Thursday, November 18, 2010

Revealed in Us

God said, “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us. We will let them rule the fish, the birds, and all other living creatures.” (Genesis 1.26; Contemporary English Version)

Constantly Confounded

No one in our church could have been more delighted than I on discovering this Sunday bulletin insert several weeks back:


How does gender/class/race affect the way we think about our faith? This class will be an overview of the large body of writing that has examined, from a feminist perspective, the way we think about God, the interpretation of Scripture, the way we relate to others and practice just/right-relation.

This isn’t a class for women, but a class for anyone who is struggling to be liberated from the patriarchal world view of our Scriptures and tradition. We will also draw on wisdom from the Womanist and Liberation movements. We won’t bash our history, but evolve from it with new understandings that will be helpful for anyone who is trying to be faithful in 2010.

The topic and approach had my name written all over it, as I most definitely am “one who is struggling.” And over the past two-and-a-half years, Straight-Friendly has become the focal point of my struggle. I told my pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, “When writing the blog, I’m constantly confounded by God’s gender. Seeing ‘He’ and ‘Him’ peppered through the posts makes me crazy. Yet indiscriminately changing up genders is confusing and hybrids like ‘He-She’ and ‘S/He’ feel sterile and officious. So I’ve stuck with tradition, even though it nags me that some will misread this as insensitive and sexist—particularly since the blog’s core concerns are inclusion and equality!” Joy replied, “You’ll be challenged to figure that out.” Her smile practically shouted, “Hooray!”

Tuesday night’s discussion on language broke the code when Joy made a point about pronoun usage that rocked me to my foundations. It transcended epiphany. It was a prophetic word given directly to me, to this place. It forever changed how I think, speak, and write about God. And before I detail its impact on me and the Straight-Friendly “style,” I’d like to dash off a few thoughts that bubbled up during and since the study.

The Encompassing “We” and “Us”

We were exploring the competing Creation narratives, Genesis 1 vs. 2-3. Eve’s depiction was the main focus of our inquiry, using the writers’ choice of God’s name as an indicator of their regard for women. In the first version, neither Eve nor Adam is named. Male and female are created simultaneously by the genderless Elohim, Whose Self-references are singular (“I command”) and plural (“Now we will make humans”). The account ends on the sixth day, without the forbidden fruit episode or any intimation the woman is responsible for Original Sin, which the second narrative goes to great lengths to describe.

But the telltale sign of the second version’s masculine skew is evident before the blame-game begins. Its Creator is Yahweh (“LORD”), a male God Who creates a man first and then breaks with His precedent of creating life from inert ground by crafting a woman from the man’s rib. In other words, Eve (“the living one”) lives because Adam (“from the ground”) lives. Yahweh’s creating Eve in this manner exposes the writer’s intention to subjugate her gender to the man’s.

If the Yahweh narrative was our only version of creation, we would be hard-pressed to reconcile belief in an all-loving, accepting God with its image of One Who favors men. Thankfully, the Elohim version discredits this slant by giving us a God Who speaks and acts as the encompassing “We” and “Us.” “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us,” God says. (Genesis 1.26) In this version, male and female are equal, with Elohim’s gender neutrality as the equalizer.


With Advent around the corner, my mind turns to music. Reflecting on the encompassing “We” and “Us” keeps guiding me back a praise song I grew up with:

Emmanuel, Emmanuel

His name is called Emmanuel

God with us, revealed in us

His name is called Emmanuel

God with us, revealed in us. The relationship is one-to-one: “Us” and “us.” It’s gender-neutral. But more than that, without seeing women and men as equal facsimiles of our Creator, our image of God and perception of God’s presence in the world is incomplete. As a consequence, exclusively idealizing or referring to God as “He” and “Him” (or “She” and “Her”) diminishes God by erasing half of God’s likeness from our language. God is revealed in all of us.

