How newness enters the world

Once upon a time I was a graduate student with time to read and discuss postcolonial theory. Gradually I built up a repertoire of books written in rhyming couplets, though, and my time for the likes of Homi Bhabha (who wrote the essay whose title I’ve taken for this blog post) dwindled.

Even as a keen grad student, I had to read Bhabha’s essay about three times before I could work out exactly how it is that newness enters the world. Since the essay is well-crafted and enjoyable to read, the repetition wasn’t a chore. After those re-readings, I came to the understanding (right or not) that the social-historical-cultural world really does move forward in the grinding of big structures (as the structuralists have it), but that is not the whole story. Change emerges in the interstices, Bhabha argues; newness slips in along the fault lines. At this distance from my reading and re-reading, that remains my basic impression.

In the intervening years, my reading of books by Sandra Boynton and Julia Donaldson (two writers at the very top of their game), the children’s literature, and the raising of the children have come to play well together with post-colonial theory . Now, I might sum up the argument of Homi Bhabha’s essay as something like: newness enters the world at points of transition and emerges slowly; or, newness doesn’t barge into the world boldly, but slips in at the corners, gently, so you hardly notice it until is well underway. That is, the grand, tectonic changes begin as tiny fissures and grow so gradually into mountains and rivers that you only see them once the landscape itself alters.

Looking at Bhabha’s brilliant theory now, it seems somehow obvious. At least, as a mother, it seems obvious: the changes of childhood are enormous and powerful, but it is impossible really to watch them happen. Change happens–in the world and in children–as the grass grows. So the really trite saying about the little things being the big things, which one hears occasionally, turns out to be true. But it isn’t true for the reason that I used to think, or at least not only for that reason. I used to think that the little things, the things we do for each other daily, really do become the big things as we look back on the building of relationships and the growing of families and communities. That’s true.

It is also true, however, that changing the world is not something that mostly get done by people whose Great Deeds make the news. No: the world is constantly changing, and you and I are the ones changing it. The thing is, and maybe this is what Homi Bhabha was trying to tell me all those years ago, we don’t always see ourselves in that way. We fear that we do not make a difference. Nothing appears to change as the result of what we do or fail to do, however grand our gestures may be. Not so! If we think that, we do not see our own great power, which lies in the very small opportunities to ‘be the change’, as the saying goes.

The trouble with newness and change is that we want to see it. We want to see results when we extend ourselves, trying and hoping to shift the hills. But newness enters the world behind us, as it were, in our tracks. And if we keep looking behind us to check whether it has happened, we will lose our way entirely.

I suppose, if I were not a person of faith, I might just stop there. But I cannot forget that there is one more thing that’s true about newness and change in this world, and that is that they have already happened. What I do in the way of making change is simply to walk in the good works set out for me by the Author of this world and its Redeemer. So the business about looking back is doubly important: if I spend all my time turning round to see what a difference I have made, I will lose sight of the one who is the Difference, whose love brought the world into being and has redeemed it, and is restoring it all the time. This is not work I do by my own power; this is my participation in the Newness of All Things that is the work of the One in whom they all hold together. So all I do really does matter, and yet the burden or changing the world does not rest on my shoulders: it rests on the shoulders of the One who carried it up to calvary.

Deo gratias

 

 

 

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Thursday of the 23rd week in ordinary time

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8:9-12 NASB)
 
For a long time I have wanted to add to the preferential option for the poor a similar divine concern for the broken-hearted. “The Lord is near to the broken hearted, and saves all those who are crushed in spirit,” writes the psalmist. And likewise also the weary (Isaiah 40:31 and Matthew 11:28, for example), and children, and outcasts… So in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, I was drawn to the emphasis on the weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. These are (like us) those for whom Christ died. Not only that, but these brothers and sisters are “the least” to which Christ refers and with whom he identifies: whatever we do them, we do to Christ himself.
Passages like this always call to my mind people with intellectual disabilities. This is in part because I have a daughter with Down Syndrome, and I realized long ago that I was no closer to God because I knew some theology that she doesn’t. And it is in part because of the general disregard for people with such disabilities in contemporary culture. Last month, Richard Dawkins suggested that it is immoral to allow a baby with Down Syndrome to be born. (This infuriates and saddens me, but I won’t dwell on it here.) What we do to those with intellectual disabilities–who might very well fall into the category of “lacking knowledge” in Paul’s letter–we do to Christ himself.
The whole orientation of our Christian practice ought to favor the weak, the downtrodden, the poor, the refugee, the mentally disabled–those for who Christ died. I know I often forget that–I think about writing my books and get caught up in the stresses and strains of my daily life. I forget that in my daughter, in my children, in all those around me who most need Christ’s care, strength, and protection, I have not just those for whom Christ died, but Christ himself.
Deo gratias.
 

