Thursday, May 31, 2012

He, She, and Me

When the Spirit of truth comes,

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Here is the Gospel text from Pentecost Sunday. It contains the promise of help from the Spirit of Truth. The Greek word is Paraclete which is translated as advocate or helper. This passage of scripture holds tremendous promise for Christians of all denominational persuasions, and yet it also creates some tension within me as I take a first read at it this year. A story from my own life may help explain.

Fourteen years ago I was in a particularly active discerning state of mind regarding God’s call to me. Up until that time our circumstances were such that most of the time I could choose to work on community projects that I felt fulfilled my sense of mission to the world, without having to worry exceedingly about remuneration.  As an organizing board member of Habitat for Humanity I felt quite certain I was being faithful in using my gifts to bring people together, building relationships while we built homes in partnership with people needing simple decent homes. Parenting, working part time as Director of Community Ministries at Church of the Valley, and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity were my ministries.  

But as my children came closer to the age of adulthood, I felt what many women experience, a need to evaluate and engage the question of a long postponed educational journey, and the next vocational change.

As I approached vocational discernment I sought out a woman pastor to help me consider what God was calling me to do.  Her recommendations set me on a short adventure back into the private sector, working for a heating and air conditioning company.

The people were wonderful.  One person particularly enjoyed discussing things that had to do with the church. One day, he asked me whether I thought God was a man or a woman.

“Well, D, I don’t think of God as either, male or female. I think God transcends gender. Although Jesus was incarnate as a male. The human form of Jesus does not lead me to believe that God is of any particular gender in the same sense that we conceive of gender.”

And that really rocked his boat.

So, here we are, reading the Gospel passage from the RCL for the week and confound it if the Spirit isn’t referred to with the male pronoun. It’s just one of those points in reading scripture which cause me special frustration, because of what I know.

I know that when we dig back into the Hebrew Bible, the source sacred texts primary to the Jews of Jesus’ time and to the early Christians, that there are plenty of passages that use feminine articles and imagery. There is a very long list of those images. And more importantly, because we are referring to spiritual matters, it is a conundrum for both women and men.
Now how does a self-respecting progressive Christian, one who is at the very least a nominal feminist, find meaning or spiritual value from a text such as this when language itself creates such a barrier?

For a long time I just ignored the language. I pretended it didn’t bother me in the slightest…really, it didn’t. But I’m a morphing person, as I believe we all are. The Holy One is a transforming force. So, change is normal, even good.

With that realization I have begun to work through the language problem for myself applying a prayerful approach. Here are a couple of ways I have learned to work through the gendering of spiritual texts; one linguistic, and one visual. The visual one is very new to me, one I am just now exploring.
Like many before me, I play around with language, because the words I use to describe God are a means of finding deeper personal connection to the divine. For instance, read what happens to the text with a small addition throughout the Gospel.

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, SHe will guide you into all the truth; for SHe will not speak on Her own, but will speak whatever SHe hears, and SHe will declare to you the things that are to come. SHe will glorify me, because SHe will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that SHe will take what is mine and declare it to you."
Now, with my eyes I begin to feel more fully the nature of God being inclusive of the transcendence of gender in this text.

The second way is through the use of Icons.

Icons which are religious artworks use to help the faithful mediate a path to the divine presence are much more faithful to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible. This is a gift from the Orthodox Church to all Christianity which I am just beginning to learn about and appreciate.

In the icon, "The Hospitality of Abraham" which is understood to be an icon of the Trinity,

In this Icon, "Theotokos (Mary) in the burning bush unconsumed", 

And in this Icon of Jesus’ baptism with the Trinity present with I am allowed to imagine the immanent feminine nature, creative and sustaining presence of God. 

Without this additional imagery, my appreciation for the transcendent nature of the Holy One is diminished, as well as my own self-understanding as a vessel of the Holy One. With these images I can imagine myself being the ember bearer which God has called me to be. Each of us, by our consent to God, carry within us the divine spark of God to bring about good, experienced as a healing and ever expanding community, which Christians call the reign of God. It is an expanding reign.

Because we are humans we depend entirely upon our senses, primarily the five prime senses, taste touch, smell, sound, and sight. But spiritual matters depend upon a spiritual sense. Intuition is the spiritual sense. Discernment is the process of spiritual listening. I believe that each of us remain incomplete until we discover and develop the ability to listen to the spirit. The promise found in the Gospel of John is from Jesus, during his carnal life, for all.

Pentecost represents new spiritual life, “being born from above”. It reminds me to look back at the beginning of creation where God is active bringing order out of chaos, and to reclaim the power that God imparts to be a source of healing and reconciliation. It recharges me to continue to discover ways that I can faithfully live out my commitment to working for peace, healing and reconciliation. That is work that happens in community, with and for others, not simply for my own private comfort and enjoyment.

The holy wind that stirs us up also invites us to receive a new annointing to carry on Christ's work in the world.

Better to do that in community than single-handedly trying to push the rock of Sisyphus to the top of the mountain.    

Where are the places that you experience community?

Is the Spirit whispering advice for change in your life in the coming days, weeks or months?

