Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Some people are REALLY hard to love!

This morning I was precariously close to slapping a person with a disability.

I took a job in disability support because I wanted to work within the community, alongside some of our more marginalised citizens, walking the journey and offering respect and dignity where there is often abuse.

But this morning, I felt abusive. I thought mean thoughts and had a great desire to pull her hair as I pushed her cardigan over her head. I whipped the sling straps from under her legs and was brisk and careless as I pulled her folds of skin back to dry.

It is really easy to be abusive.

Patricia makes me so mad sometimes - the kind of mad that makes your blood boil. I've seen other staff members go off the wall at her: she has a habit of telling you exactly how you should be conducting your work:
"Now mop the floor!"
"You can't have a break now!"
"Put on the gumboots when you're giving me a shower!"
They don't sound like big things, but she hits up against this raw nerve, which sits at the tip of our pride. Personal care workers feel this especially: we don't have a lot of power in our jobs, but was sure as hell would like to decide whether or not to wear a pair of gumboots. I'm surprised at how mad I can get around Patricia. Working with her feels like being a servant, with her string of commands that she ends with "please", which somehow has the effect of making her sound more demanding.

Sometimes I watch my emotional-maturity-meter plummet to near zero around Patricia, and I struggle to find creative ways to respond. There is always a temptation to take advantage of her lower level of intelligence, for example:
"Would you like to go down a bit on the bed so I can dry your skin?"
"You forgot to say the magic word, Adriana." (she hasn't quite mastered my name, but neither have most of my colleagues, so that's ok)
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't say 'please'. You should be more polite when you speak to me."
Now it would be really tempting to say something smart ass like, "Generally in the English language we only use the word 'please' when we are making a request of someone; in this particular case I am asking for your preference. But since you so insist, please would you like to go down a bit on the bed so I can dry your skin please Patricia?"
Such a response would be personally satisfying, but would also be a really unloving use of the intelligence and education I have been given through sheer good fortune. So I bit my tongue, and explained that I was giving her an option, rather than asking her to do something. I didn't say please, though. I still have my pride!

What I am struggling to find is a balance of patience, gentleness and assertiveness around Patricia. She can be REALLY hard to love, at times. At other times, I see her light - like the other night, when I bumped into her in the city. I called out to her; she jumped (she was using the ATM); then smiled and laughed and we had a nice chat. A surprise encounter that made me remember that I still liked Patricia. I introduced Patricia to David, and was really pleased that they could each meet the person I spoke so much about.

But this morning she refused to lift the doona from over her head, finally peering through a crack to tell me how angry and upset she was with me, for scaring her in the city. She had a point - she was using the ATM at the time, and taking money from an ATM at night, in a wheelchair, must leave one feeling quite vulnerable. But I was sad and a bit upset myself, that our lovely impromptu encounter had ended in anger and resentment. I give a lot of grace in that relationship, and sometimes wish I got some back.

Patricia is demanding and prickly for a reason. She hasn't had the happiest of lives...how do you go on after being abandoned by your parents for being a 'cripple'? Shunting someone from foster family to foster family doesn't generally produce a whole, well-balanced person, who feels they can trust the world and its inhabitants.

I was hoping that I could offer a little love to Patricia, in her world that is so marred by burnt bridges and broken relationships. But loving Patricia is really hard work, and I'm not sure whether I'm in this for the long haul.

Friday, August 26, 2011

St Paul, porneia and the bonds of fidelity

I wrote an essay a few months ago about my good friend St Paul and his attitude to premarital sex.

This is an issue that has concerned me for some time, not least because of my own experiences of being at once a Christian, a sexual being, and not married. Now that I am married, surprise surprise, I find that I am far less troubled by the issue. Nonetheless, the subject called ‘Practices and Theologies of Love’ offered an opportunity too good to pass up, so I committed myself to writing the essay and figuring out once and for all what Paul had to say about sex before marriage.

As I flipped through commentaries and lined up my notes into paragraphs, I saw that actually, Paul didn’t have a whole lot to say about premarital sex. The reason, in a nutshell, is that the ‘dating scene’, in which we enter into extended ‘relationships’ with others as a precursor or an alternative to marriage, did not exist in Paul’s day. So to suggest that Paul had something to say about this issue is to imbue his words with a context very different from his own.

What Paul did mention a fair bit, however, was this concept of porneia. Older English versions of the Bible translate this to ‘fornication’, which in English means ‘premarital sex’. Hence the confusion. Nobody knows exactly what Paul meant when he used the word porneia, but here are some likely possibilities:
• sex with a prostitute;
• unlawful sexual conduct described in Leviticus 18, including incest, sex with a menstruating woman, men having sex with men and bestiality;
• the sexual idolatry that permeated the Greco-Roman world, which involved abuse, promiscuity and exploitation.

