An Advent Moment

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the period that starts four Sundays before Christmas. In the church calendar the first day of advent marks the start of the Church year. It is a time to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ coming at Christmas and to look forward to his coming again. It is a time of hope, waiting and yearning.

Unfortunately for us in the Southern Hemisphere this clashes with the ending of the school and work year and general summer holiday preparation. Amidst the flurry and overwhelm that we experience at this time of year it can be difficult to engage with Advent. The idea of contemplation, of waiting, of spiritual preparation to celebrate Christmas seems impossible, something from the olden days when life was slower, simpler.

A busy shopping mall decorated for Christmas

Perhaps it makes it even more important, to prioritise making some quiet moments of waiting on and for God. Maybe that is just what we need to get through the pressure of end of year shows, work parties, prize givings and other encouragements to overconsumption. Isn’t it in the business when our thoughts are most scattered and we are at our most stretched – isn’t that when we most need a small advent each day.

Mary holding Baby jesus

I need one Advent moment each day
in that moment I breathe
in that moment I say Hi God,
I am here
I wait for you
I am here
in the not yet.

See me God
Existing in the not yet of oppressive systems,
See me God
Living in the not yet of struggling creation,
See me God
Persisting in the not yet of unanswered prayers.

I am here
in this moment
I wait for liberation
I wait for restoration
I wait for Immanuel.

I pray come Jesus,
be with me in each Advent moment.

Amen

 

Christina Baird lives in Auckland, NZ and nurtures creative wisdom by providing coaching, professional supervision and by blogging  at bread and pomegranates

 

Peace and Anger in a Time of Christian Betrayal

I’ve probably been spending too much time on Twitter recently, it’s not the best for mental health. It’s hard to feel peace when you are constantly faced with misogyny and other kinds of prejudice users of the internet feel free to rationalise and verbalise as they troll threads on issues important to minorities. Two things in particular in this week’s news really affected me emotionally: 1. was a heartfelt tweet by American Christian Feminist author Rachel Held-Evans as she discovered yet another Christian male leader refusing to believe young women sharing their stories of harassment in the recent #metoo movement;  and 2. was the news report that the Sydney Anglican diocese spent $1 million of church money in support of the ‘No’ campaign for Marriage Equality in Australia — and only $5000 on investigating a widespread problem of domestic violence (including marriage rape) amongst clergy in that church.

Of course these kinds of news tweets bring out all the people who have something to say that has been said many times before — the Australian thread quickly and predictably turned into a ‘tax the churches’ thread; Rachel Held-Evans faced the usual ‘you lump all evangelicals together’ accusation as she wondered if anything she had been taught as a Christian child was true. I felt angry, and indeed, embarassed to see these Christians more concerned for a particular brand of conservative politics than women’s safety from sexual violence. It is sometimes too shameful to be a Christian in these times, when the so-called leaders in the church consistently and intentionally seem to miss the point, using their positions to hurt and discriminate and justify violence against women ?

Yet trolls were not the only ones present in the conversations that ensued on social media. What also came through was an immense solidarity — by the time I got to Held-Evans’ tweet some 346 people had already replied, and the tweets in solidarity continued to grow as I watched. What struck me in the in these two examples was this: the struggles of women for recognition and belief in circumstances of abuse of power are not separate from the struggles of the LGBTQI community. Why? Because LGBT people in particular are consistently painted as sexually deviant and immoral by these Christian leaders while at the same time the leaders support men in acts of sexual violence and even paedophilia against women and girls. This is what makes me angry, embarassed, sad, and actually — frightened.

I am a big believer in contemplative prayer and meditation. I think taking the time to connect with the Christ-presence dwelling within is essential in maintaining some semblance of peace in the stress of my work and life. Yet in this case, I think peace is not yet where I can go. I think there is also value in sitting with the anger, the embarassment, the sadness, the fear and contemplating those things.

When I sit with these for a while I think of Psalm 62:

How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?

Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.

Where, of course, in my mind the persons of prominence are women and LGBTQI people struggling to be seen and heard in their pain. The verses that follow can then be read in the light of my anger at this, especially…

Trust in God at all times, O people; pour out your heart before God; God is a refuge for us.