Solemnity of the Anunciation

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
. . .
It is the solemnity of the Anunciation. So I went to Mass, and the readings for today have come to me not through my own reading and reflection, but in the context of the liturgy, and a homily. Part of me thinks it’s cheating to begin from someone else’s comments on the readings, and yet it is impossible not to do so.
‘What if Mary had said no?’ The priest reported the question; he didn’t pose it. In fact, he suggested that the speculation about what might have been rested on a mistake about who God is and how God acts. “God doesn’t need a plan B.” True enough. And after Mass, my husband had an exchange with the priest that was about Mary’s will and whether or not it was possible to for her to say no. Turns out the answer to that one depends on how you define words like ‘possible’ and ‘necessary’, though in the end I think they agreed.
The thing is, though, that “no one is ever told what might have been.” This is neither St Thomas Aquinas nor St Augustine, the two thinkers involved in the discussion about Mary’s will. It’s CS Lewis, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy has just asked Aslan a ‘what if’ question. His answer has stayed with me for years, as I have stumbled along trying, and often not trying hard enough, to be a Christian. However often and however badly I fail in my endeavor, ‘what if’ questions after the fact are never fruitful.

God doesn’t need a plan B. In eternity, there is no ‘might have been’ but an everlasting ‘is’, in which everything is in the present tense. From that point of view, wisdom can be seen as arranging all things delightfully, as it says in Wisdom 8: 1. From that point of view, all the crash-and-burn experiences of my life find their way into the tapestry of ‘all things’– arranged delightfully, worked together for the good (Romans 8: 28), having been wrought, however incomprehensibly, in God (John 3: 21).

So the invitatory psalm (Ps 94 [95]) invites us each day anew to ‘listen to his voice’ and to ‘harden not [our] hearts’. It is today that matters, today that affords me the opportunity to do God’s will. That is, more or less, what Aslan says next: anyone can find out what will happen. Let my ears and my heart be open, and my will freely to conform itself to his: and let it be done to me according to His word.

Friday of the first week in Lent

I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait,
   And in His word do I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
   More than the watchmen for the morning;
   Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord;
   For with the Lord there is lovingkindness,
And with Him is abundant redemption.
   And He will redeem Israel
   From all his iniquities. (Psalms 130:5-8 NASB)

.        .      .

Today, a challenge: can I be quiet enough in the midst of a crowded airport to reflect properly on the Scripture? The last few days have not been especially Lenten: a trip to Rome for my birthday and to see a friend. Gelato was involved.

Also, though, lots of visits to churches. Although I am a terrible tourist, and hate seeing ‘the sights’, I love visiting churches. I especially love those churches whose long years have seen many, many penitents and worshippers on their knees before God. Rome is full of those–churches where for centuries people have waited on the Lord.

But none of those churches is as dear to my heart as the beautiful and unassuming Santa Maria in Trastevere. Turing the corner yesterday evening, and finding myself in the piazza in front of the church was pure joy. And entering the church, hoping for a moment of quiet prayer, to find Mass beginning…was whatever is more wonderful than pure joy. It was the thing I had most desired, perhaps, as I thought about this trip to Rome. But I had not said so.

As I visited other churches in Rome over the past couple of days, I sometimes wondered about all the grandeur, and all those who had gone before, hoping in the resurrection. Eschatology has never been my strong suit. But there, in Santa Maria in Trastevere, I knew the lovingkindess of God. So, back to the usual tension between knowing God, and wondering how it all fits together. God is good, and yet…things can be hard, I can be uncertain.

So this psalm is for me, and for all who find the way difficult: ‘hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is lovingkindess and abundant redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.’

