27 May 2008

Inscribed on God's Hands

by Rev. Doug King
The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:8-16a

Perhaps I am getting a little old-fashioned, but I am deeply concerned about this new tattoo trend. No, I am not overly disturbed about the spread of tattoos out beyond the biceps of Hell’s Angels to Soccer Moms and Vassar students. What concerns me is this new tattoo ink that has been developed that makes it easier to have a tattoo removed. In my mind the whole point of the tattoo is that you cannot remove it. The beautiful and gloriously short-sighted concept of having your current boy/girlfriend’s name tattooed on your backside loses all its devil-may-care charm if it can be removed with relative ease. What made the whole thing so utterly fascinating in the first place was a potentially temporal sentiment being permanent affixed to one’s body.

This is the long way around to thinking about the best line of this text from the prophet Isaiah, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” It is an evocative image, the Divine’s large hands open and palms outstretched towards us with oh so many names permanently etched upon them. We naturally start to read through the names. I wonder what order in which they would be. Chronological? Alphabetical? Whatever the system, you begin to seek out your own name. The list is scanned with expectation and maybe a hint of anxiety. As you grow closer to where you hope your name will be, you hold your breath until you find it. There! There I am, inscribed upon the very hands of God, forever known and remembered by the divine. I belong to God. I belong to God.

Many times people try and label each other in order to place them on lists and in categories that limit who they are and what they can do. Sometimes these actions are powerful enough for us to begin to question our own worthiness, to wonder just how valuable we truly are. When we are in this dark place we need to reach out and feel the presence of the hands of God.

As we work our fingers across the names we eventually come to our own name and we stop moving. There is a voice in our ear, the voice of the servant. We are being called out of the darkness, “Come out.” We are being called forward, “Show yourselves.” And we shall “feed along the ways.” And we “shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike us down.” And we “shall come from far away.” There are no more walls. “Highways shall be raised up.” And we will hear the heavens and the earth and the mountains all singing for joy. And we will raise up our voices and join the song. We are all the essential children of God forever inscribed upon the hands of God.

Reflection Question

This text speaks eloquently to God’s response to our needs. The Lords tells us that our cries have been answered and we have been helped. We are called out beyond whatever ways the broken-ness of the world has closed around us. We have been called to “Come out,” and to “Show ourselves.” Remember the times in your life when God has lifted you up and called you to come forward. How have these moments shaped your understanding of yourself and of the divine?

19 May 2008

In the Image of God, Male and Female

by Jenny Howard
May 18, 2008
Trinity Sunday

“God created human beings in his own image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
--Genesis 1:27 (Revised English Bible)

This is one verse out of the first Creation story in the Bible. I picked it out from all the lectionary passages for today because it’s the one that keeps bothering me.

What I’m going to say will make more sense if you know a little about who I am. The two important facts here are: 1) I’ve been called by God to proclaim the good news of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s justice to all people; and 2) I’m transsexual. The first means what it sounds like: I’m going to be a minister when I grow up, God (and the church) willing. I’m starting seminary this fall. The second fact means that my life is complicated. Everyday life is complicated, and pursuing ordination gets especially complicated.

I’ve thought about gender a lot more than most people I know. Certainly prayed about it a lot more, too. Everything from, “Please make me a girl,” to “Please make me normal,” to “I hate you for doing this to me, God!” But it all comes back to Genesis 1:27. “Male and female he created them.” Why? What was the point, or what is the point?

Of course, I’m bringing this up because, if there weren’t genders, I wouldn’t have had to spend my whole life trying to figure out which one I am. And you can’t tell me that’s how all of life is created. Bacteria and viruses aren’t gendered, and they certainly obey the command to be fruitful and multiply (says the woman with the lingering chest cold). Why can’t people just split in two when it’s time, like bacteria?