Despite the verses where the author ‘waits on God in silence’, this isn’t a quiet sending of thoughts and prayers. This a heart-wrenching pouring out of anger, fear, sadness, love, respect, desire for change. ‘Trust’ here isn’t a platitude for doing nothing, for waiting and hoping for some older white straight man to change his mind about his years of patriarchal privilege. For me the ‘trust’ here is related to the pouring out and the refuge.

Can I trust in God at all times even as I speak out against Christian betrayal and wrongdoing and misguidedness? Can I trust enough to put myself in the firing line, like Held-Evans and others? Can I take my refuge in God alone, knowing that I will be reviled and trolled and sermonised to by those who think they have the sole truth? Can I then return to a place of stillness and silence to recover, to wait for results, to gather myself for the next incident?

I think the answer is getting closer to “Yes, Lord”. What about you?

Kelly Dombroski is an academic and writer who also blogs at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com

God our Mother

In a previous church, every year on Mother’s Day I would lead a worship service based around thinking of God as mother. There are plenty of scriptural references to God as mother: from being the hen gathering us under her wings (Matthew 23), to the image of the weaned child sitting on mother’s lap content in her presence no longer yearning (Psalm 131) a and many others in between. Since having children, the image of God as Mother has taken on more powerful meaning for me, since I know how I love my own children and can better imagine the kind of love God might have for me. So when a friend suggested a podcast by The Liturgists on God our Mother, I went searching for some more mother inspiration. I was not disappointed.

Halfway through the podcast, poet Alison Woodard reads the following, and it needs no further comment from me:

To be a Mother is to suffer;

To travail in the dark,

stretched and torn,

exposed in half-naked humiliation,

subjected to indignities

for the sake of new life.

 

To be a Mother is to say,

“This is my body, broken for you,”

And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,

“This is my body, take and eat.”

 

To be a Mother is to self-empty,

To neither slumber nor sleep,

so attuned You are to cries in the night—

Offering the comfort of Yourself,

and assurances of “I’m here.”

 

To be a Mother is to weep

over the fighting and exclusions and wounds

your children inflict on one another;

To long for reconciliation and brotherly love

and—when all is said and done—

To gather all parties, the offender and the offended,

into the folds of your embrace

and to whisper in their ears

that they are Beloved.

 

To be a mother is to be vulnerable—

To be misunderstood,

Railed against,

Blamed

For the heartaches of the bewildered children

who don’t know where else to cast

the angst they feel

over their own existence

in this perplexing universe

 

To be a mother is to hoist onto your hips those on whom your image is imprinted,

bearing the burden of their weight,

rejoicing in their returned affection,

delighting in their wonder,

bleeding in the presence of their pain.

 

To be a mother is to be accused of sentimentality one moment,

And injustice the next.

To be the Receiver of endless demands,

Absorber of perpetual complaints,

Reckoner of bottomless needs.

 

To be a mother is to be an artist;

A keeper of memories past,

Weaver of stories untold,

Visionary of lives looming ahead.

 

To be a mother is to be the first voice listened to,

And the first disregarded;

To be a Mender of broken creations,

And Comforter of the distraught children

whose hands wrought them.

 

To be a mother is to be a Touchstone

and the Source,

Bestower of names,

Influencer of identities;

Life giver,

Life shaper,

Empath,

Healer,

and

Original Love.

-atw, 9.28.17

Posted by Kelly Dombroski.

The bountiful eye

Prayer 1: Having need.

Our Father,

Who art in heaven

Give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread, give me bread…

 

Prayer 2: Seeing need

Our Father,

Who art in heaven

Give then bread, give them bread, give them bread, give them bread give them bread, give them bread, give them bread give them bread, give them bread, give them bread give them bread, give them bread, give them bread give them bread, give them bread, give them bread give them bread, give them bread, give them bread give them bread, give them bread, give them bread ….

 

Prayer 3: Filling needs

Our Father,

Who art in heaven

Give me a bountiful eye. The daily grace to see, to give, to share, to rejoice, and to receive.