What I found out was that Paul was less concerned about the impact of porneia on individual morality, than its affect on the wider group. Take the example of the man (part of the church in Corinth) who has sex with his father’s wife, in 1 Corinthians 5. This is termed porneia. Paul’s concern is not for the man, or for the woman or the father for that matter. He demands that the church “hand this man over to Satan”. Paul is worried about the effect it will have on the Christian body: “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?”

Paul talks a lot about ‘the body’, which is a metaphor for the group as a whole. The concept comes from a long rhetorical tradition, in which the Greco-Roman polis or city-state was often portrayed as a body. Strife, discord and civil disobedience were seen as diseases in need of eradication. It is this communal ‘body’ that is important to Paul. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” asks Paul (6.19). What doesn’t come across in the English translation is that ‘your’ is plural and ‘body’ is singular – in other words, the Holy Spirit dwells in the communal body. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul blurs the categories of the individual and communal body. It is as if they are one and the same thing. Community members have their own bodies, but are simultaneously part of the ‘body of Christ’.

It is this communal body that porneia so threatens. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” asks Paul in 1 Cor 15b. The answer, of course, is ‘no’. Not only does this compromise the individual, but also the integrity of the group. Porneia stalks on the edges of the group, ready to infiltrate and compromise the integrity of the whole.

I think that porneia is still a threat. I find it helpful to think beyond just individual sexual morality, and the impact that sexual abuse and exploitation – a clear form of porneia – have on the wider community. I was thinking about contemporary issues such as ‘sexting’ and young ADFA cadets filming each other having sex, and the utter devastation this kind of behaviour has on people and relationships. I think this is porneia.

We are a society that believes in consequence-free sex; in sex that is first and foremost fun; sex that is removed from communities and severed from reproduction and children. At the centre of sex lies not the family or even the couple but the individual, and what is paramount is that the sexual needs of the individual are fulfilled. Sex is a pleasure-inducing product, transacted in an economy where the happiness and wellbeing of the individual is the primary currency. If the individual can experience passionate, gasping, orgasmic sex, then this person has achieved a significant degree of success. This is how we define good sex.

This is our modern sexual ethic – and, like any other application of rampant individualism, finds its ultimate destination in abuse and exploitation. Porneia, if you will. The modern sexual ethic, concerned mainly for the pleasure of the individual, does not care much about the other or the others involves. It is ultimately selfish.

And this is the point where I get to marriage. You may find the institution of marriage problematic – not least because it excludes a very important segment of our population (people in same-sex relationships). Marriage, however, has something very good going for it: it has the effect of giving sex a place that is wider and deeper than the individual. Rather than sex itself and the pleasure it affords holding the ultimate value, it the marriage itself that is valued. Sex is simply a part of the marriage. This leaves us outwardly focused: looking face-to-face with our spouse, rather than down at our own genitals.

If ‘marriage’ doesn’t work for you, then let’s think about fidelity. Fidelity is the commitment to lasting connections, as opposed to the pursuit of fleeting individual pleasure. Fidelity goes beyond the couple, extending into ever expanding networks of friendships, families and communities. Self-centred sex destroys bonds, but sex that is built on fidelity strengthens them. In my books, fidelity is the opposite of porneia.

“But since there is so much porneia,” says Paul, “each man should have his own woman, and each woman her own man” (1 Cor 1.2). Paul, in essence, is advocating fidelity. I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Women in church leadership: A reply

My friend Tom asked an important question about the role of women in church leadership, here. He says that he's heard a lot of arguments against female 'eldership' in the church, and wants to hear some arguments for. This is my response.

Tom - thanks for your willingness to grapple with this issue with such authenticity and openness. Given I am exploring a path of church ministry and leadership, I think I owe it to myself and my questioner to respond.

The key offending passage is this: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Timothy 2.11-15).

I can see, Tom, why you might find it difficult to biblically justify women in church leadership and, it would seem from the text, in teaching positions (where they teach men). There is nothing ambiguous about 1 Timothy 2.11-15. It’s not my favourite text, or the most quoted text within the modern church, but it is part of our sacred canon, and so must be contended with.

Part of grappling with biblical texts involves putting them alongside other passages. For a fuller picture of the role of women in the early church, we should look to the book of Acts and to the greetings in a number of Paul’s letters, which describe and list a number of women. Not least of these is Priscilla who, along with her husband Aquila, runs a home church. The very early church was based in people’s homes, which, being the locale of family, was the domain of women. The early churches were fairly egalitarian in structure – modeling themselves on a flat-structured family, as opposed to the vertical-structured and male-dominated temple or synagogue. The inclusive and egalitarian nature of the church is expressed nicely in Galations 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.

