the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Perhaps the gospel reading for today might seem a little dull. After all, a genealogy is hardly the liveliest of narratives (if I can even call it a narrative). We find, in Matthew’s gospel, a list of a great many men becoming the fathers of a great many sons, in succession from Abraham to Joseph.

Yet among those declarations that ‘x became the father of y, and y became the father of z‘, there are a few hints that between Abraham and Joseph some extraordinary things happened. Tamar (read about her in Genesis 38!) appears, although the tale is not one that reflects well on Judah. Foreigners Rahab (who hid the spies; see Joshua 2) and Ruth (who has a whole book for her biography) take their place also. And one of the most poignant narratives in the life of David is summed up in the mention of the one who ‘had been Uriah’s wife.’ And it’s not just about the women–though that would be enough to make the genealogy fascinating: Matthew’s gospel does not omit the mention of the long exile in Babylon. Not the most auspicious of lineages for the messiah–too many scandals entirely.

I heard this gospel read out after having arrived at Mass in quite a low mood. Maybe it’s just the woes of a mid-life flutter (not really a crisis): am I really doing anything with this life I have been given? Shouldn’t I somehow be doing more, making more of an impact on this needy and troubled world in which we live? Have I failed to do what I ought to have done with my first 40-odd years? And what can I possibly do in the next decades (God willing) that will make up for the sad lack of world-saving I have been doing? Pathetic, I know. But I suspect not unique.

And there was the answer, right there in the middle of an apparently boring genealogy. There is no failure that can thwart God’s salvation. The world-saving was never up to me, anyway (Deo gratias). It has been done by the one in whose lineage so many mistakes and  disappointments appear. However much the people of God may have gone astray in the years before the coming of Christ, he still came. Nothing I can do or fail to do will undo the work of God’s eternal wisdom, who arranges all things delightfully (Wisdom 8:1). God will be all in all. My place in it must be small, but that does not mean that it has no significance. It just means that its meaning may well be hidden until the end of time.

As St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote in Love of the Cross:

To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly to sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels–this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.

And so it is. Bring on the dirt.

Deo gratias.

‘Happiness is the truth’: brief reflections on the common good

Pharrell Williams may be onto something. Happiness plays a central role in our lives, of course. My hunch is that happiness also reflects the life of God in us–that business about humans being created in the image of God isn’t just about rationality and the freedom of the will. Or, rather, the freedom and rationality that we exercise (on our good days, when we’re using them well) best show forth the divine image when exercised joyfully and compassionately.

We all know that happiness is important. We strive for it but so often fail to achieve it. We find it in the most unlikely (we think) places. And we don’t think of happiness as contributing to the common good. The US Declaration of Independence suggests that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is one of our God-given rights, yet we miss its profound importance for our life together. We tend to think that people who achieve great things make the greatest contributions to the world. And I would certainly not want to argue against key advances in science, in medicine, even in technology (without which I wouldn’t be writing this blog). But I don’t see that those things make us happier.

I think we need to value far more highly the people whose contribution to our world is happiness–joy, peace and contentment. If those are the really important people, then our priorities have to shift a bit. People with intellectual disabilities often make this kind of contribution, as John Franklin Stephens suggests in a recent blog post. And, of course, children very often make this kind of contribution. Children like these:

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We have got it all wrong, I’m afraid. We, in the comfortable houses in the safe places of the world have come to value our security and prosperity, our comfort. But we’re not happy. We need children and those whose joy has been tested; we need to extend ourselves on behalf of those in need and in danger. Isaiah calls the people of Israel to ‘care your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house’ (58.7).

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily;           your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard…

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,                   then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

If that’s not a recipe for happiness, and for the common good, I don’t know what is.

Wednesday of the 17th week in Ordinary time

images-1The readings from Exodus these past few days have inspired in me a new respect for Moses. Of course I have always been a fan of the great things he did. After all, he did part the Red Sea! What he does in the long years of wandering, though, is in some ways even more impressive. He stands in the breach, offering to bear God’s wrath when the people worship a golden calf. God declines Moses’ self-sacrifice.

Perhaps what really strikes me about Moses here is not something he is or does, but that he seems to bring out the best in God.

