Grab life by the scruff of the neck.

It’s been five years today since my accident; mid-afternoon on 7 October 2010 my life changed irrevocably. Elly and I don’t know whether we should commiserate or celebrate. Are we remembering the day I broke my neck, or the day I survived?

I like to think I’m an honest blogger, but like everyone, the truth is I put on a show. I’m reluctant to leave the impression that things are tough, because whiners are boring and sympathy is overrated.

But I will admit I found the recent October long weekend hard. The weather was spectacular and everyone on the east coast of Oz was at the beach. Saturday I moped around the house. Sunday morning I went to church (they had put up with me preaching), before returning to home to brood away the afternoon.  Monday we took the family to the beach. I know I should have been content, enjoying the frolicking of the kids and marvelling at the strangeness of the sea of half naked human bodies, but I couldn’t get past the fact that watching others in the surf, when you can’t join them, is a form of torture.

As I said, whiners are boring.

If the perspective of life post injury allows me to give you some advice, let me commend you to take the opportunities to enjoy life while you can. Don’t waste time in front of the computer, since there’ll be occasion enough for that when decrepitude sets in. Get outside. Climb a mountain.  Surf a wave. Run a marathon. Go camping. Smash a golf ball. Stand up to a bully. Swing on a rope. Jump off a cliff (carefully). Step under a waterfall. Ride a bike. Wrestle the kids. Hug someone you love. Enjoy an orgasm.

As the ancient poet reminds us:

Scale back your long hopes

to a short period. While we
speak, time is envious and

is running away from us.
Seize the day, trusting
little in the future.

Horace, 65 B.C.E.

Or the prophet Isaiah 22:13 (admittedly, taken out of context):

But see, there is joy and revelry,
   
    eating of meat and drinking of wine!
“Let us eat and drink,” you say,
    “for tomorrow we die!”

Of course there is truth here for me also, and for those of you who find yourself similarly restricted. We can whine by all means, but then let’s move on, because life is too short to waste it complaining. Laugh with a friend. Listen to a symphony. Drink fine wine. Savour an aged whiskey. Read a novel (or my memoir). Play chess with the kids. Tell someone you love them.

Grab life by the scruff of the neck, because it is short, and fragile, and you’d just don’t know which day will be your last.

IMG_2726
Shane Clifton, jump off a cliff while you can

NDIS, the disabled voice, and the church

I thought you might appreciate a small extract from my recently published article, “NDIS, the disabled voice, and the church.” if you would like to read the whole thing, you can download it on the following link:

Shane Clifton, “NDIS, the disabled voice, and the church.” St Mark’s review, No. 232 (July 2015): 65 –80.

I highly recommend you consider buying the full edition of the journal, which includes seminal riders on disability (see here).

But for all you young people who are incapable of reading more than a few hundred words (I know, it’s bad form to berate your audience, but you know I’m right), here is an extract. It follows my my encouragement to “amplify the disabled voice,” and focuses on the skills and opportunities of listening:

Amplifying voice is not just about giving people opportunity to speak, but it also means that we need to learn to listen. People with disabilities are routinely required to listen to others, “forced to listen to experts about their lives, instead of being listened to, not least as experts on themselves.” This is as true of preachers as it is the medical establishment. We are told from the pulpit about sin and its consequences, and the value of forgiveness and grace, but these are topics about which people with disabilities are experts – if for no other reason than that they are constantly needing to forgive us for excluding them!

To hear their expertise we will need to pick up new skills, and examine ourselves as to whether we are open to hear. Listening is a challenge. We have a tendency to prejudge people, and then to hear what we expected to hear. We are more likely, for example, to treat good-looking people as smart, and assume that those in wheelchairs, or with some obvious physical disability or speech impediment, are less intelligent, and so discount what they have to say.

Disability also has the potential to make communication challenging, so we may need to learn new methods of listening. Gerard Goggin, for example, notes that listening to people with severe communication impairments will require us “to indicate clearly and frequently whether or not we have understood. Listening here involves the negotiation of uncertainty – with the potential of exposure as being an inadequate, unresponding, or uncomprehending listener.” In facing up to the challenge, however, we get a small insight into the humility and frustration, as well as the strength and determination, that is a part of the everyday experience of people who struggle to talk, hear, see, and so on.