But then, we hit 1 Timothy, which is very clear about the place of women. I actually think that what we have here is two different strands of thought. Galatians is from the more egalitarian early church. 1 Timothy, though attributed to Paul, is probably from the early second century. The language used is quite different, and indicates a later period. It was apparently quite common for followers of important people in the ancient world to write new texts and attribute them to their hero, which appears to be the case for 1 Timothy. Hence it was included in the canon, because Pauline origin was one basis of canonic inclusion. But that is not to dismiss 1 Timothy – though it may not be Paul’s, it was still canonized, and as Christians we are therefore obliged to read it and take it seriously.

Unfortunately, the natural progression of things tends to be away from egalitarian origins, towards concentration of power amongst the powerful. What we see, between the time of Galatians and the time of 1 Timothy, is a movement towards patriarchy.

As such, I cannot read 1 Timothy 2.11-15 as divine revelation. Rather, I read it as divine WARNING – of what happens to radical equality in the midst of power and male dominance.

I have picked. I have chosen. I have decided which tradition I prefer. I do this on the basis of my life experience: of the women leaders who I have seen enrich the church (and what a waste had they been silent!), of the amazing nun who teaches my Gospel of John class (which has men in it), and my church history lecturer who also happens to be the first ordained woman in the Baptist church in Australia (go Marita!).

But I think that is what we are all forced to do. Others privilege 1 Timothy, and they do so on the basis of their life experience, also. For some, silencing women is more appealing than radical equality.

I actually think that it’s amazing that we have hints of a tradition that values female equality in the church within our canon. After all it was the church – the church controlled mainly by men – who chose which texts should become scripture and which should not. But all we have is hints, while the texts that purport to silence women are enshrined loud and clear.

So that’s my two cents, or maybe a dollar. It’s time for dinner, as my fingers are tired from typing this thing twice (the whole thing got deleted before when I tried to squeeze it into Tom's reply box)! Thanks for the question Tom, and may God be with you as you grapple with it further.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When community breaks through

Yesterday I spent the day hanging out with Malcolm*. Actually it’s part of my job: I am now a fully-fledged disability support worker. Malcolm is a sweet-talking, cheeky-grinned 54-year-old who spends most of his time in an electric wheelchair. He has a mouth like a trooper when he’s pissed off, and likes to race his wheelchair in fifth gear along the open road.

It was my job to accompany him around his community for the day. I was struck by the way Malcolm impacted the people in his local community. Everywhere we went, tired, busy, overworked workers stopped everything as soon as Malcolm walked through the door.

The entire teenaged workforce at McDonalds came out to greet Malcolm, standing around chatting and joking while he lodged a complaint (with a glint in his eye) about some poor kid handling the deep fryer. A girl with bleached blond hair and a ring in her bottom lip shoved a yellow and red striped straw into the plastic lid on his coffee cup. I held his coffee while he sucked deeply on the straw, using my other hand to sip the tea he had bought me. Afterwards a man held the door open for Malcolm as he wheeled out, leaving a string of goodbyes and profanities in his wake.

At the bank, Malcolm shouted to the tellers to bring him Amy, his favourite one. She came around to stand by his chair, while he asked questions that she had already answered numerous times before. She didn’t seem to mind – in fact she seemed to rather enjoy it. Her middle-aged manager grumbled a little but I could tell she was hiding a smile. She jostled back and forth with Malcolm as he made unreasonable demands, while customers looked on smiling.

Then we went to the TAC to place some bets: first on some horses, then on some dogs. Malcolm talked with the man behind the counter in some male dialect that I had never heard before, and he swore when he lost his $15 bet. The man behind the counter told Malcolm he was a “real gentleman”, but he was smiling the whole time. I could tell that he really liked Malcolm.

The only place where people didn’t know Malcolm’s name and where nobody talked to anybody was at the local gaming joint, where I assisted Malcolm to feed $50 notes into one of those money-sucking slots. I was just as mesmerized as anyone else by the flashing lights, electronic jingles and clatter of gold coins. People only looked at their screens, or their pots of money, or their frothy cups of complimentary coffee. Nobody looked at anybody else. When I talked to a person, it was more like talking to a machine.

I was thinking that even though Malcolm has a ‘disability’, he also has an incredible ‘ability’. He has a capacity to reach in and bring to the surface that which is so very human in all of us. For many of us, community interactions are little more than faceless transactions. But when Malcolm is around, the bankers, TAC employees and shiny-skinned Maccas workers suddenly become people, who smile, joke, grumble and ultimately care. The great surprise is that it is obnoxious, wheelchair-bound Malcolm who causes the breakthrough of authentic community. Maybe the presence of a ‘disability’ makes us all realise we need each other?