Yeah, yeah. Simplifying humans’ lives wasn’t one of God’s objectives when God created Creation. But this is God we’re talking about. Couldn’t God see that, millions of years later, there would be people who loved God and wanted nothing more than to live their lives to carry out God’s will… but that these people would be bitterly opposed by a lot of other people who also loved God? If God could foresee that, why not just avoid the whole problem, and not create gendered humans in the first place? No gender, no transgender. No gender, no same-gender-loving couples. For that matter, no gender, no gender oppression.

I don’t have a dramatic call story. Just, in the last few years, now that I’ve finally pretty much resolved my gender identity, I began to hear a persistent little voice, “Jenny. Jenny. I have work for you to do.” It was so little at first that I can’t even say exactly when it started. I just ignored it at first. But it didn’t go away. “Jenny! Listen! I have work for you to do.” I tried arguing God out of it, for one very obvious good reason: “Look, God, what are thinking? I’m transsexual. There’s no way. Go find someone who people will accept as being called by you.” When that didn’t work, I tried being rude and rebellious; as they say in the south, I sassed God, “Go away! You’re being ridiculous! Leave me alone!”

For some reason, God ignored my demands and kept calling me. Nor did God make any move to undo my little transsexuality problem. I finally gave in. I mean, not only was I unlikely to win an argument with God, chances are that I was on the wrong side of the argument. Fine. Called and trans. I still asked, “Why, God? What’s the point of calling a trans person?”

I think by now you get the idea why that verse of Genesis bothers me. “Male and female he created them” has been the source of a lot of my troubles. And maybe the source of the troubles of a lot of the folks reading this.
But still. But still, there has to be an answer to why God did it this way. You can say it’s God’s will, and God’s will is inscrutable. And you’d be kind of right. But that’s not a really satisfactory explanation to me. The answer, I think, lies in the middle of the verse: “In the image of God, he created them male and female.” Aha! God worked with what he knew! God’s image is male and female, and God knew that! It makes sense, if you think of a human-like God: when you’re creating something brand new for the first time, work with what you know.

But it also makes sense if God is, for you, more mystical, ineffable. In this understanding, which is closer to my own, the Creation simply is. “Should”, and “could”, and “might”, and “would” aren’t meaningful words. God is as God is; and so what God made is as it is. In more concrete language, “God’s will” is not an expression of what should be; it is an expression of the way things are made to be. God’s will then, is another way to say “what is.” Not “what is” in the sense of how things appear to be; rather, “what is” in the truest, most foundational sense. Our tasks, then, are to discern what truly is; then to align ourselves with we have found, with what is, i.e. with God’s will.

Where does all this leave me with Genesis 1:27? It leaves me knowing that our gendered reality is God’s will. Male and female, in God’s image. It just is, in the same way that God just is. And it leaves me to not only accept, but to celebrate and even worship all the God-given complexity that our gendered reality leads to, whether heteronormative, or transsexual, or gay, or lesbian, or…
Thanks be to God.

12 May 2008

Spirit Speaks

Pentecost Sunday
by Elizabeth McCord, M.Div.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them…and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, assistant to Moses, one of his chosen men, said “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put God’s spirit on them!”
--Numbers 11:26-29

The day the Permanent Judicial Commission issued its ruling on Jane Adams Spahr v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through the Presbytery of the Redwoods (Disciplinary Case 218-12), I downloaded the 11 page “Decision and Order” at the law office were I work. I skimmed the denomination’s judicial document, noticing its format. Visually, it took the shape of secular legal pleadings and court orders that sat on my desk. On page five I read, “Prophecy contains risk and uncertainty both for those who would speak and for those who would listen. The role of a prophet carries consequences. It is the burden of a church officer to accept the consequences of his or her actions that are the ecclesiastical equivalent of civil disobedience.”

