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Sub-plot specialists

June 11, 2018

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There are times when you lose the plot
The plot of your own story.
And the best you think you can hope for is
to find yourself a secondary character
in the subplot
of someone else’s story.
Some of us have so much
difficulty developing our own plot line
with any consistency or conviction,
that we make an art form
out of weaving in and out of other plots.
Sub plot specialists.

Perhaps this is in fact a vocation.
Maybe some of us aren’t called to be main characters.
But to appear in cameos,
delivering an essential line here and there,
that shift the action in some different direction,
or explain something that was unclear,
or to mirror the grand narrative in a smaller, more accessible form
– and bring its claims and hubris back down to human proportions.

The subversion of the subplot.
The subliminal meaning-making of the subplot.
The substitution of earthy commoner for elevated elite in the subplot action.

Secondary characters who carry subplots are typically more colourful, not the fine lady, but the crone or the gypsy, not the nobleman but the valet or the sergeant.
The servant, the thespian, the cook, the lover, the fool, the cripple, the musician, the shoe maker, the traveller.
The child.

The child is always a subplot.

These are the characters
that move
that come and go.
They are revealers of other people’s truths.
They are lightning rods and catalysts for tension and resolution.

They are time sensitive – timely and timed out.

The child. The child is always a subplot.

Poking open hearts
to uncover the deepest of human vulnerabilities, fears and loves.
Posing questions of motive and meaning from the side.
Creating problems for the cunning and contriving strategists.
Carrying innocently inconvenient scandals for the virtuous.

So in stories upon the stage and the page, so in our very lives.
Sub-plots specialists.

there is a whisper though,
that we are all subplot specialists
in a vast story of immense complexity and proportion
and sovereignly separate cosmic character
Reading ourselves as children
is the wisest way of knowing our character
and finding our cues for the drama of life.

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soundbytes and stunting sensitivity to the experience of children.

June 1, 2018
Facebook. I shouldn’t look.
A friend posted a quote from a book. A Christian book, a big selling influential Christian book,  by a contemporary theologian of great reputation. It’s a good book. I’ve read it. It was helpful in lots of ways. Definitely read it if you haven’t and buy it and pass it around to others.
I’m not dismissing the book because of this one quote, but this was the quote that was shared, given profile, and so then discussed and reinforced on facebook.
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It appears that a good church upbringing will do many marvelous things for you, but one of the unfortunate things it also does is convince you that Jesus is to be worshipped but not followed.
– Alan Hirsch,  ReJesus. 
Ah, man. I can’t tell you how infuriating this kind of generalisation is.
It’s a good sound-byte.
But I am about to object (some of you won’t be surprised) because its an example of the way the faith experiences of children are dismissed, scapegoated and marginalised in theological discourse in ways that don’t help us understand our own cultural practices well.
Again, I have to ask how we manage to malign the young with language we would not dare use for other minorities or marginalised group. Is there a context christians feel more disinhibited in deprecating that the experiences of childhood?
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So my questions, I admit are running on frustration and fury. Forgive me. I know you would if I were prophetically calling out for reconsideration of the way we spoke about gender, or race or ability.
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It’s a small soundbyte from a wonderful book – but it is the kind of comment, and the discussion that it spawns, the stunts our sensitivity to the actual experience of children in our midst – even as we use them for theological mileage.
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‘Good church upbringing…’ what is that, I wonder?
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Who is Hirsch talking about?
Who does he diagnoses as worshipping Jesus and not following him, and on what basis does he judge this?
What kind of spiritual elitism judges the human who follows the script on Sunday, as expected, and whose discipleship through the week is most likely hidden, like a pearl of great price or salt or yeast in dough. The faithful lives of disciples are not easily assessed by a church that gathers once a week for a one-way communication process.
The rubric for evaluating people as worshippers or disciples is not easily drawn.
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I had a childhood in the church – a very good church upbringing.
The message ‘I shall not offer unto the Lord that which costeth me nothing” was so often repeated it rings in my ears still.
What was faith formation growing up in the church?
It was daily dying to self. It was giving all you had – in real and practical terms – to follow the crucified Christ. It was holding up all of your daily life-style decisions to the light of scripture for revision and re-evaluation.
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I’m sure others had different experiences of church-upbringing; and I can’t see what informs Hirch’s claim about the experience of children in faith communities, but I am sure there is a far greater diversity of formative practices and outcomes than this
off- hand quote suggests.
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So – just as anecdotally – from the perspective of decades out the back in the hall with the young disciples I offer an alternative view. A view not from the platform, but from the pew and from the short legged tables and the carpet square and the craft cupboard and the pages of the Bible with icing sugar smears.
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The orientation of ‘upbringing’ – by which I mean the experience of children in churches has been – to a fault- centred on discipleship. Following Jesus, prayer and engagement with the bible and the way it shapes our everyday actions is the common stock in how we ‘process’ children in faith communities. If there’s a critique to be brought more commonly it is that children are excluded from the worshipping life of the church, denied the sacraments and the contemplative moments of life together. And routinely the discipleship formation experience of children hits difficult waters in the conversion experience orientation of youth ministry. Suddenly children who thought they were following Jesus for a decade – whose prayers were sincere, who were endeavouring to shape their lives on the sermon on the mount at our behest, are told they are rotten rebellious sinners far from God. What is the impact of discrediting their discipleship?
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So I offer this alternative diagnosis. It is not the upbringing/child-raising practices that misdirect faith posture towards “worship-against-discipleship”, but the transition from discipleship-oriented faith formation of the young, to the worship orientation of the adult community.
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I write thinking of children and young people.  But also I write thinking of the adults I know who had church upbringings. Adults who no longer identify with a church. Who don’t ‘worship Jesus’ – but the legacy of their childhood is  faith in following the teachings, the ethics, the kingdom of God that they learned as young disciples of  Jesus.
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Some of them are yet our best prophetic voices, calling the church to return to faithfulness to the architecture Jesus revealed.
What of them? Their church upbringing has precisely left them following Jesus without worshipping him.
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What do we make of that?
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The Royal Wedding, the Royal Commission and other travelling unravellings.