At the gaming venue, Malcolm was blank-faced, somewhere else. Everybody seemed stuck in their own sad world of boredom and addiction. I don’t think it is possible for anything like community to break through in a pokies joint.

* not real name

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The needy friend

I had this thought about friendship: that genuine friendships involve a need on both sides. I had thought in the past that a friendship based on need was disingenuous, or even selfish. I had this idea that friendship had to be altruistic, and to be friends with somebody because you needed them was, in effect, to use them.

But when I think about the different relationships in my life, I notice that the deepest ones involve or have involved need. It is a need for companionship or connection, generally. It is the satisfaction of a mutual need that enables deep friendships to grow. This is why many of my lasting friendships were formed in places of uncertainty, loneliness and fear, and why it is difficult to form deep friendships when one is comfortable, content and already befriended.

This, I realise now, is a beautiful thing, because it means that the best, most fruitful connections - the ones that enrich our lives and make them worth living - come out of our hungry, vulnerable, infant-like selves. We are never complete, but for the relationships that hold us, and (conversely) it is this incompleteness, this empty space inside, that enables friendships to form. And not coincidentally, it is also this empty space that causes us to seek out and connect with God.

Isn't it lovely that friendship only exists because of loneliness? Isn't that the most hopeful thing?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Food, sex and hedonism

I was thinking today, while Masterchef was playing in the restaurant Dave and I were eating at, that we’ve all become a bit hedonistic of late. It’s all pleasure for pleasure’s sake. We collect culinary experiences like we collect passport stamps, or music for our ipods, or furniture, or clothes, or sexual experiences for that matter. We pile these things up like Lego pieces and put them in the shape of a person, and they become us. We become mirrors for the things we project onto ourselves, and we hope that people like us for it. In other words, we become what we consume. We value things for the pleasure they can afford us, and then once we consume them we think we’re valuable.

I’ve also been thinking about sex lately, due to an essay I’m writing. In the last 60 years or so, ‘sex’ as a dominant discourse has drifted from the moorings of family and procreation, to a personal pleasure that is transacted between two free individuals. Sex has entered the market place alongside food, cars, music and real estate. New ideas about sex have reduced its value to its fun-factor, or, less crudely, it’s ability to give us deep and fulfilling pleasure. Without sex, we are told, we are not reaching our potential as human beings. Commodified sex always existed in the form of prostitution, but now it seems to be the basis of relationships.

Sex can be pleasurable, as can be food and all the other things we like to consume. But to reduce these things to consumable pleasures is surely to drain them of all the really good stuff they embody. Surely, when it comes down to it, food and sex are about life.

In a literal sense food gives us the nutrients to live, but is also what we share with our friends and family in order to laugh, commune and deepen relationships. In focusing exclusively on the optimum taste and texture of a black forest cake is to forget that the cake is ultimately for celebration with people we love.

And sex is also about life, in more than just a literal sense. Sex can bring people closer, deeper and more awake to each other. If sex is just for pleasure, then as one author put it, it is no more than simultaneous masturbation, offering no more than personal gratification, and making us more disconnected than ever.

This whole focus on pleasure is ultimately a massive set of blinkers, distracting us from things in the world that are outside of our bodies. The exploited animals and farmers that produced our exquisite food don’t matter, and neither do the wars we are involved in or the lonely man down the street who is eating by himself.

Surely if we deeply experience food and sex, for more than the pleasure that can be derived, they would bring us closer to the people and the world around us. Experiencing the world purely for the pleasure it offers just sends us further inside our own bodies, leaving us deaf, blind and senseless to the real world beyond ourselves.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The job of a Christian

Right now I'm feeling sick at a comment from the head of the Australian Christian Lobby, that Australian servicemen and women didn't fight for gay marriage and Islam. I feel sick because this is a Christian leader who is using a sacred Australian day - when we should be remembering the horror of war and the people who lives were lost or changed forever because of it - to peddle his own political agenda of hate and exclusion. Is that was Christianity is about?

I'm also feeling sick from a conversation I had over lunch yesterday - Easter Sunday - with a group of mainly Christians. Someone told of how students from the student village in Maribyrnong - next door to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre - placed Easter eggs on the outside of the fence line, so that the people locked inside could not reach them. The students were taunting the imprisoned asylum seekers. People sniggered over their Easter barbecue lunch.