May thine be the kingdom

Amen

“He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed;
for he giveth of his bread to the poor.” (KJV)

 

  • SUSAN WARDELL is a Social Anthropologist, Mother, Jesus-follower, Tree-hugger, Muffin Afficionado, and Writer. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The weight of evidence

I accuse you of not loving enough to intervene – you who sang the world into being, the breath of life, the one who redeems everything as it falls apart.

You say to ask and it will be given, but disappointment has so often taken the place of hope as I wait and wait. Am I asking for the wrong things? Do I have no understanding of your will? Am I not important enough to you to get a yes?

If I quiet the questions, I hear you closer than my thoughts, and yet the elephant shuffles in the corner. When I look at you, my heart is filled with peace, but when glance at him, I cry for the pain you did not prevent. It’s a strange kind of trust that asks us to accommodate this giant beast of doubt and disappointment.

You are love, and yet what kind of love allows dreams to die, lets illness devour a friend, stands by while we are crushed? It would be easier if you never intervened, never promised anything, but there is this taunting rumour of yeses, sprinkled out apparently at random.

Perhaps faith is trusting that you are good in the presence of the elephant. Maybe it’s an almost foolish fixing of our eyes on you. Perhaps it is continuing to ask when hope has gone stale, knowing that waiting cultivates treasures that instant fixes could not. Perhaps it’s trusting that beauty grows from ashes, that devastating things are being woven into good, that you understand the pain of not knowing why.

Maybe in the end, the elephant will evaporate as our blindness is undone and our tears are dried away.

But oh God, please, please, please.

The Broken Pot

(A parable of unknown origin, retold by Susan Wardell)

Once there was a woman who lived in a very hot, dry, place. Every day she had to walk a long distance from her house to the nearest well, to bring water back for her family. To do this, she used a large clay pot.

The pot had done this and other tasks for many years, but it was not a perfect vessel. In fact, it was quite broken, with cracks so large that as the woman was walking, the water would consistently leak out onto the dry ground. This happened to the extent that by the time she reached her home, she had only half the water left that she had travelled so far to get.

The pot was well aware of it’s brokenness, and it was deeply ashamed. One day it asked the woman miserably: “Why are you still trying to use me? I am broken!” When the woman said nothing, it persisted: “Can’t you see how my insufficiencies cost your family? I am not fit for the task that you have chosen me for.” And when her silence continued: “Why don’t you select a better pot; something more sturdy and more beautiful, that is not been damaged like I am? Something that will save you time and effort, that will do the job better than a broken vessel like me.”

The woman paused, and picked up the pot to carry it outside. The pot feared that now the time had come where the truth of it’s burdensomeness would finally be acknowledged. But now the woman replied:

“I see your brokenness, and I know well that my precious water leaks out onto the ground as we walk together. But look…” and she pointed back in the direction of the well. Now, at last, the pot saw that all along the sides of the dusty track a lovely garden was growing: full of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

“These have been a blessing to my family every day” the woman told the pot. “Choosing you is no accident. It is because of your brokenness, not despite of it, that our journey has been made into something even more beautiful.”

Then they walked together again, as the pot let water fall like tears of joy… and all around them, life bloomed.

  • SUSAN WARDELL is a Social Anthropologist, Mother, Jesus-follower, Tree-hugger, Muffin Afficionado, and Writer. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Mindful Mess

My contemplative practice has long been influenced by the 15th Century mystic Madame Jeanne Guyon. She teaches a number of types of contemplative prayer in her books Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and Union with God. Her starting point is that if, indeed, you have given over your life in some way to God, God dwells or abides in you. Therefore, prayer is a form of turning inward to connect with that divine presence. As you try to turn inward, you are often distracted by many thoughts, but one must gently and compassionately continue to return to the presence in our time of prayer — or indeed for Guyon, throughout the entire day. She often used a slow and savouring reading of scripture or the Lord’s prayer in conjunction with this.

One of the dangers of these forms of prayer and meditation is that we start to see all our thoughts and feelings as ‘distractions’ from the peace that comes when we are ‘truly’ in union. But what I have learned more recently is that these times of slowing down and connecting inward often bring out big and difficult feelings, feelings that should not, really, always be pushed aside in favour of ‘peace’. It may be that our spiritual work is in fact to pay attention to these difficult feelings in order to become more self-aware and thus, I think, less likely to externalise these difficult feelings through unhelpful behaviours.

