A STILL MORE EXCELLENT WAY IN WORSHIP
1 Corinthians 1: 24-30; 1 Corinthians 12:31; 2 Corinthians 5:17
THE HOLINESS OF BEAUTY
Psalm 27; Philippians 4:8
SIGNIFICANCE OF CHRIST-SOPHIA AND RUAH
TEXTS: I Corinthians 1:24-30, Genesis 1:2, Deuteronomy 32:11
CHOOSE LIFE AND BLESSING
TEXTS: Hab.1:1-4, 2:2-3, Acts 2:1-4,17-19
A STILL MORE EXCELLENT WAY IN WORSHIP
1 Corinthians 1: 24-30; 1 Corinthians 12:31; 2 Corinthians 5:17
The Sunday before this past Christmas I sat beside my mother in her moderate Baptist church's morning worship service. As the organ began playing, 20 men filed in from the side door and sat on the front pew. Then four men marched in and took the large seats on the elevated platform. One of these ministers rose and began the invocation, "Our Father, bless our worship in your Son's name." Then we all stood and sang "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and later "O Come, let us adore him." The choir sang an arrangement of "Good Christian Men Rejoice." The pastor read from the Bible, "He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:18) Then he preached that the meaning of Christmas is that "Jesus came to save sinful men." Outside on the church steps after the service, I took a deep breath of relief-until Mother asked us to go to the Christmas Eve communion service. "It's a silent communion service," she said, and I thought, "Then maybe I can get through it." That evening our family packed one of the pews near the back of the church. Candles glowed at the end of each pew and across the front of the sanctuary. Just focus on the light and warmth and keep breathing, I told myself. Don't notice that only men serve communion and that 3 men stand behind the high altar. Just breathe and don't read the exclusive language in the bulletin.
My mother's church prides itself on being moderate, not fundamentalist. Most of you are in churches that would not be so blatantly exclusive as my mother's church. But the majority of churches, whether Baptist or Methodist or Disciples or Episcopal or Presbyterian or Catholic, still worship a white male God through the language of hymns and litanies and the visual images. Paul Smith, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Kansas City, states in his book, Is It Okay to Call God 'Mother'?: "The church at worship powerfully shapes our understanding of God, and every week at church services all over the world church leaders reinforce our male dominant image of God with religious fervor, pastoral authority, and incredible repetition. They talk as if God is male." Making the Ultimate Power of the universe male gives the strongest sanction imaginable to the dominance of men. Surely we can find a better way.
Taking masculine pronouns out of worship is a first step for many churches. They repeat God or Creator or other gender-neutral nouns. But most people still think "He" when they hear "God" and certainly "Lord." I will show you a still more excellent way. Bring feminine references into worship, balancing masculine with feminine, giving sacred value to women who have for centuries been excluded, ignored, discounted, even cursed. Denying deity a feminine face diminishes the value of women and girls. My mother, who's been very supportive of my writing and preaching on feminist theology, told me, "When I call God 'She," I don't feel I'm giving God enough respect." How sad, but understandable, since Mother hears only a "He" God respected in worship. She has never experienced the sacredness of her own gender. Until the feminine is revalued through inclusion in our sacred worship, women cannot claim our full gifts and power in the image of the Divine. Neutral names and images, though an improvement, are usually heard as masculine, and women are still viewed in the image of the Divine in some secondary way.
Men as well as women suffer from the worship of a masculine God. Seeing God in exclusively masculine images results in the impoverishment of our emotional and spiritual lives. The whole creation suffers from this patriarchal theology and culture. References to the earth are feminine, but the feminine is not given sacred value. We are all starved for the Feminine Divine.
Some advocate using only feminine divine references for the next 2000 years to rebaptize our imaginations that have been so fully immersed in masculine God-images. I've led groups in a reversed worship service, in which I change all the masculine references to feminine, to raise awareness of the repetition of masculine images in most services and to invite people to experience the Feminine Divine. I begin with this call to worship:
"Come, let us sing for joy to God, our Mother. Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before Her with thanksgiving and extol Her with music and song. For She is a Great God, and a great Queen above all gods. In Her hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to Her. The sea is Hers, for She made it, and Her hands formed the dry land. Come let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before our Mother, who gave birth to us. For She is our God, and we are Her people."
Though a worship service with only feminine language helps raise awareness, I will show you a still more excellent way. A way of inclusion, not exclusion. A way of partnership, not of dominance. The Gospel calls us to celebrate the full worth and freedom of everyone. I love Linda Ellerbee's definition of feminism: "It doesn't mean turning the tables on men, but throwing out all tables except round tables." Some men and women fear that bringing feminine images into worship will mean throwing out cherished masculine images, like Lord and Father. You remember that people also feared, and some still do, that women pastors would scare off all the men. Now we've discovered the richness of worship when women and men freely exercise our gifts. Just as we can celebrate, instead of neutralize, the gender of worship leaders, we can celebrate the Feminine and Masculine Divine in worship.
Our Milky Way Galaxy contains over a hundred billion stars. The Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. How could we ever limit the Creator of so vast a universe to a single gender? A more excellent way is including in our worship a wide variety of feminine and masculine and non-human biblical images to expand and deepen our spiritual experience. Divine Mystery exceeds all our thoughts and words. All our language for divinity must then be metaphorical. We can never fully express Divine Reality in words or concepts. But we can begin with the wide variety of metaphors for deity in Scripture. Biblical revelation gives a multiplicity of divine images, female as well as male, to suggest the immensity of our Creator.