Deo gratias.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Is this not the fast which I choose, 
To loosen the bonds of wickedness, 
To undo the bands of the yoke, 
And to let the oppressed go free 
And break every yoke? 
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry 
And bring the homeless poor into the house; 
When you see the naked, to cover him; 
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 
                                        Isaiah 58:6, 7 (NASB)

Against You, You only, I have sinned 
And done what is evil in Your sight, 
So that You are justified when You speak 
And blameless when You judge. 
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; 
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, 
You will not despise.
                                        Psalms 51 [50]:4, 17 (NASB)


.          .         .

What does the Lord ask of us? The passage from Isaiah emphasises ‘do justice, love mercy’; Psalm 51 reminds us to ‘walk humbly with God’.  Isaiah calls for love of neighbour and care for the poor–which King David failed to exhibit towards Uriah. 

Is that why David describes his sin in this way? ‘Against you, you only, I have sinned’ strikes me as somewhat mistaken. Surely David’s sin is against Bathsheba and Uriah also, maybe even in the first place. But no. God takes responsibility for the care of the poor and the oppressed, and calls us to participate in his love and compassion, and to show his mercy and consolation. Failing to live according to God’s statutes can have a devastating impact on others, and yet our sin is always against God as much as against our fellow human beings. 

Upon being convicted of his great sin, David was perhaps a bit stuck. Although he was king, he had no power to put right what he had done wrong: Uriah was dead, and David was to blame. If forgiveness had to come first from the human victim of his sin, David could not receive forgiveness. Only God, who has the power to create and redeem, can cover our sins. 

I confess I do not particularly like this implication. My instinct about Psalm 51.4 is that it misses the very real and tragic horizontal consequences of our sin. Very often, when we sin, we hurt other people. To those people, I think, we owe an apology. But that is not all: I think we ought to try to make amends. I am the one who is mistaken, though, if I believe that our efforts at restitution actually make anything ‘right’. Absolution for us and healing for those we have hurt both come from God, from God alone. However fully we can pardon, and however generously we make restitution, we cannot fix what our sins have broken. Only God can do that: pardon and restitution are our participation in God’s redemption, not the redemption itself. Even if we do all that Isaiah urges us to do, the light that breaks forth–‘our’ light–is God’s light breaking forth in us. 

And that light shines even in the darkest darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Deo gratias

Wednesday of the fourteenth week of the year

The Lord looks on those who revere him,
    on those who hope in his love,
to rescue their souls from death,
    to keep them alive in famine.
                                      Psalm 32 [33]

.         .       .

The first reading from today is about the famine in Egypt, the first episode in the story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Egypt. It is one of my childhood favorites, the story of Joseph and his many-colored coat, his fall and rise again in Egypt, and his restoration to his family. It made a great musical.

But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? Joseph must have been a really annoying kid. He told his older brothers that he would rule over them, and his father singled him out. Now that I have a 9-year-old son who has his challenging days, I can imagine how aggravated his brothers must have been. Not, of course, that they can be excused for getting rid of him. Turns out, though, that it wasn’t such a bad thing after all: God chose ‘to keep them alive in famine’ through the very wrong act they committed.

Now, I should have seen that before. It is a picture of redemption bigger than the one I had five minutes ago. Really. Although I am a big fan of Romans 8:28 (‘God works all things together for the good…’), I tend not to include intentional sins in that ‘everything’ that God causes to work for the good of ‘those who hope in his love.’ So, as I look back over my life and cringe as I remember things I shouldn’t have done, I don’t need to worry so much about the ‘what if I hadn’t…?’ and the ‘what if, instead, I had…?’ No. Certainly things would have turned out differently. And I might have been spared some grief, as surely Joseph’s brothers might have if they had borne with their brother’s vexing attitude. But the purposes of God would not be served any less. I cannot thwart the saving purposes of God.

Does that mean I shouldn’t worry about whether I am acting in accordance with God’s will? Of course not–as St Paul says. But I can act in faith, knowing that even if I have read wrongly, God will still ‘keep [me] alive in famine’: the thing is to ‘hope in his love’. He’s God. That’s all he asks of us.

Deo gratias.