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?


  1. 'And God created them after God's own image, male and female God created them.

  2. I find it interesting that you have a plural on places. I keep expecting to find one place where I'm understood and can understand - A community. But perhaps that is not the way. Perhaps there are places. This one where I commune about God, that one about scriptures old and new, another about living the "wind swept" life of the Spirit.

    Yet that is a fractured life and somehow less satisfying. It also means that I don't commune with each group about parts of me. I crave a body of Christ that will love and accept, where I don't have to be measured and careful, and where true unity supports growth in the Spirit. Fearless. Faithful.

    Or am I missing a piece of this puzzle?

    Lots of changes ahead for me. My anchor is the Spirit and Jesus. Should it also be a community?

  3. janneish, Those are good questions for you to work with.

    Plural usage is representative of my understanding of belonging to a community within the Body of Christ. This is how the Episcopal Church informs my identity. This blog is also an attempt to form community... more about that with the lectionary passages for the coming week.