When I challenge the exclusively masculine language in worship, some people say to me, "Oh, you're just being too sensitive." At one church a man accused me of male-bashing. I countered, "Three of the people I love most in this world are males-my husband and two sons. I'm advocating change that will liberate men as well as women." My passion for changing worship language is not just about my sensitivity or about making women feel better about ourselves, although that's a worthy goal. It's not about political correctness, but about faithfulness to our Gospel calling. Gender-balanced language in worship is a justice issue on a wide scale.
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson in her book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, says that sexist God language is oppressive because it undermines the human equality of women made in the divine image, resulting in patterns of dominance and subordination with attendant violence and suffering. In the U.S. alone, every seven seconds a woman is battered by a man. Over 1,300 women are murdered each year by their husbands or boyfriends. One in four American girls will have been sexually assaulted by the age of 18. One in three women experiences some kind of abuse. Seventy percent of the poor are women. Surely there is a better way. The Gospel calls us to a more excellent way.
Our worship lays the foundation for a more excellent way. Worship and social justice cannot be separated. Without justice, our worship rings hollow. The prophet Amos denounces those who offer sacrifices and songs in worship while oppressing people. How can we act fairly toward people when we ignore or devalue them in our most sacred rituals? How can we profess to love everyone when we leave out over half of humanity in our sacred songs and litanies? How can we say that everyone is created in the divine image when the only images in our worship are male? Sponsoring a shelter for battered women while our worship sanctions a male-dominated society is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound that we inflicted. It cannot suffice. Surely there is a better way. But challenging millennia of male-dominance in our churches and culture is a formidable task. The more excellent way of the Gospel has never been easy or convenient.
A hyphen went with me when I came to Baylor's pastoral care department from Hillcrest Baptist Hospital in Waco. Now I was "Jann Aldredge-Clanton." I insisted that this name be inscribed on my black chaplain's badge, in spite of many objections. The department secretary complained that this name was too long to get on the badge and on department schedules. Some of my colleagues objected that "Chaplain Aldredge-Clanton" was too cumbersome to be used around the hospital. Also, they worried that it might be construed as a feminist statement, and get them as well as me in trouble. At first my husband David took it as a personal affront. "What's wrong with 'Clanton'?" he challenged. "Nothing. After all, I'm keeping 'Clanton,' just adding 'Aldredge.'" "Why do you need to do that, after all these years?" "I want to reclaim my Aldredge identity. How would you feel if you changed your name?"
The opposition to the hyphen in my last name, just like that to calling God "She," convinced me of its importance. I recalled responses I'd gotten to requests I'd made to balance masculine and feminine references to deity: "You're making such a big deal over a few words. The Creator of the universe can't be limited; He's above male or female." When I agreed and said that there should then be no more problem referring to God as "She" than as "He," I got strong negative reactions. No better proof could be found for the bias against the feminine and the need to overcome it by calling God "She." The hyphen in my last name also carried power, more than I at first realized, power to confront traditional discrimination against women.
Years before, a woman at an English teachers' conference asked me when I introduced myself, "Is that your husband's name or your father's?" I stared at her as she laughed and said, "I didn't take my husband's name, because I reject that symbolism. But then I realized I still had my dad's name. How can we ever get away from being owned by men?" One of my friends had tried to escape by changing from her husband's back to her father's name and then to her mother's maiden name. Now she has her grandfather's name. As I was getting used to my new name, Jann Aldredge-Clanton, which I had to admit was a mouthful, I recognized the irony. In trying to reassert my own identity, I now had the names of both my father and my husband. But somehow, at least in my mind, the hyphen made the name my own. My father wasn't "Aldredge-Clanton," and David wasn't changing his name.
In our worship services, as we struggle to reclaim our identity and worth, we also discover the power of naming. We may need to try out new combinations and open our creative imaginations. The divine names we use in the context of worship carry great power. Our sacred symbols reflect and shape our deepest values. By balancing feminine and masculine names for God, such as "Mother and Father," "Brother and Sister," we give strong support to the equality of women and men. Through gender equality in worship we follow our Gospel call to restore and resurrect and create. As we speak and sing inclusive words in worship, we help overcome injustice and create a world of shared power. Our worship models partnership when we balance divine names: Sister and Brother, Father and Mother, She and He, Christ and Sophia.
The name Christ-Sophia makes equal connection between male and female, thus providing a model for a community in which all live in partnership. Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom, is a resurrected biblical feminine divine image that opens new possibilities for the liberating message of the Gospel. New Testament writers link Christ to Wisdom, a feminine symbol of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew) symbolizes creative, redemptive, and healing power. In their efforts to describe this same power in Christ, the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers draw from the picture of Wisdom. Paul refers to Christ as "the power of God and the Wisdom (Sophia) of God" ( I Cor. 1:24), and states that Christ "became for us Sophia from God (I Cor. 1:30)." Proverbs describes Wisdom as the way, the life, and the path. The writer of the gospel of John refers to Christ as "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). My books on Christ-Sophia discuss in detail the biblical, historical, and theological foundations of this symbol, and give applications for worship. The biblical parallel between Christ and Sophia illuminates the inclusiveness of the Gospel and the liberating power of the resurrection. Bringing Christ and Sophia together in our worship helps us to internalize and appropriate this resurrection power.