Because we find aspects of God in both sexes, imagining God as a paternal and/or maternal Being can prove beneficial in forging our relationship with God and teaching us to emulate Godlike attributes. That said, however, we must take great caution not to become captivated by confining God to one gender at the expense or to the exclusion of the other. God is revealed in us. We are not revealed in God. Forcing gender on God usurps God’s role, shaping the Creator in our image. With that, we stray from inclusive worship to gender idolatry.

Choosing Not to Choose

So how do we puzzle our way out of this language labyrinth founded on ancient patriarchal attitudes? The answer depends on what we hope to accomplish in our conversations about God and whom we’re talking with. When people of faith unite to celebrate female equality in God, defying male stereotypes by embracing God as “She” is tremendously liberating and affirmative. It brings everyone—most importantly, women—closer to the realization “God is revealed in me.” The same might be said of occasions meant to validate men’s making by referring to God in the masculine. In situations like these, we honor God by transforming gender-prohibitive pronouns into proclamations of gender inclusion.

Yet what of a place like Straight-Friendly, where the mission broadens to include and celebrate all genders—male, female, and every variation in the identity spectrum—as vital to the human mosaic that reveals God? Now two- and three-letter pronouns explode into mountain-sized stumbling blocks. Adhering to precedents set in male-dominated texts is problematic at best, contradictory at worst. Deferring to grammatical conventions that default to the masculine when gender is non-specific only perpetuates confusion by trying to avoid it. As writer-in-residence here, I stand in shame for buckling to both rationalizations. I wasn’t at all happy doing it, but I knew of no better path through the pronoun maze. I’ve pondered and prayed about this for two-and-a-half years.

My prayers were answered Tuesday evening, as Joy said, “When speaking or writing about God, there’s no reason to use pronouns. God is God. ‘God’ and ‘God’s Self’ are all you need. If you’re more worried with your poetry than freeing God from sexist language, then I encourage you to reflect on what you’re trying to say about God. When we refer to God with pronouns, we compromise clarity and conviction of Who God is with language that says Who God isn’t.”

There it was. The solution to my pronoun quandary is choosing not to choose. Hereafter, Straight-Friendly will be pronoun-free when referencing God. This will also apply to Christ and the Holy Spirit. When discussing Jesus, the Man in Whom God is fully revealed, masculine pronouns seem appropriate; as has been the practice from the first, His divinity will be underscored by capitalization.

I fully anticipate the awkward-sentence quotient will increase with this. Yet it’s a miniscule price to pay for liberating the posts from their inadvertent gender bias.

As I close this overly lengthy post, I have to stress this change by no means should be taken as advocacy for adoption elsewhere. Many of us have wrestled with this issue and been led to different resolutions in our blogs and language. They are equally valid, equally just, and equally effective. The diversity of language we use to convey God’s presence among us is just one more way God is revealed in us.

We must take caution against confining God to one gender at the other’s expense. We are not revealed in God. God is revealed in us—all of us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Amending Our Guest Lists

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14.13-14)

Making Memories and Wrestling With Them

Feast season is upon us. Here in the States, we’re eight days from Thanksgiving, the big event that ushers in six weeks of parties, dinners, and get-togethers celebrating the birth of Christ, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. Similar fêtes are in the planning stages around the world. We’re compiling guest lists, sending invitations, preparing menus, and coordinating dates and tasks to ensure family and friends enjoy longstanding traditions that make this time of year unlike any other. If we’re not already in the throes of these activities, we’re about to get real busy, throwing enormous energy into making memories that will live up to—and, hopefully, surpass—those we’ve accumulated in the past. We’ll submit to high pressure and expense to make these events perfect. Many of us will succeed, or come so close our guests won’t know the difference. At the end of the season, we’ll pack up our decorations, fancy table linens, chafing dishes, punch bowls, and whatnot, and store memories of another perfect holiday.

