The recent tendency to avoid male-only pronouns in referring to God is just a scratch on the surface of biblical attempts to overturn misconceptions about God.

Hebrew prophets constantly reminded their audiences, "Yahweh is `holy.'" Holy in Hebrew doesn't mean pious, religious or devout. Its best synonym is "other." No matter what we know or say about ourselves or those around us, God is other: totally different from ourselves and those around us.

We must never forget that our humanity filters all our experiences.

Finding words

Remember when Dr. Raymond Moody was interviewing people in the '70s who had gone through near-death experiences? One of the obstacles he faced was simply to get people to talk about what had happened. They didn't know how to express what they had seen, heard and felt. They'd gone through something completely other from anything they'd seen, heard or felt before.

In the same way, people who experience God in their lives don't always know how to describe those experiences. Legendary Scripture scholar Rudolph Bultmann once said, "Our sacred authors are people who live on `this side,' but have stepped over into the `other side.'" How does someone describe God-experiences to those of us still on this side?

Each of Sunday's three writers make an attempt to do so. But unlike those who struggle with God's gender, they're not worried about God's appearance or God's sexuality. They're concerned with the otherness of how God relates.

Sirach uses the words "justice" and "justly" to convey his belief that Yahweh relates uniquely to each person in the universe (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18). God's relationships don't fit the labels we comfortably stick on them. Humans create categories such as good/bad or oppressed/oppressor. Yahweh defies categories.

Sirach reminds his readers, "Yahweh is a God of justice, who know no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet He hears the cry of the oppressed."

Jesus builds on Sirach's insights in the parable about the Pharisee and tax collector (Lk 18: 9-14). The former boasts that he's "justified" because he keeps every one of Yahweh's 613 Torah laws. The latter, because of his ties with Israel's Roman conquerors, is labeled a public sinner. Yet Jesus insists that God judges people by standards other than the ones we create.

The sinner, not the saint, "went home justified." The tax collector relates to God better than the "super-Jew." Jesus turns out human categories upside down. (Maybe God's attitude toward the Pharisee has something to do with how he piously separates himself from other people instead of admitting he's one of them.)

Judging us

Of course, we who are so concerned with how God judges others (especially our enemies!) should never forget what God's holiness implies when God judges us. The author of II Timothy, writing in the persona of Paul of Tarsus, explores that part of God's personality (2 Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18). As Paul's life drains away, he's confident he's "finished the race,.... kept the faith. From now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day....The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and bring me safe to His heavenly kingdom."

Always remember that some of the earliest Christians thought Paul was their enemy because he welcomed Gentiles into their churches. The II Timothy author believes God will judge Paul differently than his contemporaries judged him.

Those who actually explore the otherness of how God relates to us probably can't understand why some people get uptight when they refer to God as "he/she." Maybe they're just operating on a different level of faith.