May 30, 2018

High above the Tasman Sea between Christchurch and Melbourne, the man next to me in 12B was in conversational full flight. I’d heard about his wife’s illness and artistry and his kids interests and academic strength, his business partners, the staff he’d let go, his parents, his interest in singing and photography and electronics and farming.

When the inevitable question of my profession came up, he was not deterred at all when I self-identified as a theologian.

He was on the trail of my philosophical leanings and wanted to know if I knew who Noam Chomsky was, because his son had recently exchanged emails with Chomsky. I was suitably impressed.

He knew  to ask if I had a specific faith myself – and what that might be, not taking western christendom’s legacy as a given. He talked about the female vicars he knew, in fact, the lesbian vicar he was friends with. By this time he was two white wines worth of relaxed.

He wanted to know what I did when I was writing or talking ‘theology’.

He asked about the conference I’d been speaking at, sorting out if I’d been preaching (no) or speaking (yes); if I called the assembly a congregation (no) or an audience (yes); and he wanted to know how many ‘hallelujahs’ I’d used (none) as a test of whether I was indeed preaching (no) or speaking (yes).

He asked what I thought of the preacher (Bishop Michael Curry) at the Royal Wedding last week, and we talked about different flavours of religion, and genres and of

Bishop-Michael-Curry-Royal-Weddingcommunication, and how these could align or get out of tilt. He felt that Curry might  have used a few more “Hallelujahs” himself -though conceded that there were enough British Propriety Feathers ruffled as it was.

 

 

All of this was jovial and shared at 36,000 feet in easy relaxed smiles and banter and anecdotes and laughter.

Then as we talked more about the specific areas of my own theological interests – the way our theology works itself out in the way we treat the vulnerable, and particularly the young and the aged  and those not afforded the luxury of physical or mental prime and the religious self sufficient hubris that often characterises it. I spoke about the days of reckoning that have come upon the Australian church, as the history of child abuse has been unmasked publicly, at length in the proceedings of the Royal Commission. I spoke about the responses of institutions. We need more than simply greater protective legislations and procedures – though of course these are not to be neglected.

At the heart of our history of child sexual abuse are the flawed beliefs we have about who children are. That they are only becoming human. That they are not yet formed. That they are – to be blunt – less. So we do things to them that we think matter less, than what happens to adults.

Our terrible theologies have born poisonous fruit. We have espoused that either that children are innocent and unblemished, so are immune from perpetrating abuse upon one another – thus we neglect their supervision and accountability.

