28 January 2008

Psalm 27

I just returned from an Appalachian immersion class in eastern-central Kentucky with 16 other people from different area seminaries. I was both inspired and humbled by our group’s dynamics and by the rich, first-hand experience of Appalachian culture. While studying the injustices of the coal mining industry (i.e. tearing apart the land with mountaintop removal, failing to see or respond to problems made by coal monopoly in some of the poorest counties in the nation, disrupting forests and leaving sludge pond waste for the locals to contend with), we were hit hard with the reality that this same mining was providing jobs to Kentuckians and electricity to us at Columbia Seminary through Georgia Power Company. I am still trying to process and understand all that I have seen in these 17 days in Appalachia.

As I traveled around to different settings to get a feel for this place, I was also struggling with the question, “What do people who are not straight do when they live in very rural places, disconnected from LGBTQ community and support?” I seemed to be the only one in our group asking this question. (Although when I asked our Kentuckian guide, he said he was very open to gay people - especially his best friend, who is partnered.) When I asked the other folks, I heard things that were familiar to me from other rural places I’ve lived: because of the emphasis on religion in the area and the lack of connectedness to larger cities, most folks reject or do not know how to love LGBTQ people.

The lack of reflection with our seminary group about this issue and my fear to even bring it up made me very sad and confused. I never quite figured out how to integrate the part of me that is bisexual into our blended seminary group. I was well aware that for those 17 days something was missing - affirmation so desperately needed from someone else with a shared experience.
The road from isolation into community is not an easy road. In fact it is seemingly impossible at times. But since the retreat last June, the affirmation I have found from Presbyterian Welcome and friends has been life-giving. Presbyterian Welcome has given me courage to be me; and to be me in a community that is earnestly seeking the very face of God. Thank you. In Christ’s name, Amen.

Prayer from Psalm 27: 1, 4-9 from the Lectionary (NRSV):
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
…One thing I asked of the LORD, that I will seek after:
to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will set me on a high rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,
And I will offer in his tent sacrifices and shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.

22 January 2008

Salvation to the Ends of the Earth (Isa 49:1-7)

When it comes to the challenge of doing justice and loving kindness in a pluralistic society, Jewish and Christian traditions offer us a mixed blessing. The tension between a narrow, particularist vision of God’s grace, and the hopeful announcement that God’s extravagant salvation is a gift for the whole world, is an enduring theme. This theological and political dilemma is at the heart of this week’s lectionary reading, taken from the Book of Isaiah.

In this passage, the prophet Isaiah speaks to the exiled Israelite community in Babylon. “Good news!” he proclaims: God knows who you are. God claims you as his own. God sees your suffering. And God is faithful still.

But there is more: Just as God called the prophet – “he formed me in the womb to be his servant” – so, too, God calls all people to a special vocation. To establish community, to restore the land, to care for the marginalized, to set the prisoners free. These practices of neighborliness and examples of justice, will make Israel “a light to the nations.”

“I give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v.6). This vision – God’s dream for the world – is extravagant, expansive. And new. The God of Israel dreams of a time when justice and love will reign over the whole of creation, not just a chosen people or nation. And God calls all people to participate in the work of coaxing this vision into being. Indeed, God’s salvation is for all. This vision of God’s generous, expansive – even outrageous – grace is one I cling to.

We would be remiss if we passed over the disturbingly violent imagery running through this same passage, though. “The Lord made my mouth like a sharp sword,” the prophet proclaims. “He made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.” A few verses later, in the same chapter, God promises to “make your oppressors eat their own flesh” and drink their own blood. Powerful kings will bend down to “lick the dust of your feet” (v. 26). What do we make of these troubling threats, these bloody images that the lectionary has hidden from view (mostly)? How do we reconcile these contrasting ideas of God? These different visions of what it means to be God’s people?

Christians in every age must struggle with this question: What does it mean to participate in God’s saving action in the world? In Isaiah, extending God’s reign sometimes sounds an awful lot like extending the territorial and political power of Israel. And there’s an uncanny echo of this confusion in contemporary justifications for America’s several wars, which (we are told) are helping to bring the “gift of democracy” to the people of Iraq, or the gift of liberty to Afghani women, or the gifts of freedom to the Middle East more generally. I don’t know about you, but as we enter a presidential election season, a nation nearly 5 years at war, talk of being the “polished arrow” in God’s quiver makes me shudder just a bit.

There’s no use (and perhaps some danger) in denying that this militaristic nationalism is part of our religious texts. We need to be reminded that it is all too easy to confuse our own vanity with the cause of God. And the dangers of such confusion are profound – something the Israelites in Isaiah’s audience knew only too well.
--Letitia Campbell

Questions for reflection:

1. What do you think the author of Isaiah means when he proclaims that God’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth?” What sounds, images, and feelings does this phrase evoke?

2. What is your own sense of vocation, of being called to a particular kind of work? How do you understand your vocation as part of God’s action in the world? How does your daily labor relate to the way you imagined salvation (above)? If it is hard to think of your daily work and images of salvation intersecting, you might reflect on that difficulty.

3. Do you think that God calls particular communities (congregations, denominations, universities, cities, nations) to play special roles in God’s saving work in the world? If so, how should these communities distinguish between their own “vanities” or interests, and the “cause of God”? What might vocational discernment look like at the level of a community or nation-state?

14 January 2008

Right Relation With All Creation

The lecture is over, the coffee is poured down the drain, Jesus was not found in the tomb and the women ran away scared. I just finished presenting a fifty minute lecture on the entire Gospel of Mark. Filled with wonderful narrative, historical and textual criticisms, I walked the students through picking apart the text written so long ago for these persecuted Roman Christians.

Questions swirl in my mind as I cool down...
How can we trust this story to be accurate? Does this storyrepresent what really happened in Jesus' life or is it a fiction made up by the author for the benefit of comforting the community to which itwas written? Do miracles really happen or are these "signs and wonders" included just to drum up support for the Jesus people? Why are the disciples so stupid? What really does this text written 1900 years ago to people that old from a different country have to do with me as I sit here drinking my herbal tea in a nicely heated office typing on a laptop computer?

My Buddhist/Hindu (he can't decide) friend tells me it's relevant because the text is written in the universal language of the mind. I'm not sure exactly what that means. What I do know is that there is some aspect of the text that speaks to something deep within my heart.

Eventhough Jesus never tells us what the Good News or the Gospel we need to believe is exactly, I get it. Stripping off all the apocalyptic expectations of the early church, we are left with a message of humanity: Living in right-relation with all of creation. Taking of ourselves what we know and the talents we have and offering them to all that exists around us is what makes the message of the gospel relevant to me. I may not be being persecuted for burning down Rome but I do feel the pain of loneliness inherent in our individualized society and crave the comfort of a community hell bent on making the world more just and sustainable.
--David DeLauro