Meanwhile, there are people we know who will spend this season wrestling with memories. They will remember these feast days before their lives crashed on unforgiving rocks—before losing life partners, parents, or children; before losing jobs or homes; before addiction; before sickness and debt; before families turned them away; before prison; before betrayal; before tragedy; before crossing borders in search of elusive dreams; before… before… before. There will also be many who will wrestle with having no happy memories at all. For them, these days are traumatic anniversaries of family dysfunction, scarred psyches, disappointment, wounded bodies, broken spirits, anger, hatred, and violence that hobble them with harrowing fear. Some of these tender souls will be tended to. Boxes of food, cast-off clothing, and anonymously wrapped gifts will find them. Well-intentioned folks will sacrifice a few hours to cook and carol in nursing homes, hospices, and shelters. In exchange, the dispossessed and dismayed will politely take their leave on the actual feast days—so the more fortunate can frolic with family and friends. With them out of sight, we won’t notice that their absence at our tables, their discrete distance from our touch, mars our celebrations’ perfection.

The Bigger Picture

In Luke 14, Jesus tells a famous parable about a generous man who plans a great banquet and invites a lot of friends. The big day arrives. He sends his servant to tell those he asked, “Dinner is ready!” But everybody’s got a last-minute excuse for not showing up: I just bought land I need to see; I need to try out oxen I recently purchased; I’m a newlywed. The host is so angry, he commands the servant to invite those he excluded from his guest list: the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame—i.e., people outside his social circles whom he’d typically not dine with and who haven’t means to repay his kindness. The servant obeys and after the newly invited guests arrive, there’s more room and food to spare. So the host orders the servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.” (v23) In his pique, he adds that should any of the original guests trickle in, they’ll find nothing left over for them. (It’s a sort of “serves-‘em-right” tactic.)

The parable is obviously a metaphor for inclusion, contrasting the original guests’ disregard for the host’s graciousness with his boundless generosity for anyone, regardless of social status, who responds to his kindness. Because Jesus offers it after another guest at a dinner He’s at comments on “the feast in the kingdom of God” (v15), there’s no mistaking His message is, “God’s grace is free to all who accept it.” But the parable comes after a straightforward statement Jesus makes that can’t possibly be misconstrued as metaphor. Jesus looks around and sees the seating meticulously arranged by social rank. The most influential guests assume places of honor. The least important hang on the fringes. Although this is customary, it disturbs Him as a breach in etiquette—and a dicey move on the host’s part. Giving honor to those with means to repay his hospitality limits his rewards to returned invitations, Jesus explains. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s not the best he can receive in recompense for his efforts and kindness. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed,” Jesus says. “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (v13-14) The message: “There’s more to hospitality than meets the eye. See the bigger picture.”

Compel Them

The extent of Christ’s compassion for the neglected and ostracized becomes evident in the parable. After the servant sees there are more than enough seats and food for the overlooked, unwelcome—even unwholesome—villagers, the host sends him into the countryside to find more guests. “Compel them to come,” he commands. Such is Christ’s command to us this feast season. This is our opportunity find the financially and familial poor, those hobbled by fear and rejection, those halted by tragedies and transgressions, and those blinded by hatred and despair and compel them to join our banquets. Tending to them prior to our feasts falls short of Jesus’s insistence we invite them. Of course, many will refuse. They’ve been conditioned to get out of the way and cope with their loneliness and deprivation in silence. But we can’t take “no” for an answer. Amending our guest lists to include someone with only gratitude to offer in return witnesses our belief there’s more to hospitality than meets the eye. The bereft and berated—compel them. The abused and abandoned—compel them. The unnoticed and undesirable—compel them. We have plenty of room for them. Though they have no tangible means to repay us, we will be blessed.

Tending to the less fortunate prior to our feasts falls short. Jesus insists we must compel them to join us.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Prayers of God's People

The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. (Revelation 8.4)

Our Prayers Are Timeless

When I’m privileged to worship in “high churches” (Roman, Eastern, along with some Anglican and Lutheran congregations), their use of incense always moves me. Beyond its aesthetic beauty, watching the incense rise and disperse fills me with reassurance. More than anything, the lingering speaks to me—the sense that what has been offered up remains perceptibly present in fragrance lacing the air, even though the smoke can no longer be seen. Incense, in many ways, is the most fitting metaphor for prayer, as both represent transformation from natural limitation to eternal possibilities. Like incense, our prayers begin as concretely shaped requests. When we ignite them with faith, it’s unnecessary that they be visibly or audibly evident to be perceived. After we pray, all we have to know is now that our prayers have been delivered, God knows our needs.