I'm disturbed mainly because these are Christians saying and doing these things. If our churches don't teach a message that makes us repulsed at such statements and such behaviour, then our churches are lost. There is no point to them. If they are preaching a message of personal salvation that is divorced from salvation for our community, our society and our world, then this is rubbish salvation. It's salvation that is egotistical and self-centred, and no good for anybody.

What kind of salvation was preached in our churches this Easter?

As the events leading to the state murder of Jesus picked up their pace, Jesus told a story about who will enter the empire of God. All the nations would be gathered before Jesus who, in that scenario, was King. Some people would be invited in: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

These people asked the King when they had ever seen him in need. And he answered, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

It wasn't long before Jesus was executed. We remember his death and resurrection at Easter time.

We, as a nation, will be judged by the way we treat those on our edges. Asylum seekers, strangers seeking a new home, people with disabilities, people who are imprisoned or homeless, our first people, people who are gay, foreign or just plain different - these are our edge dwellers. Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

It's the people on the edge who will judge us, because they are the people who can tell us whether we are a loving, justice-seeking nation. This is the prophetic voice, the voice from the wilderness, the voice that lets us know who we're fooling when we congratulate each other for our prosperous, peaceful, egalitarian society.

It's easy to be blind. But the job of Christians is to see the people, to hear their prophetic voice, and to do something.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Religion in schools

The controversial issue of religious education in schools has again reared its less-than-pretty head, like a pimple that could either burst or go underground again for an indefinite period of time (as a mild acne sufferer, I know how these things work).

Apparently the Education Department forces primary schools to have religious education whether they like it or not, and the only provider to conduct such education is explicitly and motivationally Christian. As such, 96 percent of religious education in schools is taught by Christians.

It's not meant to be biased, but of course it is. It's taught by church goers who are passionate about their faith, and passionate about sharing it with the up-and-coming generations. They're going to want to talk about the joy they find in their own faith.

I'll be blunt: I think that it is absurd in this day and age, in this multi-cultural, multi-religious society, in this diverse and complex world of many diverse and complex religions, that the religious education taught in schools is almost entirely Christian.

The Christian story and faith is an important one, and children need to know about it because it undergirds much of the culture and customs in this Anglo-Saxon dominated society. From a personal perspective it is also a worldview that I am passionate about, and believe that it has the potential to seriously enrich and change people's lives.

But it's not the only religion! Religious education is important because whether we like it or not - whether we are religious or not - religion is one of the things that makes the world go round. It shapes events, it determines the way people interact, it determines the way people don't interact. To be schooled only in the Christian religion is to miss a crucial lens for viewing our society and the world. It is to miss out on the opportunity to understand where other people are coming from. And it is to miss out on the chance to be seriously enriched and changed by these different ways of doing, being and believing.

I think it would be amazing if the funding allocated to religious education in schools was used to promote understanding between different religious groups. There is an experimental program called 'Building Bridges' that aims to facilitate discussions between high school students of different faith backgrounds. I think that's a brilliant idea, and the kind of thing that true 'religious education' should be aiming towards.

This conversation is also somewhat personal for me, as I have been thinking about chaplaincy as something to do in the future. I believe that there is an important role for people of faith in secular institutions - to provide support in a holistic way. But I'm uncomfortable that again it's mainly Christians that get the funding to do this stuff.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Wandering the wilderness

In the period of Lent, we read the story of Jesus in the wilderness, wandering for forty days and forty nights, by which time he is understandably 'hungry' and is tempted by Satan.

It's good for us to have 'wilderness' times in our lives - periods of wandering and waiting with no path to anywhere. I'm having a wilderness time at the moment. I am waiting for my path to appear. It hasn't been long but I'm already hungry. Hungry for a sense of purpose and direction; hungry for the feeling of importance or the elation of significance. I am ripe for the tempting.

And the temptations come in fairly innocuous forms: an ad for a job that seems 'ideal' but not for right now, for example. Things that, as Caroline preached a few Sundays ago, are not bad in and of themselves, but could be 'temptations' merely because they stop you doing what you are meant to be doing.

Which for me, is wandering in the wilderness a bit longer. Waiting for the right path to appear, and having faith that it will.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A nonviolent God? The scriptures transformed

The other night, while my friend and I wound around the roads of the Eastern suburbs talking life and faith, she asked whether I believed all war was wrong.

I said I generally believed in a nonviolent God.

She asked me how that was possible, given all the war and bloodshed in the Old Testament.

"I guess I can't believe in a God that would order genocide," was my reply.

These are tough questions, for Christians who take the Bible seriously but want to worship a God of love and peace, not death and violence. The Bible, in fact, does report that God ordered genocide, commanding the Israelites to kill seemingly everyone in their path when they set up shop in the land of Canaan.