The Gospel calls us to resurrect the dead and to create the new. The Gospel continually calls us to a more excellent way. On the road to Dasmascus Paul had a vision of a more excellent way. Priscilla and Aquila experienced this Way and showed it to Apollos. The Christian faith promises "a new creation" in which "everything old has passed away," and "everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17). The new creation did not stop with Paul and Priscilla and Aquila. The new creation continues with us. We become new as we free ourselves from fear so that we can embrace all our gifts. We bring a new creation into the world through acts of peace and justice. Through balancing female and male divine imagery in our worship, we become a new creation and we contribute to new creation in our world. We create a strong foundation for partnership. We give equal value to women and men through worship that equally balances Mother and Father, Brother and Sister, She and He, Christ and Sophia, and other feminine and masculine divine names. A rich diversity of creative gifts then transforms our worship. I invite you to join the adventure of creating new worship that is indeed Good News of liberation and abundant life for everyone.
THE HOLINESS OF BEAUTY
Psalm 27; Philippians 4:8
The young poet John Keats, sick with tuberculosis and saddened by family tragedy, thrilled to the beauty of a nightingale's song and wrote one of the loveliest poems in the English language. In "Ode to a Nightingale" Keats struggled with the question of whether beauty is an exaltation or an evasion of experience. He wondered if beauty is a luxurious diversion from reality or an experience of a deeper spiritual reality. He begins "Ode to a Nightingale" with these lines:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness-
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Beauty for Keats became like a divine vision that transcends pain. Keats discovered the holiness of beauty.
As a hospital chaplain, I'm with people in the midst of suffering-physical, emotional, spiritual pain and grief. Often I feel overwhelmed and drained. For relief and renewal, I turn to music, literature, and writing my own thoughts and feelings. One day as I was driving home from the hospital, I turned on the radio. The most beautiful music of Beethovan filled the car. But static kept interrupting this music, threatening to drown out the beauty. I felt myself becoming angry at the static, and then angry over life's pain and suffering, angry at anything that threatens beauty and goodness and health and wholeness. I kept the radio on that station, wondering if the beauty were worth the static, while hoping that the beauty wold prevail over the static. Finally the music won out. God came to me through the music, refreshing my spirit with the beautiful strains. I experienced the holiness of beauty.
The writer of Psalm 27 likewise experiences renewal through beauty. As in other lament psalms, the author cries out in the midst of some crisis. The specific nature of the crisis and identification of the enemies are difficult to determine. But the feelings are clear. The psalmist feels forsaken. Persecuted by foes. Maligned by evildoers. Enemies draw near, threatening violence. Evil strikes out and almost wins out. Sometimes we too feel surrounded, overwhelmed. But suddenly God comes to us in the mist of the crisis. God may come through beauty. Beholding the beauty of God brings the psalmist assurance of wholeness and victory. Evil may invade, but cannot destroy the beauty of God's creation. There still "Lives the dearest freshness deep down things," according to poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. A glimpse of divine beauty lifts us up and calls forth the beauty within us. Our hearts dance and sing with the Creator:
"And now my head is lifted up
above my enemies on every side.
I will offer in your tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to you" (Psalm 27:6).
Beauty strengthens us by uniting us with our Creator. Contemplating the beauty of the temple puts the psalmist in touch with the beauty of God. Strength and courage and confidence come from this connection with the Creator.
At Baylor I work with a Healing Environment Team to bring beauty into the hospital. We have a TV channel which blends calming music, natural sounds, beautiful nature photography, and instruction in meditation. We placed backlighted transparencies of lovely nature scenes over scanners in radiology where people lie sometimes for hours getting diagnostic tests. Volunteer musicians and clowns visit patient rooms and give performances in family room. CD players and a variety of music are available for patients and families to enjoy. In 1888 Florence Nightingale said, "The effect in sickness of beautiful objects, of variety of objects and especially of brilliancy of color is hardly at all appreciated. I have seen in fevers the most acute suffering produced from not being able to see out of a window. People say the effect is only on the mind. . . The effect is on the body, too. Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form; by color and light, we do know this, they have an actual physical effect." Current research has verified the effects of visual beauty on healing. One study showed that patients with nature-view windows had shorter hospital stays, fewer post-surgical complications, and less pain than those patients with windows facing a brick wall. Dr. Deforia Lane has recently published results of research demonstrating that music also contributes to physical healing. Her study showed that just 30 minutes of music therapy resulted in reducing blood pressure and pain and improving immune system functioning. More and more we're discovering the healing power of beauty.
You too may be longing for a healing touch. You may feel overwhelmed with responsibility, frustrated by conflicts that seem unresolvable, tired and discouraged with unrealized goals and dreams. Where is God in all this for you? God may surprise you with renewed strength through a line of poetry, a piece of music, a lovely picture, the song of a bird, a bright-colored sunset. You may discover God afresh through beauty.
Beauty enlightens us by putting us in touch with our true selves as well as with God. Beholding the beauty of God leads the psalmist to ask for wisdom in order to be steady and peaceful even in the midst of enemies:
"Teach me your way, O God, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies" (27:11). God's way is the way of beauty and peace and justice. Divine beauty leads us toward our highest selves, living in peace and mutual relationship with others and working in partnership with our Creator.
In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats declares:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
That is all ye know on earth,
And all ye need to know."