[Moses] called on the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness; for thousands he maintains his kindness, forgives faults, transgression, sin; yet he lets nothing go unchecked, punishing the father’s fault in the sons and in the grandsons to the third and fourth generation.’ And Moses bowed down to the ground at once and worshipped. ‘If I have indeed won your favour, Lord,’ he said ‘let my Lord come with us, I beg. True, they are a headstrong people, but forgive us our faults and our sins, and adopt us as your heritage.’

God reveals the divine nature as kind and compassionate. Even though sin may not go ‘unchecked’, we know (and Moses seems to know, too) that the only fault that persists is the fault not surrendered to God, the sin not confessed. God forgives. And Moses pleads with God to forgive God’s people again and again, and God does: God remains with the people, leads the people, brings the people safely to the promised land.

God doesn’t leave. However persistent the faults we bear, God stands ready to forgive and to heal. The psalm response reminds us: the Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy. If only we could hold onto that firmly in dealing with ourselves and others…well, I have no idea what might happen. But I would dearly love to find out.

The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.

Deo gratias.

moving

No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: atheologianinthefamily.net. When I started this blog, I intended to focus all my blogging on the lectionary readings. Then I started another blog for more general musings in theology and ethics. 
But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.
And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.
So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.
I am grateful for all who have read this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.
light and peace to you all.

Moving

No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: atheologianinthefamily.net. When I started this blog, I had thought that Lewis and I would contribute to it together, and it would mostly be theological reflection.

But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.

And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.

So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.

I am grateful for all who have followed this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.

light and peace to you all.

the alternatives

I will admit that sometimes God seems callous and distant. You know those moments when your life seems adrift in a storm, and prayer consists mostly of panicked cries of ‘Lord, do you not care that [I am] perishing?’ Answers never come immediately when I pray that way, though if I am able to recall that Jesus is the ultimate storm-calmer, that’s usually ‘answer’ enough.

In the worst of those moments of faith-testing, I consider the alternatives. If the storm in my life is pure chance, and there isn’t really a God who can save me, then what? Well, I’d be out of a job, for a start. There’s not much point in teaching theology or writing books on the Church (my next project) if God doesn’t exist. But that’s not what pulls me up short–I fantasize about going to medical school (I’m older than Patch Adams, so it really is a fantasy) and saving as many children of the world as I could. Even without going to med school, I can think of work I might find fulfilling.

You might also ask about ethics, morality–how would I live? How would I order my life? I wonder about that, too. But I know some amazing people who believe a whole lot of different things; I have a respected friend who is an atheist, and other friends all over the world-religions map. Although as a Christian theologian and ethicist I think we have something unique and life-giving to offer, it’s not a moral vision. (We have one, and I think it’s good and true. But it’s not the main thing we have going for us as Christians.)

And there are all sorts of little things that would have to change about my life if I gave up on God. But that’s not the reason I don’t give up. (Of course some will argue that I don’t give up on God because the Holy Spirit continues to draw me to Jesus. Fair enough. But keep reading, anyway, please.) The real reason (now my students, if any of them are reading this, are going to laugh) I don’t give up is that it is a mystery.

I don’t mean just that there is a profound mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, which there certainly is. I mean that it’s all a mystery. The reason that bad things happen to good people is a mystery, whether you believe in God or not. Unless you believe, I suppose, in reincarnation, and blame the unwarranted bad things on sins committed in a previous life, it’s just a mystery. And here’s where I come back to God: I find myself making a choice not between a thing that doesn’t make sense and a thing that does, but between mystery-with-redemption and mystery-without-redemption. It’s always a mystery. But I come back to Wisdom 8:1, over and over again: wisdom ‘arranges all things delightfully’, even if that delightful arrangement isn’t revealed until the end of time.

At least that’s the way I see it. Maybe that’s the gift of faith; if it is, I can only say Deo gratias.

fallow year

Tonight I had most of an evening off from the ordinary duties of mothering. But it wasn’t an evening out with friends or even a quiet night at home. I am grateful to our friend Ian Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, for an opportunity to talk about my intellectual project. 