Incense in worship brings to mind the vision John of Patmos describes in Revelation. He’s transported into a supernal throne room, where the redeemed gather to pay homage to their Creator. After everyone is assembled, they wait in silence for “about half an hour.” (Revelation 8.1) Trumpets are given to seven angels, who will herald judgment against the unrighteous. Before the fireworks commence, however, John writes: “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” (v3-4) The ethereal imagery may cause us to miss what John’s trying to show us. Our prayers are timeless. They carry no expiration date. They can’t be forgot. They won’t be ignored. The prayers of all God’s people—from every era, location, and walk of life—rise up before God, where they linger.

Our Breath Is Eternal

Our prayers are timeless because they rise on our breath, and our breath is eternal. Genesis 2.7 tells us, “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Two distinctions separate humanity, male and female, from the rest of nature: we are handcrafted to reflect God’s image on Earth and God’s presence in us is manifested in our breath. Every other life form is spoken into existence and brought to life by God’s command. But He breathes His life into us, and we become living beings. Every breath we take expresses God’s divinity. Since human speech is articulated by divine breath, our words and prayers become living things that cannot die. That’s why extreme caution is required in everything we say; once we speak, our words can never be taken back. That’s also why we pray with confidence, knowing our prayers remain forever alive because they’re spoken with the breath of life.

Once we understand this, our faith comes alive. We realize prayer functions exclusively in the realm of the divine, where natural limitations serve no purpose and what appears impossible can be done. We see this exemplified in a rather odd incident reported in Matthew 21. It’s the last week of Jesus’s natural life. He’s under tremendous pressure and divides His time between suburban Bethany, where He stays with friends, and Jerusalem, where His enemies wait to destroy Him. The morning after His triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Jerusalem before breakfast. He spots a fig tree and finding no fruit on it, He curses the tree: “May you never bear fruit again!” (v19) The disciples are flummoxed when the tree shrivels up. “How did that happen?” they ask. Jesus tells them, “If you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (v21-22)

The passage ends there, without the disciples asking the obvious follow-up question: “If we believe what? We can curse barren trees when we’re hungry? We can topple mountains that impede our progress?” But if we listen carefully to Christ’s statement, we realize He’s stressing belief in the power of our words and the breath that enables them. He speaks to the tree. He tells us, “You can say to this mountain.” And He sums it up: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Faith that ignites prayer is belief in the eternal breath that lifts our prayers. It’s not essential to visualize disappointments withering or obstacles vanishing in front of us. How such things can—and will—happen exceeds imagination. Faith is simply trusting in the power of our prayers to reach God despite all natural evidence opposing what we ask of Him. Because we speak our prayers with His breath, our requests will be heard and answered. That’s what we must believe. Anything beyond that—how He’ll answer, when the answer will come, what it will mean, and so on—is no more than conjecture on our part, and therefore unreliable. Faith in prayer precludes prediction.

Someone Somewhere

By breathing His life into us, God literally inspired us. Our breath is His Spirit. When we believe our requests rise on eternal breath, we pray in the Spirit. This opens a life-changing view not only of prayers we say on our own behalf, but also those we say for others—and those said for us. And it’s essential we uphold one another in prayer, presenting each other’s needs to God. In Ephesians 6.18, Paul says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”

I need your prayers always. You need mine always. There will be times when my faith in prayer weakens—when I run out of breath, as it were. There will be times when you do the same. But in our times of struggle we find strength in knowing someone somewhere is praying for us. Someone is breathing eternal life into our requests. Someone is offering up timeless prayers for us that rise before God like incense. Someone is mustering the faith to see that God knows our needs. Paul nailed it. With this in mind, let us be alert and always keep on praying in the Spirit for all the Lord’s people.

We pray for one another, believing the eternal breath that lifts our requests to God transforms them into timeless prayers that linger before Him.