Keats here affirms the power of beauty to seize the eternal essence of human experience. Whether or not we agree totally with this equation of beauty and truth, we have probably experienced some enlightenment-some "ah ha" moments-through great works of art or through the beauty of nature. Writer Madeleine L'Engle talks about art as a teacher for her. She says that sometimes she writes so that she can know what she thinks and feels. Good works of art, she says, "keep us from frozenness, from smugness. They help us to know that we are often closer to God in our doubts than in our certainties. An artist is someone who is full of questions and who cries them out in great angst."
Beauty keeps us learning and growing, asking questions, discovering more about ourselves and our creative potential. By opening ourselves to experience beauty, we tap into the beauty within us just waiting to be created. In the image of the Great Creator, each one of us carries the gift of creativity. It takes a variety of forms. We may create through writing, through music, through dance, through drama, through teaching, through visual arts, through web sites, and through countless other forms of beauty. We discover our true selves as we create. As we touch our true faces, we touch the face of our Creator.
"'Come,' my heart says,
'seek God's face!'
Your face, God, do I seek" (Psalm 27:8).
This seeking leads us to behold Divine Beauty.
Matthew Fox, in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, writes of the human power of co-creation with God. Fox states that the Cosmic Christ challenges us to claim our powers of creativity, saying,
"Do not hide your light, your divine creative powers,
under a bushel and thus allow human creativity
to be manipulated and misused by forces of war,
destruction, pessimism, and bureaucracy.
Find the creative person, the 'I am,' the divine
child at play and at generativity in yourself. . .
I ask you to be my companions, to share the
birthing of images with me, to be my
co-creators. Do not bore me by refusing.
Do not scandalize me by saying, 'I can't.'
Come, play with me. Let us create together."
As we appreciate and create beauty we find strength and enlightenment. Beauty also lifts us up beyond ourselves so that we can uplift others toward their highest potential. The psalmist declares, "You will set me high upon a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me" (Psalm 27: 5b-6a). Divine Beauty beckons us to rise above our enemies of fear, self-doubt, pessimism, apathy, anxiety. Beauty beckons us onward to the joy and dignity of fulfilling the divine image within us. Beauty beckons us to bring forth the divine beauty within others.
The majority of people walk through Harlem and see nothing but poverty and violence. They look at the youth of Harlem and sigh a deep sigh of hopelessness. How can these young people break the cycle of poverty, abuse, and injustice? How can they ever rise above their background and environment? Most people see these youth as helpless victims, with little chance of escape. But Dr. Walter Turnbull looked at the youth of Harlem and saw beauty just waiting to be birthed, creativity stirring beneath the surface of restlessness and frustration. Dr. Turnbull had opportunities to teach in prestigious universities, to direct well-known choirs. But Divine Beauty within him urged him to see the creative potential in the youth of Harlem. We might say that he became an evangelist for beauty. He looked at impoverished, disadvantaged youth and saw possibilities. He rounded up some of these young people and gave birth to a choir. The Harlem Boys' Choir now fills Carnegie Hall and other music halls around the world with music that astonishes with its fresh beauty and brilliance. In addition to bringing forth the music within these youth, this choir awakens their confidence and inspires them to succeed in school. Tapping into their own potential for beauty turns them from hopeless dropouts to successful students with high aspirations for the future. The change in these young people gives testimony to the holiness of beauty.
Holy Beauty calls to us today. Sometimes beauty whispers to us as we rush from day to day. Beauty whispers for us to stop and notice. Sometimes beauty shouts through a glorious sunset or an iridescent field of flowers along our path, and we still do not notice. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,
"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
Those who see take off their shoes,
The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries."
In Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, Shug tells Celie that God gets really angry when we walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and do not notice it. Beauty shines and sings all around for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Strength and peace will come as we see beauty, appreciate beauty, contemplate beauty. So we learn from our New Testament passage: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is any praise, think about these things. . . . and the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:8, 9b).
Divine Beauty calls us to join Her in giving birth, in creating new beauty, in giving birth to our creative selves. Holy Beauty calls us, "Come play with me. Let us create together." If we respond, we will find enlightenment as we touch the truth of the creative beauty within us, excitement as we bring forth that beauty. When we respond, we feel inspired to spread the Good News, to heal the brokenhearted, to liberate the oppressed through the beauty we have experienced.
Holy Beauty beckons through our rush of motion and noise,whispering through the gentle breeze, calling us to stop and notice.
Divine Beauty shouts through flaming rose sunsets, singing through purple and yellow fields of glistening wildflowers, and we still do not notice.
Beauty shines and sings through all creation, for those with eyes to see the holiness in every blade of grass, and ears to hear the music in the smallest creature's voice.
Static may interrupt and threaten to overwhelm, but the music overcomes, and the truth plays on in purest strains.
Thoughtless hands may mar and scar, but the splendor shines through, and the freshness blooms again.
Holy Beauty calls us to notice, to nurture,to claim the fullness of our creative power,to join in creating a world beyond imagining.
SIGNIFICANCE OF CHRIST-SOPHIA AND RUAH
1 Corinthians 1:24-30, Genesis 1:2, Deuteronomy 32:11
Recovering feminine divine names and images gives sacred value to women and girls who have for centuries been excluded, ignored, discounted, even cursed. New Wineskins' worship services are affirmative action for the human and Divine Feminine. Imaging God in female terms promotes change that brings true equality and dignity to women.
Our worship services give our city and our society a model of a community that not only welcomes everyone but also affirms the equal value of everyone: female and male, homosexual and heterosexual, black and brown and white. Our worship lays the foundation for equality and justice when we balance divine names: Mother and Father, Sister and Brother, She and He, Christ and Sophia.