I doubt anyone would deny that prophecy bears risk. Threat of negative consequence, small or great, is an inherent part of speaking Truth, of speaking out of the Spirit’s calling on one’s own life. In the case of Eldad and Medad, their ecstatic expressions were met with a plea to the powers that be for silencing. Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, insisted the two unauthorized prophets be stopped. This “chosen man” of leadership argued as a prosecutor, anxiously defending the authority structure which had guided this rabble of wilderness wanderers. Perhaps, given the fact that Joshua had not known his people to always make wise decisions in the absence of their leader, this was a reasonable request.

Working in a law office has given me new perspective on my faith tradition. I watch our attorneys finger through law books, exegeting their content for the wellbeing of individuals and society. As a Christian, this makes me more aware of what it is to be a covenant people tied to the written word, and as a Presbyterian, it makes me understand more fully what it is to be a confessional church tied to the constitution. The confessions and Book of Order offer us common language and guidelines as we seek to communicate personal faith in a diverse community. I choose to be a Presbyterian because I value these documents and because, despite our ongoing failings, I value the idea of inclusive dialogue, which I believe is at the heart of our polity.

However, I can’t help but feel we betray our Heart when we respond to prophecy with disciplinary charges rather than open-minded conversation. Jealous and embittered is a church that attempts to squelch the unrelenting, insuppressible voice of the Spirit. Rigid and non-reforming is a church that masks its torn and bleeding wounds with orderly judicial papers mimicking the world of U.S. governance rather than the New Creation of Christ. And, hypocritical and lost is a church that gives lip service to ministry for marginalized people without claiming its own role as the marginalizor, or that fails to support the Spirit-filled ministers (ordained or lay) who would otherwise lead us to embrace the profuseness of God’s grace. I am saddened and wearied by this denomination.

I am also, despite all experience and reason, hopeful. The breath of the Spirit moving through the ministries of Janie and many others reminds me that the Promised Land is not beyond the strength of our tired feet. My prayer this Pentecost is that the Presbyterian Church will heed the Spirit’s message of mutuality, love, and covenant, as lifted up in Janie’s prophetic action of marrying same-sex couples. I pray for our people, that Christ will continue to stir us to boldness and disobedience, regardless of the denomination’s closed doors. I offer to God Moses’ words, “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” Maybe then we will find our way out of this wilderness, for all things are possible when the Spirit speaks.

05 May 2008

So That They May Be One

7th Sunday of Easter
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, John 17:1-11
by Tina Silvestro

In this time between the Ascension and Pentecost there seems to be a scriptural pause in the midst of Easter joy. What was that time like for the Apostles? Jesus - their teacher, their friend - was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. We know the story and what comes next. We say it like an ordinary matter. But, for the followers of Jesus, attached to this sequence of events there were many changing emotions. After the Ascension, Jesus was no longer visibly in their midst. Yet again they were lost, afraid, and uncertain. They were a community in conflict with the established order but now they had to face this alone. Jesus had promised the Spirit but they had no idea what that meant. There was a pause time before the coming of the Spirit.

This week’s scripture speaks about communities in conflict, uncertainty in direction, and the restoration that only God can provide. God “will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you” (1Peter5:10). The scriptures, written about freedom from oppression (Ps. 68), guidance in time of persecution (1Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11), and prayer for protection (Jn.17:1-11), point us to trust in the outpouring of the Spirit.

In the midst of New Life we are reminded of the work yet to be done. We are still communities in conflict. We are reminded of the brokenness of our lives, of people still oppressed. We are reminded that people are still persecuted through exclusion, discrimination, harassment, and unjust laws. And we are reminded that people, who, living in fear, so desperately need protection, healing, and freedom. We are reminded of our need to “let God rise up” (Ps. 68:1) with transforming love within us and within our communities so that Christ’s prayer will be realized. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (Jn.17:11).

But…what does it mean to be one? Does it really mean to be the same? Does it mean to be whole? How are God and Jesus one yet different? How can we embrace our oneness in Christ, in God, in humanity, in a way that surpasses our differences? How can we create that surprising and unexpected unity that comes from accepting our differences?