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A Plural God

A Plural God

 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;”

Genesis 1:26a

The image of God as a stern, bearded, all-powerful, white man is primarily an invention of the West. Certainly, there are biblical references to this fearsome, limited image of God, but when considering the references to God in their totality, it is not a very accurate picture. The name generally translated as God in the Bible is Elohim; the name translated as Lord in the Bible is Adonai. These are the two most common scriptural designations for God, and both are plural nouns in their original Hebrew. The plurality of the names has been lost in translation, as witnessed by our common understanding of God and Lord as singular beings. Some other references are feminine. The point is that God expresses in a number of different ways and is not confined to any of them.

It should not be surprising that our One God manifests in a plurality of ways. It is true of much of creation, including us. I am a father, husband, co-worker, brother, and friend. In each of these roles, I express myself differently, even though each is a unique expression of one being. Intelligence is not a single aspect, but is a combination of intellectual, emotional, and instinctual intelligences, each expressing in unique ways and providing distinct perspectives to a single body of knowledge. There are numerous phases to each day: sunrise, morning, noon, evening, sunset, and night. All are discrete parts of one day.

The first biblical hint that God is a plurality occurs in Genesis 1:26, where it is written, “Then God said, Let us make humankind in our image.” The writing is distinctly and unmistakably plural. The question, then, is if God is One, as many of us believe, who are the others? This question is often reconciled by the religious doctrine of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In short, the Trinity names the three persons, or personas, or faces of the One God. I will address the Trinity later in this series, so that is all I will say at this point, except that God appears to manifest in multiple ways, always in relation to other expressions of God or parts of creation. Whether we believe God expresses in one, three, or many ways, it is clear to me that our One God has many faces.

The observation that God has many faces is encouraging. If our God is all-inclusive and if we are all created in God’s likeness, then the being of God must include the infinite variations among all of us: all colors, all cultures, all genders, all ages, all beliefs. That is good news for those who feel excluded from, unworthy of, or otherwise unable to access the all-inclusive love of God. In the Genesis creation story, God looks over the whole of creation and sees that it is good. We, on the other hand, look over the whole of creation and label some good and some not-so-good, some righteous and some evil, some like us and some not like us. We cannot begin to know and experience the depth of God’s love for us until we learn to see God’s creation as God sees it: wonderful and beautiful in all its awesome and infinite diversity. We are an inseparable part of one world expressing in countless ways, just like the image and likeness of the One God from whom we and all creation flow.

Our One God expresses in a plurality of ways.

Note: this is the third in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

The Faces of God: The Creative Voice

 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Genesis 1:3

Many years ago, I saw an opera singer break a wine glass by holding a certain note. She sang a high, loud, sustained tone, and the glass shattered. Not an opera fan at the time, I thought maybe the glass opted to disintegrate on the spot rather than subject itself to that sound. I have since realized that the vibration of the note was incompatible with the structure of the glass. Similarly, I remember reading that marching armies had to stop marching in time whenever crossing a bridge to prevent the bridge from swaying uncontrollably. The vibration and power of the march could force the bridge into a destructive rhythm. Everything on earth vibrates in a certain range, and when an incompatible vibration works upon it, either the impending vibration or the object itself must change. Most vibrations around us are outside of our conscious, perceptual range. We tend to ignore their presence and power, at least until we experience or see the results of an otherwise invisible wave, such as the impact of an earthquake.

We do consciously experience vibration in music, however. A string player plucks or bows a string, causing it to vibrate at a certain pitch. That vibration transfers to the wood, creating an audible sound. We speak and sing by forcing air across our vocal chords, causing them to vibrate in an audible way. When multiple notes vibrate in harmonious ways, we hear chords. When one of the notes is dissonant in relation to the others, we hear musical chaos. Our experiences around other people are similar. With some folks, we vibrate in harmony, and we enjoy their company and get along well. With others, we feel as if our relational energies are consistently incompatible.

It is interesting that the Bible describes God as speaking creation into being. “Then God said, let there be…” I picture an enormous wave of energy emanating from God, forming the shapeless earth into what has become the world we know today. I suppose one could also accurately call it a Big Bang. To imagine a sound wave forming elements into something cohesive, we only need to watch the demonstrations of sound waves applied to sand. We see the malleable material form into designs consistent with the vibration applied, changing shape with changes to the creating tone. We experience this, to a degree, when a car pulls up beside us with a bass-thumping stereo. The vibration of the low frequencies penetrates our bodies such that we feel the sound pulsating through us as much or more than we hear it.