In the concrete everyday activities of the local church, facilitating communication will require creativity. Again, churches are used to one-way communication, from the pulpit to a silent congregation. But what if the decision to amplify disabled voices generated a revolution in how we understand preaching, teaching, and sharing in the church? Is a pulpit and people seated in rows really the best way to communicate? Might replacing sermons with onstage conversation model our theologies of the priesthood of all believers? What other forums or technologies might we introduce to hear the disabled voice, and more broadly, to open ourselves to the diverse spiritual insights of congregations as a whole?

St Mark's review

Renouncing Masculinity (and reclaiming my humanity)

In my previous blog about John Piper’s so-called complementarianism, the key issue at stake was assumptions about sex and gender roles. Complementarians assume that human relationships are (or should be) shaped by a binary structure. According to Piper and Gruden (in their truly horrible Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), “masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.” Conversely, “femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”

It seems to me obvious that human relationships resist binaries such as that proposed by Piper and fellow complementarians; people are just too diverse to be classified in simplistic ways. More to the point, a person’s sex has very little to do with whether he or she is gifted to lead, provide for, and protect – or affirm, receive, and nurture – and ideally every person should develop a character capable of each of these traits. Any assertion that one’s sex predetermines leadership or its complementary “disposition to affirm” (by which is meant submission) is inherently sexist. It’s just as bad as saying that a white person is gifted to “lead and protect,” and a black person to “affirm and receive.” It’s not good enough to pretend that men and women are equal in being but subordinate in function, when what we assume that a person can (or should) do is central to their being.

I’ve always resisted binary definitions of masculinity and femininity. Secular versions such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus are just as dumb as the Christian equivalent in books such as John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart, with their warrior/hunter/rescuing men and princess/passive/longing to be rescued women.

But my abstract reflections on gender have been made personal by the accident that left me a quadriplegic. This was brought home to me recently by an insightful question by my friend Lauren. We have shared the reading of a book by Tom Shakespeare, Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires, which, among other things, reflects on the implications of disability for masculinity. In response, Lauren said:

That’s one thing I wondered about after reading Shakespeare. He goes through a process of recreating masculinity in the light of disability.  Is this something you’ve considered too?  You were always a rather different man anyway.  What sort of man are you now?  Do you have alternative gender practices?  I find this statement quite hopeful:

“Men with disabilities who rejected or renounced masculinity did so as a process of deviance disavowal.  They realised it was societal conceptions of masculinity, rather than themselves, that were problematic. In doing so, they were able to create alternative gender practices.”

It’s interesting to consider alternative masculinities.  Have you done any thinking about this? There seems to be a dearth of thoughtful literature here, but I suppose your memoir touches on these themes.

My memoir does touch on these themes (there you are – another instance of blatant self-promotion), and indeed I’ve spent many hours mulling over the issue. I’d probably have to admit that for all my feminist rhetoric, prior to my accident I was a stereotypical male – self-confident, sports obsessed, a leader.

Disability, however, asked questions about my manhood. It’s not only the impact of the injury on sexual capacities, although, let’s be honest, masculinity is inevitably tied up with sexual potency. More substantially, it’s the extent to which disability displaced my strength with weakness, confidence with uncertainty, independence with dependency. Far from being a rescuer, I found myself (and still find myself) needing to be rescued, carried, supported, strengthened – all the things John Piper would think of as feminine; and of course it’s been mostly women who’ve done the rescuing, carrying, supporting, and strengthening.

Perhaps Piper would claim that the exception proves the point – that the cost of disability is masculinity. But I think that disability teaches us what is true of our universal humanity; that to be a human is to be vulnerable, fragile, dependent, and in need of rescue. To quote Shakespeare, it’s only when I renounce masculinity (at least as Piper, Eldridge, and Gray understand it) that I can face up to my humanity, and maybe then become the man that I was always meant to be; utterly unique and free from binary straitjackets.

And when I let go of the pretenses of masculinity, I can also dispense with shallow views of femininity, and see my wife and female friends for what they really are; at one and the same time vulnerable and fragile, and incomprehensibly powerful.

cover
Husbands Should Not Break will be in print and available on Kindle in late September.