In recent times, I have been using a number of different contemplative practices in combination to do some of this work. At the moment, I am often beginning with short periods of mindfulness — often timing up to 15 minutes on the insight timer app, which has a nice bell at beginning and end (I also set up ‘wood block’ sounds every 5 minutes to remind myself of what I am supposed to be doing as my mind goes off on tangents quite easily). During this time I pay attention to my breath, body, mood, obsessive thoughts and so on. Often difficult things come up here: my shoulders are tense and hurting, I’m thirsty, I am angry or resentful, I am feeling lonely. This helps me decide what to do next, if I am so lucky to have a quiet time longer than that (which I often can now my children are older, and I am getting up earlier on my own).

So next might be some reading (recently, Henri Nouwen) or some journalling. I’ve worked hard in the last six months or so to get really honest in my journalling. It’s difficult to see my difficult feelings written down in actual words, and I feel very self-conscious. For example, feeling jealousy or envy seems facile and immature to me and I have trouble admitting even to myself when this is bothering me. But journalling can often spiral into self-loathing, so I do try to then make time for prayer after this.

I have recently been more influenced by Cynthia Bourgeault’s teaching on centreing prayer, as well as using a centreing prayer guided session on insight timer as well, led by Maria Gullo. This form of prayer, for me, is more of a restful awareness — a deliberate sitting in openness to God and gently and compassionately  returning to focus with a ‘sacred word’ when we notice ourselves getting distracted by the shopping list or the self-loathing or the stress. The idea is that the word acts as consent for God to work in you. This, for me, balances out the going deeper with journalling and mindfulness, allowing a period of letting go, of not being responsible, of allowing things to just be — and also to be different, potentially.

One of the things I have worried about alot in recent times is that this spiritual practice is not based on bible reading. But at this point in my life, I have read through the bible so many times that it was in danger of becoming a meaningless rule based task, with the same interpretations of the same passages, and no transformation  or growth in my own Christian walk. Yet at the same time, I can see that allowing God to work more deeply in my emotions, thoughts and mess is absolutely the right place to be. I feel deep gratitude to have been lead into this place of acceptance, to the friends and church people who have led me here, and to the Daily Marinade community for supporting contemplative practice in Aotearoa New Zealand, the bloggersphere, twitterverse and beyond.

Kelly Dombroski writes at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com

Feathers

Just as I am wondering how much further it can be to the beach, there is a bench by the road, placed so that weary feet can rest above the estuary. The view is not quite wild, with houses in the distance and plantings in careful layers of mānuka, harakeke, reeds. My mind smudges out the houses and the path, imagining everything as it would have been. Two pūkeko stalk about, plunging their beaks into the water. They zig-zag closer to the edge and clamber out among the grasses. One balances briefly on the other’s back, wings extended, before strutting ahead of her, tail feathers raised, the white plume underneath fluffed up proudly. I wonder how he knows his tail feathers are worth showing off, and I decide he must believe he looks the same as other pūkeko. Better, even.

I am not like him. I am still afraid that my tail feathers are meant to stay hidden. I don’t yet trust that I’m the same kind of creature. I am too used to being deliberately misunderstood, to only being kept because I’m useful, to being told I see things wrong. There are two seats on this bench, and I’m glad that one of them is empty because now there is room for me.

I wander past a house for sale, past some workers digging up gutters, past some whitebaiters reclining on the bank and jeering at each other’s meagre catches. A Labrador grins at me, begging me to admire the size of the branch in its mouth. The sand is etched with the memory of waves, and the island is too close to fit in a photo.

I pick up a piece of gnarled driftwood and notice that there is beauty in the deconstructing as well as in the creating: sand made from pummelled shells, driftwood carved from flood-wrenched trees, courage found in discarded hearts.

I wonder if choosing where to walk will make me into something beyond useful. I wonder if the pūkeko even knows it has feathers.

A Prayer for Churches

Recently I have had the pleasure and honour of talking to church leaders from around New Zealand.  This is a prayer I wrote for all our churches as we struggle to find a way forward that contexualises and shares God’s love for all well.