One of the faces of God is a creative voice vibrating through and around us, ever forming, ever healing, ever destroying and rebuilding, ever dying and being reborn. We live and move and have our being in an ongoing song of creation endlessly emanating from the being of God. All of creation dances to the rhythm, seldom conscious of its divine existence or nature. When we dance in tune with the celestial beat, we experience heaven on earth wherever we are. When we fall out of time, we descend into a hell of our own making, a world of sin and separation. Fortunately for us, the invitation to rejoin the dance is always near, only a slight vibrational adjustment away.

The face of God is speaking. Can you feel it?

The Faces of God: Unseen Movement

 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters. Genesis 1:1-2

In the coming weeks, Life Notes will explore some of the ways God manifests in our lives. I will reflect on the God of the Bible, the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit), and my own encounters with this mystery of mysteries. John 1:18a tells us, “No one has ever seen God.” If that is true, how can I presume to write anything worthwhile about the “faces” of God?  My usage of faces here refers to God’s persona – God’s mask, if you will – or the different ways God appears to us on earth. In the way a versatile actor portrays many characters, so God manifests in our lives under many different faces.

The first manifestation from God recorded in the Bible (Genesis 1:1) is that of wind. “A wind from God swept over the waters.” Meteorologists tell us that winds are movements of air from areas of high atmospheric pressure to areas of low pressure. It is an informative description of unseen movement from point to point. Jesus tells Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish elite, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). One way God manifests is as unseen movement. We do not know where it comes from or where it goes, but we can perceive its motion around and through us when we pay attention.

A common illustration of unseen movement is the water cycle. Water flows from higher areas down into lakes, streams, and oceans where evaporation carries it back up into the atmosphere, only to fall back to earth as rain. It is a constantly occurring sequence, emptying and refilling, happening mostly outside of our conscious awareness, and it pervades every corner of the earth. Nothing is ever lost; it only changes form and location. Blood flow in the body is another example, where the heart pushes blood out to the organs and extremities, and then draws it back in. In respiration, we breathe in, and we breathe out. These movements of air, wind, water, and blood support the essence of all life, and they are animated by the unseen movement of God.

Of course, the Bible does not say that God is the wind. In the creation account in Genesis, a wind from God sweeps over the waters. It is this unseen movement from God that initiates creation, and everything else follows. God expresses in the constant, dynamic, and ever-flowing relationship between all parts of creation, connecting all that is, holding everything and everyone together by invisible bonds, including us.

God is on the move as an invisible, vibrant presence, sweeping over the depths of our lives, encouraging us to love and care for others as we learn to love and care for ourselves. Like water seeking the lowest places, God moves to where the pain is. If we are sufficiently attuned to God’s presence, we are carried along to the suffering, marginalized, and unfortunate persons along our journey for a reason – to relieve suffering and transform it for good. We (hopefully) experience this presence in return as family and friends surround us in our times of trouble, like angels carried our way from God. In those caring, healing expressions, we see the face of a loving, creating, and always present God. God’s movement is a continuous giving and receiving, emptying and refilling, breathing in and breathing out, under-girding everything we know in creation.

The face of God is on the move. Can you feel it?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 35: Anger is a Secondary Emotion

Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. Ephesians 4:26

anger1There are too many times on too many days that I experience anger. Sometimes, it is my own anger; other times, I am the target of the anger of another. Anger crops up at work, at home, in traffic, in politics, and yes, even at church. Some people are quick to get angry, but then calm down in short order. I am the opposite. Usually, it takes quite a lot to arouse my anger and, once angry, I can stew for days or weeks.

Our anger, however, is not a primary emotion. Although anger commands a lot of attention, it always masks something else. We may consider someone an angry person, but he or she is more likely a person whose anger is stimulated easily, quickly, and often. If we want to get to the heart of anger – ours or that of another – we must look deeper. It starts with an event that we interpret as threatening. It is the threat, real or perceived, that generates the anger. Once we are angry, any number of consequences may ensue, many of them unpleasant. To effectively deal with anger, we must first identify the threat preceding it and understand why it triggers feelings of vulnerability. In identifying and examining the threat, we may realize we have exaggerated the risk, often to the point of absurdity. For example, when someone cuts us off in traffic, we may lay on our horn and yell, “What are you trying to do, kill me?” The triggering event is the car pulling in front of us, the threat is our perceived imminent death at the hands of a homicidal maniac, and the result is anger.

