The Circle of My Arms

Tomorrow, Sunday, is Pentecost, the culmination of the Easter Season. Although saying the Easter season is at a “culmination” seems a strange way to express what for many is the high point of the church calendar. Okay. We’re done. No more Easter. No more transformation until next year. No more rebirth into new life. Words are such strange things and seldom express what is really meant.  I guess what I’d like to say is that Pentecost marks a transition point – a point of turning from looking at what happened to Jesus to looking at what has happened to us.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I began the idea of a blog by taking on the Lenten discipline, back in February, of writing a spiritual reflection each day for our community.  And for the six weeks of Lent, I wrote every day. If you’re interested in seeing any of those writings, go to The experience helped me understand, again, how important daily practice is to my well-being and it helped others through their late winter, early spring challenges.

During Lent this year, Cliff and I focused on the elemental forces in our lives – the elements being earth, air, water, fire. It seems fitting that this culmination of the Easter season once more focuses on elements – fire and air – and the power of those elements in our lives. Focusing on the elements also helped me focus and write about what was really elemental in my/our lives. What did we need, at base, to get through the changes and difficulties that faced us over a winter that would never end? The “element” changed, but the need to look at those pieces of our lives that are the most important to us remained. It’s interesting to note that on this day of writing about Pentecost, a hot wind is blowing from the south, the sun is bright, and our temperatures are reaching for the upper 80s. Up to today, we’d barely made it past the 70s. Fire and Air.

The traditional images of Pentecost are tongues of fire from Acts and Jesus breathing on his followers to impart his spirit in The Gospel of John. The author of Acts sees the presence of Spirit acting out in historical people and places. In physical action. The author of John presents Spirit working in the internal life. At the same time, all the gospels and Acts are “written from a post-resurrectional viewpoint,” as Ray Brown writes in Christ in the Gospels in the Liturgical Year. He goes on to say that “John’s gospel has the most pronounced post-resurrectional reinterpretation” of all the writings. In other words, none of these writings are eye-witness accounts, rather reinterpretations of the stories that had circulated about Jesus’ life and written with a particular audience in mind.

Forgive me for wandering away from musings and into hermeneutics, but I find the idea that “tongues of fire” and Jesus “breathing” on his followers is couched in terms drawn from the elements. Don’t we, most of the time, need to return to the elementals to make sense of words and experiences? It was as hot as fire;  it was as cold as ice. It was as hard as a rock. Sometimes we just can’t get much farther than that in our explaining.

How do we make sense of “send out your spirit and renew the face of the earth’? It looks, to our physical eyes, as if the world is more in a crumbling mode than a renewal mode. Each day, I scan the headlines of the NY Times just to keep abreast of what’s going on: oil spill in the Gulf; mining accidents; earthquakes; the volcano in Iceland – Iceland! – shutting down air traffic; an immigration law in Arizona that has people in an uproar; unemployment figures that don’t get any better; Wall Street having another meltdown; Europe now in a financial mess; the list could go on and on. Where is renewal in this? Where, one could even ask, is God in all this!

I’m reminded of an experience when I moved to Germany in 1973. I’d been active in politics, worked for McGovern, involved myself in civil rights and the woman’s movement, despaired at the Watergate mess that wouldn’t end. And then, our family was transferred to Germany. The only news I could get was in German on German television or in the Army’s newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. One could not call that a liberal news outlet. I despaired. I could not fight. I could not protest. I was removed from action.

I read. I read every book I could get my hands on in the military library system. And I remember reading Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, and while I don’t remember exactly what brought me to my breaking point, somewhere during that book, I decided I would no long man (or woman) the barricades, no longer fight, no longer protest. The world I would change would be the world within the circle of my two arms. I would change myself and those who came within that circle. I have held or been held to that decision ever since. Occasionally I inch myself out into some political cause or issue, but it never extends very long – or successfully.

I guess I could say I’m still changing the world that comes within the circle of my arms since my laptop, regardless of the wide reach of my readership, still fits within that space.

Which brings me back to Pentecost and to sending out Spirit. Perhaps the greatest gift we could offer the world right now is sending our own spirit into the world. Few of us can change what’s happening underwater in the Gulf or in Iceland or Afghanistan or in any of the other troubled areas of the world. But at the same time, I’m not suggesting apathy or disinterest. I’m not suggesting you get under the covers and wait all this out. I am suggesting that despairing the effects of others’ actions, of raging impotent at the world, is not effective. Too much rage against others’ actions turns to rage or despair against our own inaction or the actions of those near us.  It makes us blind to that which is around us. I’m suggesting that each of us can facilitate transformation where we are by our reactions and by simple, concrete acts of kindness. It is in those simple acts that we send out our spirit.