Or it’s been held that children are, along with all humanity, utterly depraved, but being yet too young to be able to respond with conscious will to accept the saving  grace of Christ,  must be given over to bear the brunt of sin – in the hope of forgiveness and redemption later.

And flowing on from this, our practices that closet children away, because we consider them no asset, or even worse, a distraction in the pursuit of holiness and the right worship God, has left them vulnerable to inadequate leadership and resourcing for safety and flourishing and honouring.

None of this is controversial or surprising to anyone. There church is coming unravelled in the eyes of the public – and rightly so. Some significant unstitching and re-making is in order.

My fellow traveller knew exactly what I was saying on a practical level. Though like many people he had never thought about the way our beliefs, our theology, might help or hinder good practice. He was taken by the importance of this.

A pause – this extraverted electronic engineer, excited to be flying to Australia on a business junket had bubbled away for a couple of hours of conversation with barely a breath till this point.

Then he unravelled a further story.

He spoke of how the issues of child sexual abuse had come close to him personally. His 11 year old daughter had recently revealed to him that she had been sexually abused over a period of several years – since she was about 8 –  by an older cousin, taking place in the midst of family gatherings, holidays and celebrations.

snap. #metoo.

I listened as he spoke of the pain of the disclosure, his wife’s denial, his courage to face up to his brother (whose son was involved) and speak of such difficult things. The role wise and steady Grandma, his mother, had giving him strength for this task. He spoke of the school processes, of counselling, and how he has a commitment with his daughter to check in once a week and have a conversation about this with her, not to let it drift into the distance as irrelevant. He acknowledges that there is still work ahead for every one.

For his daughter, for him and his brother to reconcile fully, for the young lad who enacted the abuse. What brought about such actions in this young person’s being?

What was motivating and informing him?

As we travelled across the deepest part of the sea, I listened. I heard a story I knew part of  so thoroughly already myself. I hear a story that might have been straight out of any social worker’s files, out of any text book on abuse. Classic. Text book. Predictable. Common.

Most sexual abuse happens in this way. Not in churches or scout groups or swimming clubs or dance schools – though plenty of it happens there. Most abuse happens in families. Most perpetrators of sexual abuse offend for the first time in their early teenage years.

My fellow traveller had come to know this – to know the devastating ordinary of his daughter’s damage and his family’s experience. His family is not a terrible family, a troubled family in the cliched sent we might think. They are happy and healthy and honest, supportive and functional, generous and loving, with a good seasoning of old time Anglican love thy neighbour and community service. They are normal. Their experience is normal.

My work in theology endeavours to reveal the places where our decent and respectable beliefs cover up practices of evil and harm.

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The way we read the story of family in the Bible is a large area for revision.

We must not pedestal Abraham – whose own anxieties about power placed his wife at risk and his son almost under the knife.

We must not sugar-coat Jacob, deceptive, manipulative, raising a family of violent, vindictive brothers.

We must stop considering the rapist David a godly example to follow.

 

 

The Biblical narrative of family is far from ideal.

The Biblical narrative of family is full of real.

My fellow traveller carried a great gift in his story – he knew his family was a good rich resource of love and life, but this didn’t blind him to the possibility and impact of wrongdoing within it. As we tell the biblical stories of family, and as we speak of family in our communities, we need this wisdom. This real. This possibility that all is not well – even in ‘good’ families. We need this to combat the culture of shame that inhibits timely disclosure by victims, and appropriate support and help for perpetrators. We need this to    shut down judgement that divides communities and labels some families as ‘dysfunctional’ and others as ‘exemplary’.

#metoo tells us simply that abuse happens anywhere and everywhere. That those who act wrongly are not monsters in the first instance, but terribly terribly ordinary, thought their unrestrained actions and access to power will in time tragically disfigure them.

As we landed and finished our conversation, the man in 12B – still we hadn’t exchanged names – returned to the thread of conversation about my work speaking at conferences about theologically informed practices with children and families.

He left me with a charge:

“Next time you speak, I want there to be at least one big Hallelujah.”

Although I don’t know his name, he had used the name of his daughter, Hazel, throughout the journey.

So I will.