It's easy to pretend that these things aren't in the Bible. But they are.

Still, I believe in a nonviolent God. Why? Because I believe in the God introduced to me by Jesus, who taught us how to love our enemies, break the cycle of retaliation by turning the other cheek, and put down our swords to seek healing instead.

The fact is that I read the Bible not by taking every word literally and applying it to my life (there would be a lot of stoning of non-virgins if we were all to do that), but by reading it through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Jesus was a Jew, and so the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) serves as a backdrop to all he did and said. Jesus, the radical Rabbi, lived in the tradition. And yet he transformed it into something new - something that would better serve God and humanity.

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind'; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’" said Jesus in Matthew, before adding, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

And so while the law says, "Do not murder", we should go further and reconcile with our brother or sister so it never gets to that point. And while we have heard it said, "Do not commit adultery", we are commanded not even to look at a woman (or a man?) with the desire to possess her (or him). And while the law says, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", Jesus tells us not to retaliate, but to turn the other cheek instead. Break the cycle of violence.

Jesus treats the law as something dynamic, something capable of transformation, something more than a stale scroll used to keep others in their place. But to do this he needs to read beyond the letter of the law and live the spirit of the law, which is ultimately about people and their God.

In some ways, Jesus was doing nothing new - even within the Bible we see new traditions building on old traditions and changing or transforming them. For example different strands that appear in the Torah are in fact in conversation with each other, with varying standpoints on a number of issues. Chronicles 1 and 2 retell and amend stories from earlier on in the Bible. And Job challenges the dominant religious idea, found throughout the Hebrew Bible, that suffering is the result of punishment from God for some sin you have committed.

And so, the tradition of Jesus is the one in which I choose to stand. That is not to dismiss the stories of war and bloodshed in the Hebrew Bible - they are there for a reason though their purpose may have served the earlier Israelite community better than they serve us today. I stand in a tradition transformed by the love of Jesus Christ, which continues to be reshaped and re-imagined by the followers of Christ. Jesus took the law beyond its dead letter, and we must continue to do the same, discerning how it might be applied in our own context.

First and foremost, we must love God, and love our neighbour as ourself. The rest of it hangs on that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Unintended consequences

All Luther and his Protestant followers meant to do was make it clear that faith no longer had to be mediated through a church hierarchy - that all that was required for your eventual heavenly ascent was a personal relationship with God, direct from created to creator, no priests needed, thanks.

Faith, then, only required you, your Bible, and your God. It was, in other words, a private affair, a path of personal salvation, that need not concern anyone else. The proper repository of spirituality was inside the individual, not to be exposed to others, except perhaps in a civilised manner in church on a Sunday.

Incidentally, this marked the start of individualism in the Western world, because suddenly the basic unit of value was not the family, the church or the village - it was YOU, who God related directly with, and YOU needed only to be concerned about YOU.

It also marked the end of the public life of religion, which we saw most poignantly in the separation of church and state.

Some time after that, we lost God. And then someone found her again, huddled under a pew in a cold church. Half of the YOUs were running around outside, making lots of money, ripping other people off; the other half of the YOUs were sitting sternly in the church, after having spent the week making lots of money and ripping other people off.

I think that God really wants the whole world to dwell in, rather than being stuck under a hard wooden pew or stuffed into a confessional booth.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Bible and me

I've been grappling with the Bible of late, and wondering about its relevance to me, and perhaps more importantly, us. My struggle is this: I want to engage with it critically, but as a Christian I feel it is crucial to be open to its transformative power. I want to use my brain and ask the questions, but I am also aware of the importance of approaching the text - and the thousands of years of tradition that surround it - with respect and humility. That is the tension in which I live.

This is kind of 'where I'm at' - at the moment - with respect to how I view the Bible:

(1) The Bible is not a book. It is an anthology, or a library - a collection of works that draw in many traditions, and many voices, that span many, many years.

(2) As such, we cannot expect the Bible to have a consistent voice. The Bible contains ideas that are in tension as well as ideas and statements that are in conflict. That's ok - after all, the Bible never purported to be consistent.

(3) God's breath can be found throughout the pages of the Bible, as it hovered in the pens of its many writers and editors, and as it dwelled within the communities that nurtured the ideas and stories that finally made their way into the Bible. We need to be continually on the lookout for God's spirit in these sacred texts.

(4) As a Christian, my 'theological centre' is in the Gospels of Jesus Christ. The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, forms a backdrop that brings meaning and clarity to Christ's teachings and story, while the rest of the New Testament provides wisdom for groups of Christians, perhaps some cautionary tales, as well as some ways to come to grips with what Christ means for us.

(5) Reading the Bible and applying it to our lives requires discernment, careful study and a good dose of love.