The name Christ-Sophia is one of the divine symbols that makes equal connection between male and female, thus providing a model for a community in which all live in partnership. Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom, is a resurrected biblical feminine divine image that opens new possibilities for the liberating message of the Gospel. New Testament writers link Christ to Wisdom, a feminine symbol of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew) symbolizes creative, redemptive, and healing power. In their efforts to describe this same power in Christ, the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers draw from the picture of Wisdom. Paul refers to Christ as "the power of God and the Wisdom (Sophia) of God" (1 Cor. 1:24), and states that Christ "became for us Sophia from God" (1 Cor. 1:30). The book of Proverbs describes Wisdom as the way, the life, and the path (Prv. 4). The writer of the gospel of John refers to Christ as "the way, and the truth, and the life"(John 14:6). An early Christian writer declared Sophia to be the most ancient and appropriate title for Jesus. I think Sophia is one of the most powerful Divine Feminine images for women. "Mother" may be an ambivalent image for some women, depending on their experiences with their own mothers or with motherhood in general or with the image of Mary. When we think of Wisdom, Sophia, being feminine, we can experience our own wisdom more powerfully. Sophia invites us to develop a partnership relationship with Her.
The image of Christ-Sophia holds promise for inspiring social justice through shared power. The name Christ-Sophia suggests equal connection instead of dominance and submission in a relationship. Christ-Sophia images the equal connection between male and female in that the name Christ traditionally denotes male divinity, and Sophia is a feminine name for the divine. Also, Christ-Sophia links races, connecting the Jewish Jesus to Wisdom in both ancient and hellenized Judaism and drawing from both Egyptian and Greek sacred symbols. Bringing Christ and Sophia together in our worship can inspire powerful partnerships that contribute to peace and justice in our world.
Celebrate a new day dawning, sunrise of a golden morn;
Christ-Sophia dwells among us, glorious visions now are born.
Equal partners round the table, we make dreams reality;
Calling out our gifts we nurture hope beyond all we can see.
There're more Divine Feminine images in the Bible than we at first see in the midst of all the "He's" "Father's" "Son's" "King's," and so on. It's amazing that there're any feminine images at all, since the Bible was written in a culture that was so patriarchal that women were considered property. Another of my favorite biblical Feminine Divine images is Ruah, the Hebrew word for Spirit. The word Ruah is feminine in form. I believe Ruah, like Sophia, holds great promise for women and for everyone. Ruah gave birth to the universe. She's first found in Genesis 1:2: "The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." The word in this verse translated moving, (rachaph) is used to describe God's action only one other time, and that is in Deuteronomy 32:11, which images God as a Mother Eagle. The first word for the Spirit of God in the Bible is feminine. The first picture of God is of a mother eagle giving birth to the universe. Women can feel empowered to embrace our creativity when we discover that the Creative Spirit is feminine. The Spirit who created the whole universe is feminine! Men can feel empowered to embrace aspects of their creativity that have been traditionally labeled and demeaned as "feminine." It may seem obvious that the Spirit who gave birth to the universe is feminine. But She's been buried in patriarchal culture and tradition, lost, scorned, or demeaned. We have found Ruah, the great Creative Spirit. Let us now praise Her!
CHOOSE LIFE AND BLESSING
The Israelites made it through slavery in Egypt, through the trials of the Exodus, and through the parched, barren wilderness into the promised land. That is, some of them made it. Others chose to cower in fear on the other side, refusing to take anymore risks.
When the Israelites finally came to the outskirts of Canaan, Moses sent spies into the promised land to check things out. After 40 days they came back with their report. They began by showing them some of the fruits they had brought out of the land and by telling them that the land was indeed filled with milk and honey and lucious fruits, just as God had promised. But, they said, the people in the land are large and strong, and the towns are well-fortified. Joshua and Caleb were the only spies who tried to persuade the people to go on over into the promised land. Caleb told them, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it" (Numbers 13:30). But the other spies continued to discourage them, saying, "In comparison to the Canaanites, "we seemed like grasshoppers" (Numbers 13:33).
Instead of following the inspiring counsel of Caleb and Joshua, the people of the Exodus chose to listen to the naysayers. Instead of choosing the blessings God had promised in Canaan, they chose the curses of the wilderness. Instead of choosing the abundant life God had prepared for them in the promised land, they chose death in the barren wilderness. They let their fear of risk-taking keep them from claiming life and blessing.
Their children also had a choice between life and death, blessings and curses. After wandering and suffering 40 years in the wilderness, they chose to take the necessary risks to claim the promised land. Right before they entered the land flowing with milk and honey, Moses called them together to tell them that even in the promised land they would be faced with choices. The promised land was more than a physical place of prosperity and security. The promised land was a spiritual place they must continually choose. In the book of Deuteronomy we find Moses' words of challenge to the people: "I call heaven and earth to witness to you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Deut. 30:19) They could choose spiritual life and blessings or death and curses. It was their choice.
Today we all face the same choices. The promised land involves daily choices. The choice of life is not a one-time decision, but a daily deciding to do and think and say those things that bring blessings, not curses; life, not death. Emotional, mental, and spiritual, as well as physical, life.