How will you go about making that change?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost Winds

So now, it is Pentecost. This is the day that marks the outpouring of God’s Spirit once again over all the face of the earth, but especially upon the men and women who had been with Jesus, before his death. The ones that had gathered behind closed doors, waited (or perhaps they even resisted the idea that they would) to be dispersed to all corners of the known world. This is an ancient story that goes  back about 2000 years.  

The day of Pentecost is remembered every year in Christianity! It’s affectionately referred to as the birthday of the Church. After the Incarnation, after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, and after the ascension, finally comes Pentecost which marks the continuing activity of God in the world. It marks God, in the Spirit Presence acting and enlivening humanity.  It continues the story of God in relation to humanity and all creation. The story which started centuries before the Jesus narrative.

Lectionary selection from the Hebrew Bible** this year comes from the Book of Ezekiel to link God’s story throughout human history. Episcopalians

I’ve been reading the lectionary texts throughout the week, and cannot help but notice that my own environment has every bit as much wind blowing as I read about in the texts.

God’s message through Ezekiel speaks to me in new ways this year. In the evening, while I’m sitting on the couch, reading I’ll stretch and startle myself as I hear the bones in my neck and shoulders crackle in multiple places. I’m creaking, sort of like dry wood, but no, that must be bone to bone I’ve been hearing. Then, later, as I lay in bed, just before slipping into sleep, I listen to the sounds of the night. Outside my bedroom beyond the window I’ve been hearing the howling winds. Now reading the Old Testament text assigned for this Sunday, I feel myself in the text.

suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'”

Growing old, and feeling at a loss. Dried up. Lost hope. Completely cut off. That’s just exactly how it can feel at times along the pilgrims’ way. The pilgrims’ way is a journey, a journey of faith that sometimes takes a person through very difficult and dry periods.

There are all the usual sources. Mourning the death of a loved one is a universal place where one can become a desiccated heap. After all the tears are shed, with no relief in sight, the dryness of that time can feel like winter has permanently set in.

Other times come to mind too.

Where are those places or where have they been in the past for you?

Is this a year where the promise of God's Spirit outpouring which Pentecost announces year after year just seems an Impossible Missions Force assignment? 

Are you holding on by the very last milligram of faith? Are you feeling tired to death of the promises of prayers being lifted on your behalf?

Take heart, you are not alone. 

In fact, you never have been. It’s not a trivial offering to tell you that this dry valley in your life is one that others have finally made it through to see and experience a brighter day. The question for you will be whether you will allow yourself the time to rest within the heart of the universe, in the center of the holiness of God to be restored while you wait and listen for the warmer winds of new life.

Reading the passage from Ezekiel now, place yourself there at the bottom of the pit, and let yourself be among the dry bones. Don’t worry; no one will walk on you. Just lie there and look up into the heavens through squinted eyes. Peek through the thinnest opening of your eyes and see the lights that dance upon your eyelids. Cast your eyes with caution, being careful not to stare into the sun. Allow yourself to float within the embrace of the whiteness of the clouds.

Ezekiel’s message was being delivered to people who lived too long in captivity. The people of Israel, cut off from the only place that they had come to know as the dwelling place of the Holy One, found themselves under the control of a foreign power. They had exhausted themselves trying to make sense of their suffering. They no longer believed that a time would come when even a tiny remnant of God’s chosen people would make it back into the land promised to them.

The narrative of their lives acquired the somber melancholy notes of abused victims receiving the punishment meted out at the hand of God. As a people bonded together they assumed vast quantities of guilt and shame rather than being able of separating out human responsibility from the work of God.

The same sick thinking occurs in our own times. For the cultural mindset of that age, this foundation of logic was entirely natural, whether or not it was true. Self-blame and shame for things not of their own making hardly seem right in the present age. We are more easily disposed to rejecting any notion that God metes out pain and destruction. We cannot love a fierce and destroying God. What may have been the norm 3500 years ago, no longer fits with human reason within the Post-Modern worldview.

But that thinking was essentially the problem that Ezekiel both carried internally and encountered in others as he stood above the valley of dry bones. Then and now, someone plays with our heads and squeezes at our heart, at least the spiritual part of our heart, and suggests that the passage through this place of dryness and this dis-opportunity is of our own making; deserved and without remission. Worse than any biological cancer, the mental cinch cuts off circulation and withers the ability to step forward. Retreat and regrouping become the only viable option. Some kind of dormancy season, or perhaps a fallowing, is needed, to restore the mind, body and soul.

But the story Ezekiel presents doesn’t leave us with carrion dinner remains, useless and dead at the bottom of the valley. God is the God of the living. God provided a message of hope, and a vision to lift up the spirit of Ezekiel, and the people of Israel. It is a message of hope that comes also to us.

Today we can feel in the gentler weather, the heat just warm enough to restore a fire of faith for what the future might be, for each of us. Hope comes again. 
Will it be a future for self alone, or for the community?

The revised common lectionary texts for Pentecost can all be found in link below

Later this week I will be writing about  He, She, and Me

The revised common lectionary  (RCL) texts for Pentecost can all be found in the link below.

RCL – Revised Common Lectionary (of the Episcopal Church)
**Episcopal worship regularly includes four readings from the Bible. One Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Psalm, two New Testament readings, one from always from one of the four books called Gospels.