Is that all terribly controversial? I always feel like the controversial one.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Can I call this work?

I moved in with Dave about a month ago. This new domestic situation – I have spent the last seven years living platonically in share houses – has caused me to confront again the issue of work.

I’ll be frank. Compared to many of my friends, and possibly the majority of the world’s population, I live a pretty cruisy existence. When others complain about being run ragged working late at the office or getting up five times throughout the night to tend to a screaming child, I can sympathise, but not really relate.

My week is set out thus. I am engaged in paid employment three days a week, as a researcher at a most esteemed academic institution. I could work more if I wanted, but I don’t, because I would rather spend my time doing other things. I volunteer at Credo one day a week, where I chop veggies in the morning and run a creative writing group in the afternoon. This leaves one weekday left, which I call my ‘free’ day, and utilize it for my own creative pursuits, whether it be writing or researching (I’m currently working on a book), or, as has been the case more recently, attend wedding dress fittings and look at flower posies on the internet.

And then I have a weekend – because everybody needs a rest, don’t they?

The fact that I’m not chained to a desk five days a week or doing something similarly painful with my time is a common source of guilt for me. I can’t remember which philosopher said, “I think, therefore I am”, but I think a more true motto for our society would be, “I do, therefore I am”. Hence we all ask the question, “What do you do?” at awkward social events, because its answer is defining.

But here’s the catch – the ‘do’ bit is only really defining when it has some kind of economic value.

Which gets me thinking – have you ever found it extra awkward asking a woman that question? Not when she’s in a business suit and heels, because then it’s obvious that she spends her days in some kind of paid employment – but when she’s the wife of someone and is wearing something different or has some kind of demeanor that makes you think that she might be a homemaker?

The awkwardness, for me, arises if and when she chooses an answer involving the word ‘just’ – as in, “I just look after the kids”. You have a choice, then, of either being a bit sad about her choice of the word ‘just’ and move on her ask her about her kids, or tell her, righteously, “There is no just when it comes to looking after kids!”

The fact is that I’m a bit awkward about unpaid employment. And I’ll take a stab and suggest that other people might be a bit awkward as well.

It’s ok to be studying, because it’s the lead up to paid work, and it’s ok to be retired because it means you’ve spent a fair chunk of your life doing paid work – but unpaid work on its own is embarrassing and awkward probably because society doesn’t value it very much.

So, I feel guilty about my two days of unpaid work. The volunteer work isn’t so bad – I suppose because I feel like it has an economic value. I see it as a donation. My ‘free’ day, on the other hand, doesn’t really have an economic value, it’s mainly for me and my creative headspace, working towards a nebulous goal that I feel is nonetheless important.

Things have changed upon my recent co-habitation. There is now a question hovering in the background that we only occasionally ask outright: What are we both contributing to this partnership? David works full time in a paid job and so his question is easy to answer. My non-paid work requires more effort to rationalize.

We decided that as a couple we were happy to give a certain amount of time to the community, which my volunteer day feeds into. My ‘free’ day, however, raises the question of ‘What is work’? Is writing and thinking and researching ‘work’, when I don’t get paid for it, or payment might not amount to much and could be a long way away and – to make matters worse – I enjoy it? What about spending time with my sister and her baby – this is very important but is it work? Hanging out with my bridesmaid to make sure she’s down with the flowers and hairstyles? Baking biscuits for the new neighbours that moved in? Tending to my vegetable garden that doesn’t produce many vegetables but does produce lots of interactions with other community members? Are these things work? Sometimes I feel like I work really hard doing some of these things, but I struggle to call them work, and then I feel guilty for investing so much in them, when I could be using that time to earn money.

And then I have this feeling that I should do extra housework to make up for it, which is also awkward and embarrassing because it seems really backward and sexist, and David is a Sensitive New Age Guy.

But many of these activities that I love are what forms the social glue in our society, so they are immensely important. Apart from being unpaid they are also so…well, female! ...which is also why they are undervalued. And this forms the basis of another source of my guilt, because staying home a day a week partly to do traditionally female activities, while my husband-to-be brings home the bacon (or tofu), is SO not the go-getter feminist I was brought up to be.

Oh, if only I was a man, and then I could do as much housework and baking for the neighbours as I wanted and it would be cool!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lessons from Sydney

I’m currently on a week’s holiday in Sydney, and so far I have learnt two lessons.

The first is this: People don’t need all the details. I must credit this lesson to David, who has pointed out on numerous occasions that I often tell people way too much. I don’t mean necessarily sordid details about what I did last night (although I’m occasionally guilty of that crime too), but rather more mundane example like, “I’m going to be 15 minutes late.” You see, people don’t need to know that, “the traffic is terrible,” or “my sister took forever to get ready,” or “I couldn’t find a fresh pair of undies”. Generally, they don’t really give a damn – the point is that you’re going to be late.