When we make healthy nutritional choices, we are choosing life. When we do aerobic exercises, we are choosing life. When we choose to read materials that inspire and challenge us mentally and spiritually, we are choosing life. When we choose beautiful music, art, and literature that uplift our spirits, we are choosing life. When we spend time gazing at the beauty of blossoming springtime, we are choosing emotional and spiritual blessings. Choices lie before us every day. We can choose those things that feed our spirits, or we can choose that which destroys us. We can choose to stay in a group or organization that tears us down, or we can choose to leave and find another group that builds us up, challenging and blessing us. We can surround ourselves with people who want to stifle any action or idea that does not conform to theirs, or we can surround ourselves with people who want us to be everything we can be. We can choose to die mentally and spiritually long before our physical death, or we can choose to continue growing as long as we live.
Recently at a conference on healing healthcare environments, I heard Dr. Leland Kaiser, a psychologist and futurist, speak on tapping the full physical, mental, and spiritual potential in human beings. He reminded us that we use only 4% of our brain's capacity, and even less as we grow older. We die before we need to because we do not choose to continue stretching ourselves mentally, spiritually, and physically. When we close our minds to new learning and relationships, we die mentally and spiritually. But if we choose to go on learning and growing, we will live more fully.
We can choose to harm ourselves through harboring resentment, or we can choose to grow spiritually by practicing forgiveness and blessing of others. Oscar Shindler was not the only Gentile who chose to save the lives of Jewish people during the Holocaust. Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom sheltered Jews in their home until they were discovered by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck, one of the worst concentration camps. There they suffered horrible conditions and cruel treatment. Betsie finally died from the physical deprivations and beatings. Her sister Corrie survived the Holocaust and began to work through the trauma and grief by writing and speaking of her experiences of God's grace and strength. One evening she was preaching in a church on the topic of forgiveness, God's forgiveness of us and our need to forgive those who wrong us. After the service, a man came up to her and asked her to forgive him. As she looked at him, memories came flooding back, almost overwhelming her. She recognized him as one of the cruellest guards at Ravensbruck. One day when Betsie was so weak that she could not work, he beat her mercilessly. Not long after, Betsie died. The guard now came asking Corrie to forgive him. He held out his hand to Corrie, entreating her to forgive him. She froze. How could she ever forgive this man who had so cruelly treated her sister whom she loved so dearly? As she stood staring at him, struggling with powerful feelings of anger and grief, all the Scripture she had been preaching flooded her mind. She had read from Christ's Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). Finally, she reached out her hand to forgive him. Corrie describes what happened when she did so: "As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for him that almost overwhelmed me." Though she had felt like cursing the guard, she chose to bless him by forgiving him. She chose to bless the one who had cursed and persecuted her and her sister. And in that moment when she forgave the cruel guard, she felt the blessing of release from her anger.
Every day offers fresh invitations to choose life and blessing. Not only through our actions, but also through our words we choose life or death, blessings or curses. Our words carry great power to bless or curse, to heal or harm. The great American poet Maya Angelou, author of the Presidential inauguration poem, chooses words that bless. She strongly believes that words have power, that they have a life of their own. Words once spoken have power to bring blessings or curses for a long time. Thus when she hears racist remarks or jokes, or any other words destructive to humanity, she holds up her hands and says, "Stop! You cannot say such things here." She chooses not to listen to words that curse her or anyone else. She shields her spirit and the spirits of those around her from these curses. Instead she chooses to hear and to speak and to write words that bless, words that have life-giving power.
Recently I visited a woman shortly before she was to have surgery. She told me of the critical nature of her illness and of her choice to have surgery because it gave her a chance to live. The surgery would be long and complicated, and she would be in the Intensive Care Unit for several days after surgery. She asked me if I would come to see her after the surgery, even before she regained consciousness. She wanted me to come and read psalms of hope and joy to her. She had also asked her family and any one else who visited her to read these psalms and to speak only words of hope. She asked that we not talk about her in her room while she was unconscious, but that we speak words of hope and healing to her. This woman knew the power of words, even on her unconscious mind. She was choosing to fill her whole mind with life-giving words.
When I was growing up, we often sang a hymn in church called "Wonderful Words of Life." Today we all have many choices. We can choose wonderful words that bring life to ourselves and others. We can choose to speak a word of affirmation instead of criticism to a family member or to a colleague at work. We can choose wonderful actions that bring life and blessing to others, ourselves, and all God's creation. We can choose to forgive those who hurt us and to ask forgiveness of those whom we hurt. We can choose to take our friends to an outdoor symphony concert instead of watching mindless T.V. programs. We can choose to give to those who do not have the material blessings we have and to work for justice and peace in our world. We can choose thoughts that bring life and blessing to all creation. We can choose to think the best instead of the worst of people who differ from us in culture and beliefs. The choices are ours. God sets before us this day many choices. We can make choices that bring curses and death, or choices that bring blessings and life. "I set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." Through our daily words and thoughts and actions, may we choose life and blessings.
PRAYER: Creator of all life, Sister-Brother Spirit from whom all blessings flow, we come with deep gratitude today. For experiences of your healing power, we are indeed grateful. For relationships that nourish and strengthen us, we are grateful. For the beauty of your creation, we are grateful. For this time today when we can join together in rejoicing over your blessings of health, we are grateful. We claim the life you have given us, asking that you give us courage to take the risks necessary to live it fully. Grant us wisdom to continue making those choices that bring life and blessings.