I will raise a Hallelujah for Hazel. For  hope in the honesty of hurting and healing families.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope sounding sad

May 29, 2018
WOM17-HERO-Uncle-Kutcha-in-Concert_Kutcha-Edwards.-Image-by-Mardi-Thorpe_WEB-890x500
Kutcha Edwards is singing at Fed Square in Melbourne today at lunchtime, as part of  Reconciliation Week.
His song Hope   is possibly the most beautiful and saddest song about resilience I know. A song, not about politics in the classic sense, but about domestic abuse, a different context of power, but one we need to understand with greater honesty and responsibility for how we think about human-ing together full stop.
But Hope.
Hope doesn’t always look strident or peppy or brazen or inspirational.
Hope often doesn’t  feel great.
Sometimes hope comes from a place so deep and sacred,
it holds gentle quiet and respect for the griefs it needs to mourn on the way forward.
Hope contends with the past in the light of the future.
Despair contends with the future in the light of the past.
In the present, they can feel so alike – both contending, both struggling.
We stand in this present moment with all who despair and hope.
As we stand in Hope, this present moment may be a bridge to things put-to-right.
Hope humbles us. It holds a future put right, so large that we know we cannot quick fix it to save our faces.
Hope holds us humble in its own immensity.
For the followers of Jesus – we stand in hope that defines the work of God in the world as reconciliation – things put-to-right.
And so we must contend with the past.
with all our sorry;
with all out not ok;
with all our owning up;
with all our listening;
with all our tell it straight like it was;
with all our what do we need to change now
with all hope and humility.
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The topographical tribulations of transient hearts

May 28, 2018
Map-heart-054

1514 Map by Oronce Fine

drowning in the sea of sorrow
shipwrecked on the reefs of regret
stranded on the island of frustration
falling from the cliffs of expectation
crushed in the landslides of miscommunication
flailing in the quicksand of desperation
fevered in the jungles of fear
roasting in the desert of anger
frozen on the slopes of anxiety
wandering on the snow drifts of hopelessness
trapped in the ravines of grudge-holding
hanging from the precipice of judgement
starving on the tundra of silence
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No Questions will be answered

April 18, 2018

Slide1 If you know me at all, you’ll know that I am fuelled by high octane curiosity.
I suffer perpetual inquisitiveness.
I sprinkle interrogatives on my cereal for breakfast.

The life of questioning is as natural as breathing in and out.
I don’t think I’m alone. I think most of us like some investigative action.
The popularity of stories like Sherlock Holmes testify to what a treat so many of us find it to sport with questions.

Delightful fun as questioning is, it is also a serious business. We have professional question askers – researchers, investigative journalists, psychologists, detectives…and I’d consider most teachers professional questioners.
Questioning is an ancient and complex art; so many kinds of questions, angles from which to approach interrogation, research methods and layers of inquiry to peel back in playing with questions.
The craft of learning by questioning is known as the Socratic Method, giving eponymous dignity.

Whether we vocalize all our questions or not, we survive by questions.

On the other hand one of the most frustrating experiences for me – and again I suspect I’m not alone – is to have questions shut down.

It is disempowering. The French philosopher Foucault explored a claim ‘knowledge is power’ – and indeed where questions are forbidden, knowledge is controlled and becomes controlling.

In the image above my little self, standing before the sign saying ‘WARNING: NO QUESTIONS WILL BE ANSWERED’ has lost all her green growing, and in boiling rubricated frustration her forbidden, or unacknowledged questions tangle above her, leaving her immobile.

This experience of limiting questions can work against the flourishing of justice in systems of power: accountability, the routine of responding to questions is essential to keeping structures open and healthy, especially where there are asymmetries of resources.

This is true in personal relationships as well. The person who is unresponsive to questions remains guarded and closed, shutting others out of their world. Conversely, there is a great hospitality we offer to one another in both the asking of questions showing our care, and in responding genuinely to questions and sharing ourselves.

We do well to cultivate ourselves as warm, hospitable, open question askers and answerers.

But if there is an economy of power in asking questions, responding to questions is equally significant. The extension of this hospitality of questions depends on us responding to the questions of others with a kind of answer that seeds and nourishes and grows more questions.

Often in the process of parenting, people wonder how to answer the questions their children ask. We find that children can ask us what feel like tough questions. Questions that challenge the structural integrity of our own philosophical, intellectual and ethical architecture. My partner and I sat at the family table last tax season, sorting through our tax process for the year, and our son began to ask questions about how we have made financial decisions – innocent questions, but which were genuinely confronting. This is really good for us.

The power of questions, though, resides not only in the answers themselves, but in how we answer. Giving a succinct and well stitched answer can be a moment of relief for us as a parent, or teacher or fellow traveller, but can shut down further questions.