Think about it: how might the world change is we were to practice kindness? If we were to continue the transformation of the Easter season into transforming our lives? Now that’s an element we can all live with.

The Good Mother

On Saturday before Mother’s Day, the front page of the Faith Section in the Kansas City Star ran the headline, “The Good Mother,” and went on to detail lives of three mothers from three different faith traditions: Mary in Christianity, Hannah in Judaism, and Khadejah in Islam.  In both Judaism and Islam, the women were wives, strong, resourceful, and independent. Only Christianity presents The Good Mother as obedient, virginal, and by extension, subservient. First I was angry, and then I became sad. What’s a good mother? How can any of us live up to that title?

We have the myth in Western society that to be a good mother means to sacrifice ourselves. And, of course, in the living we all fall short and become guilty that we’ve fallen short. There’s no “if” to falling short; it’s more a matter of “when.” And the when happens over and over. As does the guilt.

What we don’t think about is how the concept of Mary and her obedience is based on the life of Roman women two thousand years ago. Rome was patriarchy. The same patriarchy that rules the Roman Church today. Rarely are women told that Mary was considered the first disciple; even less rarely are we told that Mary lived her life and raised children as a single mom since it’s likely that Joseph died before her children reached adulthood. Her eldest, Jesus, would have been the father-figure in such a Jewish family.

Maybe that’s the reason he didn’t enter ministry until he was around thirty years old. That’s middle-aged in First Century life spans. Why did he wait so long? Is it possible that Jesus waited so long because he had to support the family as a carpenter after Joseph died?

Instead of a family woman, Mary is presented as a perpetual virgin, never having sexual relations, never complaining, never angry, never demanding. As always innocent; as always young and pure. And yet, evidence in the gospels says that Jesus had brothers at the least and probably sisters. Where did these brothers come from if not from Mary? And why did Mary and Jesus’ brothers confront him and ask him to come home? (Mark 3:31; Matthew 12:46; Luke 8:19)

Perhaps his response is akin to a modern woman saying to her grown children, “Okay, guys. You’re old enough to take care of yourselves now. I’m going back to school!”

The problem with perpetuating “the good mother” is that there’s no logic behind the myth. There is only a model that’s unrealistic and unattainable.  One could also say that it is a reconstruction, in Mary’s case, rather than an actuality.

Ray Brown, the preeminent Roman Catholic scholar of the Infancy Narratives says, in part: “…the opening of the Magnificat is a deliberate parallel to the opening of Hannah’s canticle after the birth of her child in Samuel 2: 1-2. The Hannah parallelism continues throughout the Magnificat, e.g., Luke 1:48, ‘Because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid,’ echoes the prayer in 1 Samuel 1:11, ‘O Lord of Hosts, if you will look on the low estate of your handmaid.’ This handmaid motif was anticipated by Luke in 1:38 where ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ was part of Mary’s final response to Gabriel. The term employed is literally the feminine form of ‘slave’; and besides the religious context of servants of the Lord (see Acts 2:18), it may reflect the sociological situation of many early Christians…That Mary designates herself a handmaid is poetically beautiful in our hearing, but…whether or not the Magnificat came from an early Christian group of ‘Poor Ones’, [as Brown illustrates in his proceeding chapter] it clearly shares their mentality. Mary has become the spokeswoman of their ideals” (Brown, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year p. 92).

In other words, our “Good Mother” is modeled on slave mentality.

It serves no one for women to believe themselves less because they do not perfectly emulate a woman’s story created in myth.

None of which means that the concept of the Holy Mother isn’t important. It is. We all need a spiritual mother as well as a physical mother. We all need to believe that there is an understanding mother when we make mistakes and fail, when we stumble and fall. A mother that will hold us and comfort. In other words, a mother’s face on God. Interestingly, while God is called “perfect,” as a masculine face, he’s also permitted pettiness and anger and jealousy.

In a post-denominational world, could we see Mary as fallible, as jealous of the other disciples, as wanting Jesus to come home and not put himself in danger? If we could move to that understanding, would we then see “the good mother” as someone complete in herself, with all the human characteristics that we humans have? And wouldn’t that be liberating! Both to women and to their children and to their husbands.