TEXTS: Hab.1:1-4, 2:2-3, Acts 2:1-4,17-19
Diane Sawyer, the first female correspondent for the weekly television news show 60 Minutes, tells of being inspired by writer Catherine Marshall. Catherine Marshall was one of the judges of a contest Diane Sawyer won when she was 18 years old. Sawyer states, "the strongest personality on the panel was Catherine Marshall. Meeting her is the experience I remember most. She said just one thing to me: 'Dream Big. I don't care what you're thinking of doing with your life, dream bigger.'" To all of you, I say, "Dream Big. Whatever you're thinking of doing with your life, Dream Bigger.
Dare to dream that big dream that others call unrealistic or even impossible. Remember Don Quixote. Through this partly fictional, partly autobiographical character, Cervants makes a convincing case for the impossible dreamer. Don Quixote dreams of reforming the world. People ridicule his adventures and call him insane. But Quixote expects trials and defeats and persists in the face of them. Although Cervantes satirizes this incurable idealist, at the same time he applauds him. Cervantes implies that we fulfill our potential as human beings best when we follow the light of our dreams. The attitude of Don Quixote is that of all great visionaries who have "dreamed the impossible dream." As we keep dreaming the impossible dream and acting in the light of this dream, amazing things happen. The impossible becomes possible! More things are possible in this world than we ever dreamed. Scientists continue to tell us that we use only 10 to 25% of our intellectual capacity. I believe that we also fail to use our spiritual capabilities to the fullest. What amazing things might be possible if we used even half of our potential as human beings. To begin to do so requires that we see beyond what is to what can be.
In my work as a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center working primarily with cancer patients, I am seeing unprecedented breaks-throughs in research. I believe we are close to discovering cures for this deadly disease and others. In our country major liberation movements have brought changes so that we have opportunities never dreamed of by previous generations. We also face major challenges: health care reform, healing and conservation of the environment, eliminating forms of subtle institutional racism and sexism, equitable allocation of resources, healing domestic violence and abuse, making peace around the world, eliminating homelessness and teenage pregnancy. Such challenges can be met only by those who dream big and work hard to make those dreams reality.
Marie Curie believed in her dream and persevered to bring it to reality. She wrote in her diary that she had "no doubt of the existence of a new chemical element." But she was extremely handicapped in her work as a scientist by inadequate conditions, by lack of a proper place to work, by lack of money and personnel. All she had for a laboratory was an abandoned shed with a glass roof that leaked when it rained. It was extremely hot in the summer and icy in the winter. Marie's health deteriorated from long hours and bad working conditions. But she believed so strongly in her dream that she would not give up. Four years of labor and eight tons of pitchblende finally yielded a tenth of a gram of radium, in the form of radium chloride. It took eight m ore years for her to isolate pure radium. By holding onto her big dream for twelve years, Madame Curie accomplished her goal. And because she did, we now have some of the miracles of modern medicine: X-ray and radiation treatment.
Society often tries to place limits on our dreaming, but we don't have to accept those limitations. When I was growing up, society's message to women was that we had three career options: secretary, nurse, or teacher. It took me awhile to see other options, to see beyond what was to what could be. Today options are not so restricted. But we still receive subtle messages about our possibilities according to gender, race, and class stereotypes. But we don't have to listen to those messages of "because you're female, you must do such and such, or because you're male, you must, or because you're Hispanic or black or white, you must, or because your parents did such and such, you must do the same.
As we dream our big dreams, there's an important question to ask ourselves: "Is this dream worthy of my efforts and devotion? How will I feel when I accomplish this goal?" Robert Oppenheimer accomplished a great goal, according to some. He led the Manhattan Project which developed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. After the destruction of Hiroshim, Oppenheimer said that he felt that he had blood on his hands. He told President Truman that the physicists who had invented the atomic bomb had known sin and that this was a knowledge which they could not lose. Likewise, Edward Teller did not feel good after inventing the H-bomb. He said that he did not like being called "the father of the H-bomb."
In our Old Testament passage we hear the prophet Habakkuk crying forth a different kind of vision. He complained to God about the violence and injustice God's people had suffered at the hands of one another. The leaders prospered by oppressing the poor. Habakkuk envisioned a better world of peace and righteousness. Habakkuk dreamed a dream bigger than himself. Habakkuk's dream was inspired by the divine dream of peace and justice. The pain Habakkuk felt when he saw violence and oppression was the Spirit of God speaking to him. God responded to Habakkuk's complaint by telling him to write the vision of peace and justice, to make it so plain that everyone could read it and respond. God's message to Habakkuk also included the promise that this big dream would become reality with God's help. Habakkuk was not alone. Since Habakkuk's dream was linked to God's dream, it would surely come true.
When we get in touch with God's visions, we will dream the biggest kind of dreams and become part of God's miracles. Imagine Moses and the children of Israel fleeing from slavery in Egypt. At last after the ten plagues they have escaped the hands of the cruel Pharoah. But they come to the Red Sea and glance behind them. To their shock and dismay, Egyptian soldiers, horses, and chariots are racing after them, getting closer and closer. What are they going to do? The normal human approach would be to send some scouts to find a safe crossing or to muster their forces and stand ready to fight the Egyptians. But God had a much bigger plan. And Moses was in touch with this plan. Inspired by the miraculous divine plan, Moses lifts his staff and the sea parts for them to cross over to safely.
