Gaga claims to love the rumor. She states: “‘This has been the greatest accomplishment of my life: to get young people to throw away what society has taught them is wrong.’” If fans believe her to be transgendered and still come to her performances, listen to her music, and support her work, Gaga takes it as a hopeful sign for future inclusion of transgendered individuals in society. Rather than suffer, Gaga reframes the consequence into a cause for celebration.

Another consequence has been the protestors who gather outside of Monster Balls, Lady Gaga’s stadium concerts. One writer recalls a concert in Nashville in which picketers held signs “urging ‘homosexuals’ and other ‘sinners’ to ‘repent’.” During the show, Gaga shouted from stage, “Jesus loves every fucking one of you!” before launching into a raucous performance, “as if to say, the only proper theological response to bigotry and hatred is to dance in its face.” Prophet Gaga practices a living theology; rather than discussing abstractions, she moves into actions.

The Meat Dress

Lady Gaga has also served as a prophet is in the conversation of gender. In this realm, Gaga exposes the reality of the present by reflecting back to her audience what the present really looks like. She holds up a mirror, and the reflection is startling. Gaga as prophet “exposes the hardness of the heart.” One of the most notable examples is the ‘meat dress’, which Gaga wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Feminist Kate Durbin notes that “masculinists see but a piece of meat, so Gaga gives them exactly what they ‘see’ – a piece of meat. In order, of course, that the Male Gaze might ‘see’ itself.” The powerful fashion image of a celebrity wearing raw beef holds up a critical mirror to the way members of USAmerican society view and objectify women.

Some of her other fashion pieces have been similarly tied to society’s treatment of women. Lady Gaga has worn many weapon-inspired bras, including a flame-thrower bra in the music video for “Bad Romance,” a ‘gun bra’ in her video for “Alejandro,” and a ‘fire bra’ to the Much Music Awards and on the cover of GQ magazine. Durbin states that, like many women, Gaga’s “breasts were seen as a weapon, therefore she was going to literally turn them into that.” Gaga hears the narrative society tells women and exposes the flaws and pain in the narrative through constructing a powerful fashion image.

An equally blatant statement about gender was the introduction of Gaga’s alter-ego, Jo Calderone, at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. The opening monologue made it clear that this performer was not Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone: “Gaga? Yeah, her,” Jo says while pointing to some vague distance; Gaga is not here. To further emphasize the opposition between Gaga and Jo, he informs the audience, “She [Gaga] left me [Jo].” Gaga, according to Jo, groups him in with other men: “She said I’m just like the last one.” Jo, for his part, dances in a company comprised entirely of men; the audience does not see a single woman on stage during the performance. This is not an image of a woman who includes masculinity into her being. Instead, she is one body, portraying both a female and a male who are in opposition to one another. Similarly, the viewers are one humanity in opposition to one another as a result of the gender divide. The audience knows it to be absurd for Gaga to critique Jo, just as it is equally absurd for Jo to feel left out from Gaga’s life, since they are one and the same. The audience can then look back on themselves and see that they create divides within the one humanity, divides where there should be unity. Gaga-versus-Jo is a picture of humanity, a mirror for how we relate across the sexes.

Jo Calderone

An additional role of the prophet is to expose idolatry. James Danaher writes that in today’s USAmerican culture “what we recognize and revere about a person is their celebrity status.” USAmericans unknowingly idolize celebrity and the formation of identity that leads to celebrity status. We join the game, attempting to construct an identity for ourselves to gain some amount of fame. At the same time, we hate celebrities for their status and for having the resources to continually re-create their identities, so eventually we demand their destruction.

Gaga, while seeming to be part of the system that perpetuates obsession with celebrity and identity construction, undermines the system and shows that it leads to death and destruction. In her performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga opens by naming the idol USAmericans have come to worship, and recognizes her potential position as sacrifice: “I pray the fame won’t take my life.” The fame is the god that this society has made, and it demands ritual sacrifice. By the end of the show, Gaga is covered in blood and hanging from a rope, enacting her own death. She had explained the performance idea to her label by asking “I imagine that my pop career could be quite long and people will wonder for a very long time what my demise will look like, so why don’t we show them?” By walking, willingly, to her own enacted death, she showed the audience what they do to celebrities: demand violent destruction. The image does what prophetic images are meant to do, which is to “disrupt denial and expose the subtle and overt idolatry of the heart.” Having shown the audience her destruction, Gaga is then free of the audience’s demands on identity because she has fulfilled that identity and shown that it leads to death. After that moment, all her work is free to be performed without inhibition because it is enacted in the shadow of her own death. The audience are no longer able to impose an identity on her; it is she who identifies herself with true identity/ies.

According to Allender, an important piece of the work for a prophet is to be a “servant of the church who stands outside the church in order to invite those who appear to be in it to return to true worship.” Lady Gaga’s work as a prophet within the secular community questions and critiques the church, inviting its members to return to what we too-often refuse to see as good news and worship. Gaga, in acting as a secular prophet, aligns herself with the marginalized people of the LGBTQ community. The church should be convicted: we are called to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, and instead are the ones excluding and condemning. As Gaga reconciles and unifies queer and straight peoples, the church creates divides with hateful language on picket signs. Gaga’s work asks the church: what is a loving response to individuals, regardless of sexual orientation? Her scream of Jesus’s love followed by dance questions: what would action look like on your part? Can you ever stop the debates over scripture and sin long enough to act?

Gaga’s use of fashion and performance art raise questions of communication. Gaga confronts the culture through symbols that it fluently understands: music, performance, and fashion. The church insists on using scripture as its primary form of engagement, but for many people in USAmerica, the text does not carry authority over their lives. How could the church better engage culture on its own terms? What would happen if we ceased to articulate and defend every position, and made room for a conversation through image and action that made sense to today’s culture, within and outside of the church?

2009 VMA Performance

Finally, Gaga’s enacted death to expose the idolatry of celebrity questions the way the church teaches the narrative of Jesus crucified. We often have sermons trying to explain what Jesus did, but her bloody performance and murderous stare ask: how would the church enact the narrative? Pastors try to educate congregants by explaining the historical context of the cross, but what if they moved the narrative into the context of today’s culture? What would we critique? What idols would we expose? How can the church live into the story of life, nonviolent death, and resurrection in a way that speaks to the contemporary world?

The prophet known as Lady Gaga is doing God’s work in secular USAmerica. Rather than fight her, the church would be wise to allow itself to be critiqued by her exposures and educated by her forms of communication. After all, God has often provided prophets who have worked outside the church to invite the church itself to repentance; we should not be surprised that the Living God is still speaking, should not be startled to see a prophet in our midst. The proper response might be gratitude and worship: perhaps a dance would be appropriate.

This piece was originally written for Cultural Exegesis: Pop Culture and the Kingdom, taught by Kj Swanson and Jev Forsberg. Students were asked to use a piece of culture to inform theology.

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