For a while there, I’d nearly forgotten I had one. Homeschooling our 11-year-old and running the others back and forth to school keeps me pretty well occupied. But tonight, as I had some space to reflect on what I am doing, I gave this year a new name: a fallow year.  Without teaching and administrative duties, or any work-related obligations, I’ve committed to a year of rest–of a sort. The “land” on which my research and writing usually take place is not being cultivated, not really. This academic year I’ve given myself to another sort of work, work I find much more difficult: the work of being a patient and kind mother to my children.

It’s difficult, and yet necessary. Because I hadn’t spent much time lately talking to grown-ups, I was more jittery than usual in anticipation of the event. As I paced around, I realized that I had my priorities all wrong. Being the person “up front” makes me vulnerable to the temptation to be the expert, to try to be the cleverest person in the room. I’m pretty sure that I am never the cleverest person in any room I enter (really: my kids are cleverer than I am; I’ve just got more experience of the world), hence I feel nervous at the thought of people listening to me and asking questions.

In the quiet (for which I thank Lewis: the children were driving him mad this evening) I realized (again) that I was mistaken. The object of the game, for me, is not to be the cleverest one. That’s not a game I am ever going to win, nor is it a game worth playing. I’m a theologian and a mother. Both of those occupations require patience and kindness, humility and generosity. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the clever, for they shall win all the arguments,” but “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The clever do win arguments, it’s true. And I lose them, often. But I would much, much rather inherit the earth.

pain in childbearing, part 2

That little verse from Genesis 3 sticks with me. I reflected some in my previous post about the pain of losing children, and of heartbreak in raising them. This week, we had some time with a psychologist who repeated (not in so many words) one of the key lessons I am learning in this great adventure of parenting: it’s not intuitive.

Bearing children may be a perfectly natural event. But raising them is an art. Doing what comes naturally, unless we are near-perfect in our virtue, isn’t usually a good idea when responding to the various provocations of our beloved (and utterly infuriating) offspring. Most parents come to realize this, so I am not saying anything new there. And I am not qualified to give child-raising advice. All I can say for certain is that losing your temper is always going to end badly, but keeping it perfectly is impossible, at least in my experience.

The counter-intuitiveness of parenting, though, has theological significance, I believe. Because having children is something good. It’s God’s plan. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God tells Adam and Eve. God repeats the instruction when Noah and his kin disembark from the ark. The propagation of the species matters to God. And the psalmist remarks that children are a blessing from God.

But it certainly doesn’t always feel like that. Of course there is joy as well, and the work of parenting is meaningful perhaps above all other work. Human beings are precious, and powerful creatures, capable of great things–some very good, and some very bad. Some days the responsibility seems overwhelming. And doing it properly just doesn’t come naturally. So it’s painful. It’s part of the discipline that yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11), or so I hope.

For the grace to get through it day by day, Deo gratias.

Thinking about Genesis 3 & 4

Over at thinking coram Deo, I reflected a bit on the first Mass reading, and beyond it. I reproduce it here, in case anyone’s interested.

Genesis 4: 1-8 (RSV)

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

*           *         *

This is going to be a bit wide of the mark, I fear–not really a commentary on the verses at hand. But the thing has been pressing on me for some time, and this passage from Genesis 4 (which continues for another 7 verses in the first reading for today) calls it immediately to mind. That is, we don’t usually interpret this tragic episode in relation to what precedes it in Genesis 3. Yes, it’s the beginning of sin, and it’s amazing how quickly a little stolen fruit leads to fratricide. But it also–I believe–should be read in light of Genesis 3: 16. 

To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

My thinking about this one verse began several years ago on Christmas Eve. I was listening to the Advent Lessons & Carols service broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, and noticed that in the reading of Genesis 3, this verse was omitted. Maybe it was just a mistake on the part of the reader, though I doubt it. At the time, I wondered. Surely it can’t have been left out because it is Not Nice. Maybe it was something to do with the institution of patriarchy–maybe we don’t want to think about the imbalance of power that generally obtains in relationships between men and women (which seems to have been confirmed over the weekend, if what I’ve heard about the newly-released film is true). 