So, the other day I went up to the motel reception and said, in simple elegance, “Can I please have a bowl, a spoon and a little bit of milk?” The man in the paint-speckled trousers, who had come down from a ladder to serve me (I add this detail to indicate that this was by no means the finest of establishments) replied, in equally simple elegance, “No worries love. I’ll bring it right round.” I didn’t mention anything of my special muesli mix that I lugged all the way up from Melbourne, or even the fact that I required it to keep my digestive tract chugging along nicely (“Don’t you find that travelling has a rather binding effect on your system?” I might have added). But I said exactly none of these things, and the man behind the counter obviously didn’t give a damn because he knocked on my motel room door a few moments later with a bowl, a spoon and a small pitcher of milk. No questions asked; I had learnt my first lesson.

I decided to test out my newly found insight a second time at yet another delightful northern Sydney suburban place of lodging. This time I took it to a whole new level: I called room service. Now let me impress on the reader that this is not an activity of which I am accustomed: every fibre of my being tells me that there is something very wrong with sitting up in bed dialling numbers and expecting things to be brought to you that you yourself cannot be bothered to get up and fetch yourself. But, the brown vinyl motel room folder told me otherwise, so I resolved to try it out.

I politely requested a bowl, a spoon and a small pitcher of milk, with not even a mention of my digestive system. The restaurant had closed, I knew in advance, and this institution only generally provided room service when the restaurant was open, but I figured that if I sounded satisfactorily self-assured, they would make an exception – and anyway milk on demand is surely within the usual offerings of any decent suburban motel.

I was wrong. The woman at the end of the line informed me (as I already knew) that the restaurant had closed, and there was simply no way they could produce my requested items. As first I felt deflated, because my new technique was clearly not fool-proof. Then I found myself feeling a bit shitty – surely a request as humble as my own was within the breadth of an institution set up solely to cater for the needs of travellers?? I mean, it wasn’t as though I had just asked for a banana split with extra caramel sauce, thanks very much. What kind of motel was this, that couldn’t even give me some milk and some wholly common eating utensils?

I trudged to the local service station – which by the way was a good kilometre away – in a bit of a huff. As the sun beat down and the cars and trucks of the Pacific Highway hurdled by, I did have a chance to reflect. This brings me to the second lesson learnt on this trip: If you want somebody to do something for you that they don’t have to do, you have to be extra nice.

If you are thinking that I should have learnt this lesson a good while ago, you are probably right. The tendency to be a little demanding and obnoxious is unfortunately one of the weaker points of my character (note to David). In my defence, however, in the modern, highly bureaucratic society of our own, it takes a particularly high level of perception to realise that though something may seem to fall within the responsibilities of one’s job, it may in fact not. They may do that thing for you, but if they do, it will be a favour.

It was true. The restaurant had closed for the morning. I may think that motels should provide milk on request but what I was asking, in fact, was that the managers of this Golden Chain motel would do a little bit extra for me. What I should have done, then, was start by acknowledging that the restaurant was closed, and request that they do me a big favour by producing my desired items. I probably didn’t need to tell them anything about the health-benefits of my particular mix of muesli. But what I should have realised is that people don’t like it when you demand – or even request – that they do something they don’t have to do. On the other hand, if you make people feel like they are doing something nice for you – which they are – my theory is that they are more likely to want to do it.

By way of another example (if this point isn’t obvious to you already): I have an expectation, which I think is fairly reasonable, that I will get paid by the certain university that I work for. In addition, I have an expectation that I will be paid on time – and that I won’t be left begging off parents and scabbing drinks off friends when they miss my pay for three fortnights in a row.
No reasonable person would disagree with this assumption. On the other hand, the lovely and ever-helpful people at HR cannot be expected to chase down the hours that they did not receive from the person whose job it was to pass them on, but has now disappeared into another dimension and does not respond either to phone calls or desperate emails. There is no point leaving angry voice messages and sending sarcastic emails to the people at HR, though you are entitled to feel angry. From their perspective, they would be doing me a big favour by chasing up my hours – not merely doing their job. Thus, I need to treat them as though they are helping me out, and make them feel like they want to prioritise me over and above others in their busy schedule on account of my sweet disposition and pitiful situation. I must shower them with thanks and gratitude in anticipation for their life-saving service of which they have no obligation whatsoever to fulfil, but they will do only because they are a nice girl/guy.

But just don’t give them any unnecessarily details, because the probably won’t give a damn.