Throughout history, God has been at work inspiring people with the divine vision of liberation. But too few people have caught a glimpse of this divine vision. From the time of the Exodus through the time of Habakkuk and the other Hebrew prophets through the greatest work of liberation in Christ through Pentecost down to our day, this sacred vision has been there for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Pentecost--that fire-filled day that gave birth to the Christian church--serves as a powerful reminder that believers can connect with God's vision. Those early believers caught the vision of liberation that God had been giving down through the centuries. Perhaps it took fireworks and sound effects for God to get across this vision of liberation: the Spirit of God includes all in blessing and power and gifts. She shows no partiality nor restrictions. Sons and daughters, young and old, all classes of people receive the ordaining of the Spirit and become free to be all God created us to be.
We are still such a long way from fulfillment of this vision. But if we have faith to link our dreams to this God-dream, then we will become part of an exciting, miraculous adventure. Recently I heard sociologist Tony Campolo speak to a group of college students. He challenged them to set worthy goals and dreams, dreams of uplifting the poor and oppressed of society. He said to them, "How boring to grow up and be a Yuppie, to put your energies and reams into making money, accumulating cars and boats, luxurious homes." How much more exciting to bring hope and opportunity and dignity to the downtrodden." Campolo told of students graduating with business degress, and instead of using their degrees to get rich themselves, they went to Third World countries to help create jobs. One group came up with the creative idea of teaching the residents of these countries to make sandals from old tires. Campolo believes that the church is losing a generation of youth not because we've made the gospel too hard, but because we've made it too easy. You as young people know that you thrive on challenges. You'll never find a greater challenge than the gospel of Christ, and you'll never find a bigger dream than Christ's dream of liberation for all people and all creation.
Millard and Linda Fuller discovered the excitement of connecting their dream with this divine dream. Millard had become a successful, wealthy lawyer with rich clients who could make him even richer. Millard and Linda had everything, from a materialistic point of view. But they felt an emotional and spiritual poverty. They felt deeply dissatisfied with their lifestyle and their marriage. Until they made the decision to give away their wealth and devote their lives to helping the poor. They became excited with a dream of eliminating poverty housing in Sumter County, Georgia. As they watched this dream take on reality, they dared dream the incredible dream of eliminating poverty housing from the face of the earth. Like Habakkuk, they dreamed a dream bigger than themselves. This dream is no less than God's dream, and God has been at work in amazing ways ever since to bring it to reality. Millard and Linda's dream linked with God's dream has sparked the establishment of Habitat for Humanity in 384 U.S. locations and 71 overseas projects in 27 countries, has built over 7000 homes that bring hope and self-respect to lower income people, has secured major support from former President and Rosalyn Carter, Mayor Andrew Young, and thousands of other people all over the world. Along the way people have experienced divine guidance in commonplace and dramatic ways. Sandra Graham, one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity in Pickens County, South Carolina, tells of starting a house and runing out of money near the time of completion. Someone volunteered to install the floor covering, but there was no money for the carpet. They decided to take advantage of the volunteer, purchase the carpet and hope and pray the money would come in to pay for it. The same day the bill came, they received a contribution from a local church. The check was for $600. The bill for the carpet was exactly $592. Ms. Graham joyfully commented, "God supplied a little extra for carpet tacks!" In San Antonio, a city plagued by gang violence, Habitat workers dreamed of helping inner city at-risk youth while at the same time providing a house for a low-income family. The plan was for the youth to build the house under supervision. The hope was for these young people to also build their self-esteem through the accomplishment of such a big project. Before beginning the building, Habitat organizers worked hard trying to raise the start-up money. The fund-raising director and others spoke to churches and other organizations, called potential donors, and did everything they knew to raise the necessary monry. But no money came in. On the very day the director decided they would have to cancel the project, a check for $2000 came in, just enough to pour the foundation of the house. Today a house stands on this foundation. This house not only contributes to the dignity and self-esteem of the family who live there but also of the at-risk youth who helped build it.
Whatever field you're dreaming in--medicine, education, social work, ministry, law, politics, business, journalism--dream big. Don't settle for the small dream of becoming rich and famous. Dream of making a lasting difference in the lives of people. Dream of using whatever power and education you gain to uplift and empower others. Link your dream with God's dream of liberating people to become all God created them to be, and in the process you will become all God creted you to be.
Connect your life with others seeking to fulfill the divine vision. Within a community of faith, you can find affirmation and inspiration for your sacred dream. You can find others who will reflect with you upon the divine action in your life and will empower you toward bigger actions.
Choose your community of faith wisely. Choose one that liberates, instead of stifles, the gifts of all members. Choose a church that empowers, instead of drains energy and creativity. Choose a church that challenges instead of sanctions the status quo. Choose a church that inspires you to change and grow toward what can be instead of one that lulls you to be comfortable with the way things are.
The faith community can serve as a mediator of our dreams. This community helps us link our hopes and dreams to Christ-Sophia's dream of a world healed of poverty, injustice,violence, and domination. Our hopes and dreams gain power as we join in community with other dreamers. Through the faith community our dreams develop focus so that we can move them into reality. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude of needs in our world or tempted to keep our dream as an unreachable ideal, we join with others in taking specific actions that lead to concrete change. Then in some mysterious, miraculous way, beyond our understanding, we take part in bringing the divine vision to reality.
What power there is within and among us to spark change. What hope. What potential for dreaming and for acting out our dreams. What power our dreams have to change the world for the better. So let us dream big. Let us dream dreams worthy of our best efforts, dreams that will heal and liberate and empower others. Whatever we're doing or thinking of doing with our lives, let us dream bigger. Let us connect our dreams to God's dreams, becoming partners with other faith-dreamers and with God in bringing them to fulfillment. For if our visions are linked to God's visions, they will surely come.