Anger, once aroused, can lead to acts of verbal, emotional, or physical violence, and therein lays the problem. Many everyday events threaten us. When we examine the event and our initial reaction to it we can recognize our fear, humiliation, indignation, annoyance, or any of many emotional responses, and we can begin to understand that none of these events require us to become angry. The anger, the secondary emotion, is a choice, albeit often an unconscious and unhelpful one. The challenge is to become consciously aware enough to allow ourselves to decide whether to react in anger. Too often, our anger bursts out uninvited, leaving a mess we immediately regret.

Relationships are fertile ground for anger because no strong relationship is possible without a willing and shared vulnerability. What would not be a triggering event in other circumstances can lead to an emotional explosion between people in close, regular proximity to each other. A dish not rinsed before going into the dishwasher, dirty clothes left on the floor, a car left nearly empty of fuel – all can leave us feeling unappreciated, belittled, or invisible. If we are not intentional and measured in our response, anger will ensue.

The challenge for me, as with most of the choices I make, is to take the time to assess my reactions to the countless stimuli around me. Why do certain things threaten me so? What am I afraid of? Will this matter a year from now? How does this compare to the challenges faced by those in third-world countries, or to the parent whose child has cancer? I find perspective helpful when analyzing emotions, just as analyzing the triggering events and my initial responses are helpful in exploring my anger. When I am the object of someone else’s anger, it is sometimes helpful to ponder, “What have I done that this person perceives as threatening?” Writing him or her off as just an angry, unpleasant person is not helpful or instructive – something is hurting them. Questions like these help me accept responsibility for the anger around me, which is important because I cannot improve a situation until I accept at least some responsibility for its creation.

Anger is a secondary emotion. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 34: Mercy Trumps Justice

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

If a starving person is offered a meal or a job, and they can only choose one, which will he or she accept? Would we judge them as lazy if they took the meal over the job? Would we judge them as less hungry than they claimed if they took the job? My guess is that a truly hungry person would always choose the meal – not because they are lazy and do not want a job, but because they are hungry, and satisfying their hunger is their most immediate need.

In this example, providing a meal is an act of mercy; providing a job is an act of justice. Mercy addresses an immediate physical, emotional, or spiritual need, where justice works toward a longer-term solution to the need. The cruelty of this example, and all too common in reality, is that a person in need is forced to choose between two important blessings, both of which are necessary. The challenge for us as individuals and as a society is how best to provide both. Time management professionals suggest separating our daily tasks into those that are important and those that are urgent. Urgent tasks must be done first because they are, well, urgent. Important tasks must be completed, but not necessarily today. Important tasks that are not addressed within a reasonable time, however, become urgent. It is easy for us to become so consumed with urgent tasks, including those that are not important, that we leave insufficient time for the important but non-urgent issues. In this time management context, mercy is urgent and justice is important.

In his bestselling and insightful book, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes, “There is a tension in the Bible between justice and mercy…The main message of Jesus, I believe, is that mercy trumps justice every time” (p. 171). When there is an urgent need, mercy is required. For this reason, we quickly send many resources to the sites of natural and man-made disasters. Although mercy may trump justice in the immediate future, justice cannot be ignored if one is to be freed from the ongoing need for mercy. This is our dilemma in helping the needy. There are many immediate needs for mercy: food, clothing, and shelter; but there are equally important needs for justice: good jobs, quality healthcare, affordable housing, accessible childcare, and legal protection from discrimination. Of course, works of mercy and justice both require funding, and those funds are increasingly difficult to generate.

Jesus recognized that mercy comes first. A hungry crowd cannot hear even the most brilliant sermon, so he made sure his followers had something to eat in addition to something to learn. We can model Jesus’ example. When a person is not receiving a blessing we are trying to impart, perhaps we should ask what is standing between him or her and the blessing. Are they hungry? Are they addicted to something that draws their attention away? Are they safe? Are they in physical or emotional distress? It is possible for our best, most sincere efforts at establishing justice to fail when we do not first recognize and attend to the more immediate needs for mercy. Likewise, it is possible for our lack of focus on justice to result in our resources being consumed by a never-ending cycle of need for mercy. There is a delicate balance to establish between the two. Our challenge is to find that balance, beginning with mercy.

Mercy trumps justice. How did I miss that?

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 33: Love is (always) the Answer

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12

caringThe opposite of love is not hate. Hate is an emotion. The opposite of love is apathy, or not caring. Love is an action we choose to give or withhold. My friend, Stan Hughes, describes love as “caring enough to do something.” Because love is a verb, when Jesus commands us to love one another, he is telling us to care about others enough to take action on their behalf. He says nothing about liking another, or enjoying their company, or feeling that they deserve our care – those are emotions. Jesus tells us to love others as he loved us – unconditionally, sacrificially, and eternally.