Then there are ‘answers’ that dodge the actually question.

I am particularly sensitive to these; when my question is dodged I know I’ve wandered into a part of the paddock I shouldn’t have.
What to do? I often circle around and come back and ask the question again later.

Sometimes we are just unprepared for questions, and so the dodge buys some time: later we are comfortable to answer. So although I am troubled by the dodge, I try to hold open the window for the considered answer that is worth the wait.

Other times the dodge is a boundary line that fences off a zone in the relationship.

Don’t go there again. Unwelcome.

By far the best kind of question answering is the kind that invites more questions – that creates an open door for sharing further wonderings.
To do this, we often ought not answer with great certainty.

Answers like

“That’s a question worth thinking about in a few different ways – One way of thinking about that is…”

“Yeah, I’d like to talk about that – what made you ask?”

“I’ve heard lots of different opinions on this one: I think what I’m most drawn to is….but I think this other way has an important bit in it too”

“I’ve changed over time on this one…and might change again, but here’s where I’ve landed lately…”

Questioners can give hints, if we are listening carefully, for the kind of answer the questioner is seeking – is it a specific piece of information? or is it some communication of emotion? Or some feedback? Or explanation of worldview, background story? Or do they ask a question in order to introduce a topic they want to test our an answer for themselves?

When people ask theological questions like

  • ‘Why does God allow suffering in the world?”
  • “Can Donald Trump, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher and Gough Whitlam all really be powers authorized by God?”
  • “How can someone be gay and call themselves a Christian?”

there are lots of ways of answering these questions. A well stitched up informational argument in defense of a position is not always, or even usually, what is being called for.

Because behind one question is usually another, and another.

 

There is not just one line of questioning or thinking emerging from my little self. There are lots.

They branch out in various directions.

And here is the great paradox, while shutting down questions and disallowing their expression through dodging, dismissing, brushing aside, r answering flippanty is a destructive and angering power play, to answer questions categorically is just as disempowering.

There is an art to living with our ongoing questions.

To work this better in myself, in the image above, I have tried to paint myself a way past the roadblock of unanswered questions.

The little red self who discovers that none of her questions will be answered is a seething volcano. As she discovers that her questions are refused and returned to her unopened her distress rises and rises. How can she find a path forwards?

We note how red and raw and vulnerable and volatile she is. Not knowing can leave us feeling very vulnerable, and keeping people in the dark is a well known instrument of oppression.

The other little green self, has emerged on the other side of the impenetrable glass sign, and  her flourishing twisty tangles growing thoughts stream around her as usual. But  she has donned her black clothes:

  • Black of humility, before the vast mass of things she cannot know,
  • Black of grieving for the doors of relationship that close with unanswered questions,
  • Black of dignity as she pursues fresh questions on the onward path.

Some questions will remain unanswered.

More questions are always welcome before us.

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to unsettle the petal and his metal

March 26, 2018
pillowy gun art Natalie Baxter Jungle Boogie (2015)

Natalie Baxter, ‘Jungle boogie’ (2015)

Who would you like us to shoot at today
With our weapons all loaded and legal?
You know that we can - its our right to bear arms
And take life like we're royal and regal. 

Are there children in playgrounds we cannot abide?
Or students for whom we don't care?
Or the girls in caf who declined all our dates?
Or worshippers gathered for prayer?

What better way 
to make our point clear 
And show ourself 
true, patriotic,
If we are white 
they'll just wring worried hands
And declare us 
a little psychotic 

we'll grieve and we'll pray for the children you've killed
pile up flowers and light many candles
but we will not dare look at OUR culture and laws
our religion and values all scandals

Although there'll be cheers for the feisty young speakers 
whose passion and eloquence glisten
our pride and our praise for our system of schools 
sabotages our will just to listen. 

So we yet define men 
by possessing a gun 
reducing his worth to black metal -
diminishing character, 
courage and care 
as if he's a poor fragile petal

Where are the men who will lay down their guns
and roll up their sleeves to the task 
of addressing injustice and working it out
or is that just too much strength to ask? 

Where are the men who will look in the eye
The Manus and Nauru imprisonned
Face up to our guilt, our violence and greed 
And take up the tough, right decision.

Look! there are the men who lift up their heads
and see strength shown in many an arm -
in holding and healing and reaching and giving -
but not in the fake flex of harm.