Holy Spirit,
Blow on us all like a rushing wind,
Carry us into the future
Keep us growing
With your timely wisdom.

a dandelion seed head being blown away by the wind
Photo by Michael Schwarzenberger via Pixabay

 

 

Holy Spirit,
Cover us all like a soft blanket,
Heal us of our hurts
Keep us growing
With your deep comfort.

a cream knitted blanket
Photo by Victoria Bilsborough via Unsplash

 

Holy Spirit,
Rest on us all like a bright flame,
Light the way forward
Keep us growing
With your passionate fire.

a warming bonfire
Photo by Mark Tegethoff via Unsplash

 

Holy Spirit,
Fill us all with your gifts of grace,
Send us towards others
Keep us growing
With your prophetic call

a bird feeding on an outstretched hand

Amen

 

Christina Baird lives in Auckland, NZ and nurtures creative wisdom by providing coaching, professional supervision and by blogging  at bread and pomegranates

Taking a break from all of the feelings

Somehow, yesterday, I came across this episode of Insight, an Australian current affairs programme. It’s called Wine O’Clock, and subtitled ‘why women over 40 are drinking more than ever’. I’m not yet 40, but it was scary how much of what they were saying could be the future of some the choices I, and people I know, are making right now.

Many of the women had a glass of wine every night while cooking dinner — a way to relax after a day of kid-wrangling, work, and you know, just being a woman and all that might mean in your situation. For many of them, this became their enjoyment and relaxation, an acceptable way to switch off and relax while still being at home and (mostly) present with your family.  But for some it was quite a bit more, and becoming a health issue: One of the women talked about how she realised drinking a bottle of wine every evening was problematic, but every time she raised it with her friends or family, they brushed it off as normal. Many of them did it too.

One moment of telling interest was when a member of the audience described how giving up was easy for the first few days, then about day four she began ‘feeling again’ — which she hadn’t done for years. Another woman on the stage had already mentioned the need to ‘relax’ and ‘switch off’ and that wine provided that.

It got me thinking about the need to switch off. I think we all have that need, and when life is tough, or boring, or pointless, or we are questioning the routine of sandwich-making, organising people against their will, cleaning up crumbs and other people’s hair, while holding down a job and looking professional on top of all that, caring for parents and other family members needing emotional, financial or physical support — well, yes, my friends, a mental holiday may indeed be in order. And wine is a very tempting way to do so!

But two things here for us to think about in terms of our spirituality. One, we have to find a spiritually (and physically!) sustainable way to take those small mental breaks; and Two, we can’t avoid all of the feelings forever.

Taking a break

For me — and many who read The Daily Marinade — a contemplative spiritual practice is one way to take those breaks in feeling and doing and never seemingly being enough, or indeed, too much emotionally. Centreing prayer, Lectio Divina and other slow scripture practices , a contemplative collective worship or prayer meeting or practice, meditation, breathing, walking, yoga and more. What these practices offer over and above other forms of regular Christian practice is the opportunity to learn how to put aside worry and overwhelming feelings and to experience just being. It doesn’t come easily, but eventually, we can get better at settling in to ourselves, finding that point of connection with the divine, and resting.

Dealing with feeling

But of course, we cannot rest forever, and we cannot always be pushing aside our feelings and not dealing with the things that make us want to switch off in both healthy and unhealthy ways. But a rested mind and a renewed spirit are perhaps better able to hear the voice or gentle nudges of God, to put our emotional turmoil in perspective, and to find the strength to act as we might need to. I often find after an hour of yoga, concentrating on the poses and breathing, then resting in meditation, I then experience a sudden insight into a problem I have been chewing on (or obsessing over) for some time. It is hard work to do personal work, and to recognise what is going on for us emotionally in any given season of our lives: but it is important for our spiritual walk and growth.

***

What kinds of contemplative practices resonate with you? When might you need to use them, and how might you make the time to do so? It can be hard, clearing space to do this. One busy mother I know meditates next to the blender while making smoothies — she cannot hear her children for some brief minutes over the noise of blender! Others find time on the bus or train, in their lunch hour, early in the morning, or while the kids are entertained on the trampoline. Can you ask for the help you need to make these spaces?

Kelly Dombroski writes on care, women’s lives, community economies and other things, normally in secular academic outputs. You can find her less academic work at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com .