It’s time to exorcise John Piper

A few years ago, in Raising Women Leaders (co-edited with Jacqui Grey), I wrote a chapter entitled “Sexism and the Demonic in Church Life and Mission.” The chapter challenged the logic of so-called complementarianism, which claims that men and women are equal “in being” but that a man’s role is to lead and a woman’s is to submit to that leadership. In contrast, I argued that the presumption that women must be subordinate to men undermines any claim to equality; i.e., that complementarianism is sexist. I then set out the case for complete equality and mutuality.

I have always stood by my argument in that chapter, but I have sometimes regretted the reference to the demonic in the title. It was deliberately provocative, and, hey, I do have a tendency to hyperbole. But I have a few friends who I respect who take this view, and the last thing I want to do is demonise them (MJ, I respect you and value your friendship, even if on this topic you are just wrong). I’ve also worried that the provocative nature of the title means that those who disagree with me will dismiss my argument without engaging with it.

And then John Piper pipes up – again – and reminds me why I chose the title that I did. In his regular “ask Pastor John” radio series, he was asked by a young woman who felt drawn to police work, “Can a single Christian woman, who is a complementarian, become a police officer?” Even with my gift for hyperbole I am incapable of exaggerating his sexism, so rather than summarise his argument here is an extended quote:

And here is my conviction. To the degree that a woman’s influence over a man, guidance of a man, leadership of a man, is personal and a directive, it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order. To an extent, a woman’s leadership or influence may be personal and non-directive or directive and non-personal, but I don’t think we should push the limits. I don’t think those would necessarily push the limits of what is appropriate. That is my general paradigm of guidance. And you can see how flexible it is and how imprecise it is. So let me give some examples.

A woman who is a civil engineer may design a traffic pattern in a city so that she is deciding which streets are one-way and, therefore, she is influencing, indeed controlling, in one sense, all the male drivers all day long. But this influence is so non-personal that it seems to me the feminine masculine dynamic is utterly negligible in this kind of relationship. On the other hand, the husband-and-wife relationship is very personal and, hence, the clear teaching of the New Testament that the man should give leadership in the home and that she give a glad partnership in supporting and helping that leadership come into its own.

On the other hand, some influence is very directive and some is non-directive. For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in the platoon. And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant — hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private — over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood.

(For the full article, “Should women be police officers?” see here).

While he then tries to avoid giving his questioner a direct answer to her question, his conclusion (which repeats the argument, just in case we missed it) gives little room for doubt:

If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues. And conversely, if a woman’s relationship to a man is very personal, then the way she offers guidance and influence will need to be more non-directive. And my own view is that there are some roles in society that will strain godly manhood and womanhood to the breaking point. But I leave women and men in those roles to sort that out. I have never tried to make that list.

What we have, then, is Piper is telling a young woman – someone who is likely to take his view as authoritative – that she should give up her long-held desire to be a police officer because in such a role she would almost certainly exercise personal and directive leadership over man. This would occur in the daily exercise of the authority of a police officer over the general public, and as soon as she is given the smallest promotion up the ranks of the police hierarchy, which would require her to direct and lead male subordinates.

At stake is a vital issue. It’s not merely a matter of a difference of opinion, and it’s not just a question of who preaches in conservative churches. After all, I’m of the view that a person who attends a church sharing the views of Piper gets the masculine preachers they want (and deserve). And good luck to them. Piper’s sexism goes much deeper. In essence, what he is saying is that women shouldn’t enter the workforce, unless they choose to look for employment at the bottom of the hierarchy – and therefore in the most menial and lowest paying jobs.

This is what sexism is all about. Sexism is a label that describes power structures and ideologies that disempower women on the basis of their sex. And there is no stronger ideology than the assertion that “the Bible makes plain … that God’s created order” requires women to be subordinate to men, denying them even the right to equal participation in the workforce.

