Thursday, August 7, 2008

Stumbling Before I AM

One of the ways that Inclusive Church Network offered our voices to the Bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference was through our daily newspaper, the Lambeth Witness. Each day, people from across the Communion wrote pieces related to events at Lambeth or to reflect on the bishops' theme of the day. Every morning, volunteers would distribute that paper to as many conference-goers as would take them. This process was neither always easy nor welcome; on more than one occasion, distribution sites got vandalized. But the paper carried on, and it appeared to make an important impact, striking a tone that many Conference- goers considered right on the money.

As part of my effort to help bring trans voices and concerns into Anglican Communion conversation, I wrote two pieces for the Lambeth Witness. The first was an edited version of my earlier post here. It appeared in the Witness on Monday, July 28th. The second piece, reproduced below, appeared in the eleventh edition on Saturday, August 2nd. It emerged out of a conversation I had with my Conference housemate Jon Richardson. We were talking about what my experience incarnating the T in LGBT settings was like-- how, even though "LGBT" often flows trippingly off the tongue in inclusive church parlance, actually saying "I am transgender" can cause people to kind of fall away in shock. As I desdcribed this to him, I mentioned how that reaction reminded me of the reaction of the soldiers in the Gospel of John's version of Jesus' arrest. They come looking for him, but when he says, "I am the one," they fall to the ground. Jon said, "you should write that down!" particularly since the "I AM" statements in the Gospel of John were a subject of reflection for the bishops throughout the Lambeth Conference. It took me a few days, and a number of my own stumblings, before I felt ready to shape my reflection (whose title is inspired, in part, by the documentary Trembling Before G-d).

Eigo eimi: “I am,” “it is I who am,” or “I am the one.” Those words, upon which bishops have focused in their Bible studies this week, thread themselves into key moments of encounter throughout the Gospel of John. In turn, this Greek phrase evokes the Hebrew Tetragrammaton — I am who I am, I was who I was, I will be who I will be -– which in Genesis and Exodus gestures toward the awesome uncontainability of the Holy One. Like Moses before the burning bush, numerous people in the Gospel of John encounter none other than the Living God in Jesus of Nazareth, and sometimes it knocks them to the ground.

In John’s version of Jesus’ arrest, for example, Jesus knowingly asks the soldiers, “For whom are you looking?” When they reply, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and Jesus responds “eigo eimi,” the soliders step back and fall to the ground. The sequence of question and answer then repeats, and Peter manages to cut off someone’s right ear before Jesus is finally led away.

I am curious about what the soldiers’ reaction actually betrays. Their falling to the ground is reminiscent of the prophets’ expressions of fear and awe in the wake of divine summons. But I wonder, how respectful is the soldiers’ fall? Could their fall not be characterized as “stumbling,” an action that Jesus urges his disciples to avoid? I wonder if the soldiers’ fall might truly be a stumbling form of respect.

Indeed, I wonder how many of us here at the Lambeth Conference may have fallen in the wake of a conversation partner’s unique expression of identity and experience. How many of us, when uttering our own eigo eimi — how we encounter the living God in and through the particularity of our humanity – have observed stumbling reactions in our interlocutors? I know I have had that experience here, more than once, upon sharing that I am transgender, here on behalf of TransEpiscopal (transgender and allied Episcopalians and Anglicans) as a representative of the T in LGBT.

But I have also observed myself unintentionally stumbling before the particularity of others. So vast and unexpected can the gaps between us be, that we may indeed fall as we seek to approach one another. And, as with the soldiers, our actions can be read in more ways than one: are we stumbling with respect, or falling away in dismay? As this Conference draws to a close and its intensity increases, we should not expect our stumbling to lessen, nor should we necessarily see it as a sign of failure. We are, it seems to me, bound to stumble as we continue to seek encounter with one another. As we look for the living God in and through the unique humanity with which each of us is gifted, we cannot but be overwhelmed. They key is not to become suspicious of that encounter and, having stumbled, arrest it.


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