Whatever the reason for the elision of verse 16 that year, I am glad for it. Although I never did come up with a satisfactory guess about the rationale for leaving it out, I did begin to think in a new way about the first part of the curse–the business about childbearing. Yes, it hurts. I can testify to that, having had four children (even had one without the epidural). But I don’t think that’s what this part of the verse is about. In the first place, the emotional pain of  pregnancy loss seems to me to be greater than the physical pain of labor. And then there are the things that go wrong: congenital defects of the heart or other organs, genetic disorders, infant deaths. About pregnancy loss or the death of an infant, I have no first-hand experience. But I know what it’s like to have something big go wrong–or, better, to have something very small go awry (one little extra chromosome) with global effects. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: things go wrong. 

Not for a few years did I realize (probably only as my children grew) that there was still more pain to be had in the bearing of children. Not only do they give us pain as they come into the world, they continue to cause pain (as well as joy, of course) as they grow and change. Not all of the heartbreak involved in raising children is quite as dramatic as the story of Cain and Abel. But there it is. Genesis doesn’t say much about how Eve’s birth experience is. We do,  however, hear about this tragedy. Having two sons myself, I can’t imagine anything much worse than one of them murdering the other in cold blood. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: we go wrong, and badly wrong.

For a while, I wanted to write a book about the pain of childbearing, broadened to include stories of pregnancy loss and more. The trouble was that there wasn’t really an “up” side to it. I’m looking again at a verse that’s not particularly encouraging to begin with, and saying, but really, it’s much worse than that. Hardly the makings of a best-seller, there. 

As always, though, there is much more to it than this thin slice of the story tells us. There are small hints in Genesis 3 and 4 that God will make it right: “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and he clothed them” (3: 21). And Eve has another son, Seth, whom she regards as being given to her by God (4: 25), and the writer notes that “At that time [people] began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26).  In the midst of the pain, it is difficult to see how even this (whatever particular this is so vexing or agonizing) cannot fall outside of the delightful arrangement that is the work of the Wisdom of God (Wisdom 8: 1). Yet there is nothing, not even this terrible outworking of the curse, that can escape the truth: “in Him all things hold together.” All things. Most days I fall very short of believing that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. 

Deo gratias.

a tattoo

Mine, to be precise:

3907_574197496527_1845720_nThere it is, freshly inked–that’s why there’s a halo of reddish skin around it!

I thought about it for a long time. I mean a really long time. When I was 16 or 17, I told my mother that I wanted to get a tattoo. I’m pretty sure she was against it. But she didn’t say so, not outright. Instead, she gave me a few things to think about before I actually got the tattoo. First, she said, remember it will always be there. You’ll change, you’ll change your mind, but the tattoo will still be there. And it’s more painful to have it removed than it is to get it in the first place. Second, she said, your body won’t look the same forever. Something that looks nice on 16-year-old skin might not look as good on 70-year-old skin. But the tattoo will still be there. Third, she said, tattoo ink breaks down over time. That’s why you see so many green tattoos. (Perhaps inks are better now; I think my mother was thinking about tattoos done in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)

So for the next couple of decades, I turned the idea over and over in my mind. Honestly. I never forgot that conversation with my mother. Now, I consider it a moment of parenting genius, not because that strategy would work for everyone–not at all. Rather, it was a moment of parenting genius because it took account (knowingly or intuitively) of the sort of kid I was, and the way I was likely to make decisions. It appealed to reason and vanity, which I had in rather unequal portions at 16. (You can guess which trait I had in greater abundance.) She never said “Don’t.” Other friends, over the years, said “Do!” or “Don’t!” but my mother never did. She was a little surprised, I suppose, when I finally got the tattoo, but by then I was well and truly grown-up.

By the time I found that thing that I considered permanent enough in my life to have it inscribed on my body, I was nearing 40. I had three children. And, luckily, I had a good friend with plenty of tattoos and friends in the business, who happened to be in need of more ink. So I researched and found the image. I worked out the Greek. On the eve of Mother’s Day, 2009, I went with a couple of friends to get my first tattoo (by which time I had had my 40th birthday). There it is: the crucifix, stylized. The Greek text is from 1 Corinthians 13: “The greatest of these is love.”

I don’t suppose it will be my last tattoo. I have other ideas. Chief among these is an addition to the tattoo I already have, one phrase, in English this time: “the image of the invisible God.” Maybe 2015 is the year for that.

I’ll keep you posted.