So let’s stop beating around the bush. This is sexism of the worst type. And it’s evil. And it’s not the teaching of the Bible. And it’s not God’s created order. And it’s anti Christ. As I said in my chapter in raising women leaders are (in one of those untempered moments):

the demonic can be understood as being constituted by those spiritual forces that resist and oppose the life giving power of the Spirit of God in all creation, oppressing individuals and insinuating themselves into the social structures, cultural values and religious ideals that frame human life. Spiritual warfare entails the discernment of spirits, and the casting out of the demonic under the authority of the name of Jesus. I am arguing that patriarchal oppression of women, especially in churches, should be understood as demonic, precisely because it entails resistance against the work of the Spirit in and through women. If this language seems impertinent, then while I speak for and to the PC (Pentecostal – charismatic) community I will not be PC (politically correct). Sometimes the theologian has to take a more prophetic stance, especially when demonic ideas have insinuated themselves into … the culture of the churches worldwide. (For a full copy of the paper, see the publications list on the about section of this blog, and/or purchase Raising Women Leaders)

Yes, well. Intemperate I may be. But it’s about time we exorcised the voice of John Piper from the church. Social media has rightly come down hard on the sexism of Mark Driscoll, but where is the outrage against Piper? It’s time to see him for what he is; not a representative of the body of Christ, but a sexist man trapped in a 1950s worldview that he confuses for biblical truth.

Superintendent Doreen Cruickshank, celebrating 100 years of women in the New South Wales police force.
Superintendent Doreen Cruickshank, celebrating 100 years of women in the New South Wales police force.

“Trapped in a wheelchair”

My memoir, Husbands Should Not Break, is imminent – the editing and typesetting is now complete, and I’m working with the publisher on the cover. I’m happy with the way that it looks, except for one thing. The draft includes an image of an empty wheelchair that is typical of what people normally imagine wheelchairs look like.

conventional image of a wheelchair
conventional image of a wheelchair

The reality, though, is that a person with a spinal cord injury wouldn’t use a chair like this (at least in wealthier nations) – a rickety, ugly, boxy chair without any of the accoutrements that are necessary to enable a person without trunk control to balance and avoid pressure marks. This is to say nothing of the fact that most quadriplegics need electric chairs. My brand of wheelchair is pictured here:

Permobil Wheelchair
Permobil Wheelchair

The difference between the two chairs is as between a pushbike and Porsche, but my dislike of the typical image of the wheelchair is that it feeds into the general impression that to have a spinal cord injury is to be “trapped in a chair.” The endless social media circulation of videos showing paraplegics and quadriplegics using clunky walking machines is evidence of the same idea; the assumption that what is really terrible about spinal cord injury is the fact that it prevents us from walking.

But I don’t hate my wheelchair. Actually, I love my wheelchair. It’s what liberates me from the constraints of my body. If I was required to marry an inanimate object (you never know, this might be one of the consequences of proposed changes to marriage laws), it would be to my wheelchair. “Do you, Shane, take this wheelchair to be your lawfully wedded partner?” Well, yes, but only till the next model comes along!

passionate worship

The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.
The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the intersection between disability and sex. This thinking has led me to reflect upon our identity as sexual and passionate beings, and then to wonder about what that says about our relationship to God. What follows is an exercise in creative thinking – not a systematic analysis of worship. If you hate it, please don’t beat me up too much. But at least I hope you find it stimulating…

Contemporary Christian worship music is framed by a subliminal eroticism, revealed in song lyrics, musical style, and the body language of Christian bands and recipient congregations. This eroticism reflects the long history of sensual language in the Christian spiritual tradition (see the picture and of St Therese above), with its expressed longing for union with Christ and the loving embrace of God. A passionate, ecstatic, and experiential sensuality was central to the worship of the charismatic renewals of the late 20th century, and remains prominent in contemporary worship, with songs emphasising God’s overwhelmingly powerful love for us, and our passionate longing for him.

To cite a recent example, consider one of my favourite worship songs, Hillsong United’s Oceans (Where Feet May Fail). To complain that this song might as easily be directed at a lover is to miss that that is precisely the point. Written in the first person, the song draws on passionate human eros and directs it to God: “my soul rest in your embrace, for I am yours and your mine.” Its sensuality is contained not only in the lyrics, but in the beauty and purity of vocalist Taya Smith’s voice, gently supported by the (sexy) timber of male backup singers. It is a song sung by beautiful people, who celebrate the mystery of divine beauty with eyes closed, and hands raised, symbolic of both submission and embrace. Surely this is not something to be decried but, rather, it’s what worship is all about.