There are a number of reasons why loving someone can be difficult. First, love makes us vulnerable. When we do something for another, they may not reciprocate or appreciate our generosity, and then we may feel stupid, cheated, or otherwise taken advantage of. We are to love anyway. Second, loving another can be expensive – financially, emotionally, or physically – and we may feel we cannot afford to love. We are to love anyway. Third, committing to love another takes time and attention away from other important activities. We are to love anyway. Our loving attention is life-giving and is sorely needed everywhere.

When we are puzzled about what best to do in a given situation or with another person, the answer is always more love. Love, when properly understood and applied, will not lead us astray. Obviously, loving someone does not necessarily mean we do whatever the object of our love asks. The term tough love comes to mind, where the loving actions we choose may not be anything the other person interprets as love, at least not at the time. Our actions might even cause him or her pain. There were times, when my children were young, I refused them something they felt they simply had to have. Love is not meek, weak, or unaware. For love to be effective, it must be conscious and intentional.

Robert Greenleaf, in his essay The Servant as Leader, writes that we are to accept “unlimited liability” for others. Even in the business context from which he wrote, Greenleaf believed that leaders should take responsibility for the lives and well-being of those impacted by his or her company, just as a faithful servant would do. A leader committed to serving others will make decisions that consider the effect on his or her employees, customers, shareholders, and community. Accepting unlimited liability means our responsibility for those affected by our actions never ends – love demands that we always care enough to act in what we sincerely believe to be the best interest of those we love.

Ultimately, however, there is a selfish reason to love. In order to love others fully, we must expand our awareness to include their reality. While we do not need to accept their reality as our own, we do need to respect and acknowledge it. In love, we open our minds to be more aware and, in the process, a larger community of others enriches us. We grow closer to the God who is the Divine Parent to everyone; the same God that loves and accepts unlimited liability for all. We grow closer to the One who is the source of love, the One who is love. As we become more loving, we become capable of receiving love, and our world becomes a better, healthier, and more pleasant place for everyone.

Love is always the answer. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 32: Salvation is Communal

 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. Romans 12:4

One thing I despised about college was group assignments. The instructor would assign several students a task and, together, they had to complete and present the assignment as a team. Every member received the same grade, regardless of how much or little he or she contributed to the final product. Being fiercely independent, I wanted to succeed or fail alone and did not want my grade to be dependent on others.

communityMy father was in the Army Air Force during World War II, and although he was not a part of the D Day invasion of France, I reflect on that action as if he were. The Normandy invasion was needed in order to break the German stronghold along the English Channel so the Allies could liberate France and, eventually, the rest of Europe. The problem was the concrete, machine-gun bunkers lined along the Channel. The Allies knew it would take a concentration of sustained force to break open a line in the German defenses so troops could enter and drive the Nazis out of France. They also knew many lives would be lost. Of the 24,000 men landing on Normandy that morning, nearly half were killed or wounded. There were similar numbers of German casualties. It was a bloodbath on all sides. Many individual lives were required to join together to accomplish a single goal. Thousands of those individuals – sons, brothers, and fathers – willingly served as bullet recipients so those behind them could eventually destroy and advance beyond the machine-gun bunkers.

The Bible seldom speaks of individual salvation. Salvation – the freeing and advancing to higher levels of existence – is communal in that its attainment is for the benefit of a group. The Hebrew people were saved, collectively, from their oppression in Egypt. Noah’s extended family was saved from the great flood. Organizations succeed when its members move together in the same direction. Marriages flourish when the union prospers both partners. Individual effort is required, but to accomplish great things requires many individuals working together toward a common goal.

Paul, in a number of his letters, describes believers as a single body, with each member having a specific function. All members work together and are necessary for the good of the body. Jesus’ comment that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13) is an expression of the willing subjugation of individual interests for the sake of something greater. Appearances aside, we are all members of a single body.

I sometimes act as if I were self-made person, that whatever I have achieved has been by my effort alone. It is a self-deception of enormous proportion. When we fail to acknowledge others for what we accomplish together, when we believe our personal objectives outweigh those of the larger community, we may be prone to believe we can attain salvation alone. Could my right hand separate itself from my body and prosper? What sort of salvation do we think we will attain, a paradise of one? That sounds more like solitary confinement. No, life is a group project, a family undertaking, one body with all its parts working in harmony. In spite of what we may choose to believe, we sink or swim, pass or fail, together. We will succeed when our personal goals, desires, and actions are in accord with those of the greater family to which we belong. Too often we ask, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” instead of focusing on what is required to manifest heaven on earth – not just for me, but also for everyone, and not just for some distant future, but also for today.

Salvation is communal. How did I miss that?