Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Special Calling

Exodus 13:19 “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’”

Christian theology is incarnational, which means that it is very tightly tied to physical bodies and what happens in and through them. Our faith is built around a God who decided to come to earth in the flesh (in carne, is Latin for “in the flesh”) and unlike gnostic sects who see the body as a prison to be escaped, we see the body as the place where God is made manifest. While the Jewish faith does not share our conviction of the nature of Jesus, it too has a heavy emphasis on the body. For both Jews and Christians, bodies and what happens to them matter.

From that belief in the importance of bodies springs a heavy emphasis on justice and compassion for those who are hurting in this bodily life. It also creates a reverence for the physical body even after God’s life-giving spirit has left it. That is why Joseph wanted his bones brought back to his homeland one day, and that is why, four hundred years after Joseph’s death, Moses and the Israelites picked up those bones as they fled Egypt and did just that. It is also why I want to tell you about Linda Abrams.

I met Linda yesterday, as she was the featured speaker for the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. She is a forensic genealogist. Since 1988, in fact, Linda Abrams has been THE forensic genealogist for the United States military. When human remains of soldiers are found, anywhere in the world, from any United States conflict, the Pentagon calls Linda with a guess at who the remains might be, based on where they were found, the list of those missing, etc. It is Linda’s job to find the next of kin so that the remains can be identified through DNA and interred. If the next of kin is a spouse or another person who does not share the DNA of the deceased, Linda must also find a relative of the deceased who can provide a positive identification of the remains through a DNA test.

Linda has provided positive identification for over a thousand soldiers. There has not been a single case she did not solve. For the first 12 years she did the work as a volunteer, even when she racked up over $800 per month in phone bills, cold calling every Carter in Nebraska to find the right family. Now she is paid hourly up to 30 hours, even though she works as much as 200 hours to solve a case. From the Civil War to Vietnam, she searches, navigating the minefields of adoptive parents with states who will not reveal the name of the birth mother and scant or non-existent records for African American soldiers in World War II. She drives from her home in Massachusetts to Indiana and flies to Bermuda or Europe to look at records. She soothes the high emotions of mothers who always hoped that their sons were still alive somewhere, families who are overwhelmed by a loved one’s remains being put to rest at last, skepticism about a strange woman calling out of the blue and wanting your DNA to match your great-grandmother’s sister’s grandson, who you’ve never heard of. She coaxes family members who are embarrassed about unwanted pregnancies to reveal those family skeletons so that the real skeletons can be identified and laid to rest.

On the one hand it doesn’t sound like religious work, although Linda is a Christian. Linda is obviously good at what she does, but it is equally obvious that for Linda this is more than a job. It is her calling. She can hardly tell the stories of her work in a public talk without being overcome with the emotion of bringing a soldier home. It is clear that she will not rest until they do. She is the foster mother cradling every son until he can again be reunited with his family. She is the pastor who stays with every body until it is lowered into its proper grave and who comforts grieving families. She is the advocate who fights state governments for the rights of the dead and their families.

We often think of God’s calling as only being religious work—a calling to the ministry or to church music or to the mission field. I lift up Linda Abrams as an example of the myriad other ways that God calls us, using our own gifts and passions to serve not just the souls, but also the bodies of God’s children. Like Linda Abrams, each of us has such a calling. What is yours?

Help us, God, to honor the bodies you have given us and to find the calling you have for our lives. Amen.

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