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‘It is very good’

Selfies and snaps of seatmates round out Synod School’s opening convocation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — After telling the 450 or so people attending the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School on Monday that they’re co-creators with God and, as John Calvin once said, “little manifestations of God’s glory,” the Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield proved her point by asking participants to use their cellphones to take first a selfie and then a photo of the people seated around them.

“Take a long, loving look” at the selfie and say, “it is very good,” Duffield asked those in attendance, both in person at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, and those joining online. Show the picture of your seatmates and say to them, “They are very good,” she said.

“It’s good to call this body and any body God created fundamentally good,” Duffield said, with a nod to the author and blogger Dr. Kate Bowler.

Duffield, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the former editor of Presbyterian Outlook, is convocation speaker at Synod School, which resumed in person and online this week after being held as an entirely online event last summer. The theme this year is “Called Out!”

Duffield opened her talk with a “Palms Down/Palms Up” prayer, asking those praying to in turn give to God what we need to give to God and then, flipping palms upward, to ask from God whatever it is we need from God this day. “This is as much liturgical movement as Presbyterians can handle,” Duffield said with a smile. “Be not anxious.”

Duffield used Genesis 1:26-31 as the text for the first of her five planned talks. She wondered out loud: What did Synod School participants notice about how God is presented in the text? The answers they shouted out included God’s power, God’s generosity (“God’s provisions are generous and expansive,” she said), that God delegates, (“From the beginning, God uses committees!”) God’s love (“This is a generous act in all manner of ways. God doesn’t need us” but “God wants to be relationship with us”) and God’s incredible diversity.

What does this Creation story say about human beings? We’re creatures, Synod School participants told her. We have limits. We’ve been given a job — a vocation and a purpose, “a pretty awesome one when you look at the text,” Duffield said. We are co-creators who can “participate in the new thing God is doing,” Duffield said, and we’ve been given responsibility “to reflect who God is by who we are in the world.”

What else?

We’re “priests of Creation” who have been “trusted to enact reconciliation in the world,” Duffield said.

As creators with God, will we like Mary, as the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Rigby of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary has written, “God-bearers” in the world, engaging, as Mary did, with the “pushing, active creative life of the Spirit that birthed, nurtured and stood by the One who is the salvation of the world.”

That Creator God is “the very same God,” Rigby has written, “who both enters into existence with us and who invites us to dance together in God’s own life.”

the Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield

“We’re dance partners with God!” Duffield said. “There’s joy in that, friends, and we are called to be people of joy. Imagine if we displayed that kind of joy in the world, how people would be drawn to us.”

We’re also called to be “artisans and craftspeople of the evangelical infrastructure of the world,” Duffield noted. “We are to continue forming and finishing the Earth. We are junior partners with God, to be sure, but nonetheless true partners, invited to the business” of crucial responsibilities including caring for nature, showing compassion for and ministering to those who suffer. “We are partners,” Duffield said, “in this liberating work in the world.”

What — maybe who is a better question, Duffield said — does this look like? Any Presbyterian who’s ever heard a children’s sermon “knows the right answer is always Jesus,” she said. “We look to Jesus to know what the divine image looks like,” a person embodied like we are whose love was manifested in these ways, participants called out: justice, teaching, healing, eating, mercy, inclusion, miracles, grace and rebuking.

“We look to Jesus to really know what the divine image is, and we emulate Jesus Christ,” Duffield said. “We are never going to get there. It’s aspirational to be sure, but this is how we live in the world.”

“The humanity we see fulfilled in Jesus,” Duffield said, quoting the theologian Dr. Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., “is the same humanity God originally intended and still intends for human beings. It is a humanity that uses whatever intellectual, spiritual, moral or physical powers we possess in and for the sake of fellowship with God and our fellow human beings.”

Duffield said she likes to ask session members debating whether to take a significant action, “Is this the best we can do for Christ’s church so that the church resembles its head?”

“That’s what it means,” Duffield said, “to be called out.”

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