Eros, sexuality, is fundamental to what it is to be human – to be a passionate person. Too often in its history the church has sought to suppress sensuality for the sake of boring, cold, and rigid agape – self-giving love. Self-giving is, of course, central to love, but it is self-destroying if it is not accompanied by passionate eros. And this has been the story of the church, which has demanded that people love by subjugating passion. Yet all the while it has failed to realise that its self-flagellation was a sign of eros suppressed and distorted – a celibate priesthood corsets the Bride (i.e. the church), telling her to ‘suck it up and think of God (or England).’ Repression on one side leads to oppression on the other.

If contemporary worship is subliminally erotic, then at its best it’s a celebration of human passion and a longing for intimacy and touch. As such, it’s a celebration of bodies, bodily sensations, and ardent emotion, all of which should be brought to bear in worship.

Where it goes wrong is when passionate worship (human to divine) functions exclusively, as a replacement for the thrill of human to human passion.

If worship can be erotic, then is it possible for sex to be worship? There is obvious support for this idea in Hinduism and Tantric sex, as well as in various animistic traditions and pagan spiritualities. Although less prominent in Jewish and Christian tradition, the canonisation of the Song of Solomon stands as an especially potent sacralising of sexual desire. That church theologians have often analogised Song of Songs as a symbol of the passion of Christ for the church is telling, even if, thereafter, Jesus is generally imagined as asexual. In fact, the incarnation is itself a divine embrace of embodied humanity – and Jesus had sexual organs that presumably functioned in much the same way as ours. Jesus’ particular vocation may well have kept him a virgin, but he was constantly in trouble for ignoring the sexual proprieties of his day by welcoming women and men as friends and lovers (in the broadest sense of that term). This is not to say that we can model our sex lives on Jesus (sometimes WWJD really is absurd), but it is to say that Christianity should celebrate the body, in all of its wondrous, sensual, and messy absurdity.

Might we go further, embracing the idea that we could learn something about what it is to worship by thinking about our sexuality (and, of course, doing more than just thinking)? I’m not primarily talking about fantasy, (although I’m not excluding it, since imagination is surely part of the divine image), but about exploring what our passions have to say about us, our self-transcending capacity to love and be loved. These passions are ultimately reaching for transcendent beauty; that is to say, our passion seeks the divine.

But if that’s so, what might be the implications of our assumptions that certain groups of people are or should be asexual? Of course I’m thinking about disability, but the logic (if there is any) has much broader implications. Precisely what those are is a topic for another day.

Golden

I’ve had a few weeks of problems with my pee. My catheter bag leaked twice, flooding my pants and chair at work. Then, earlier this week my bag malfunctioned, and I woke up in a puddle. And that mishap gave the creepy crawlies a foothold in my bladder, and I ended up with a knock-me-down fever. In response, my beautiful friend Lauren sent me this glorious prayer poem.

I have a friend who used to drink pee

Instead of tea.
She would keep it in the fridge next to the orange juice,
Ice cold urine
And sip it from a porcelain tea-cup,
With gilt edges and daisies painted along the side.
She said it was for health benefits
To keep her insides
Clean,
Pissed.

In Nights at the Circus

There is a clown who wears a bladder on his head for hair.
His insides have come out, which is shockingly funny for a clown.
Not so for a quad.
Your insides won’t come out,
Not without assistance.
And this is the glorious job of the indwelling catheter,
Taking the piss
To an external bag discreetly bound to flesh,
That is attached to a
Thin ballooning tube going where?
Into awful mystery,
Beneath the belly
Beneath the skin,
“Now that’s a piercing!”

I know you’ve been unwell

So I pray that
Your piss week
Passes smoothly,
May the golden trickle
Flow clear, bright and uninfected,
And may your insides be
More comedic than a clown,
And more nourished than a pee sipper.

Is that not the most wonderful prayer you’ve ever read?!

Shane

PS this blog is not meant as sob story. Much of it is just wet (and my own fault). Except for the fever, I’d go through it all again just to read that poem!