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A Demanding God

A Demanding God

 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said,
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt sacrifice on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Abraham, the shared patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, had an encounter with God – a disturbing encounter, to say the least. Some years earlier, God had promised to make Abraham’s offspring as numerous as the stars. Never mind that Abraham was 100 and his wife was 90 at the time. Sure enough, Sarah gave birth to Isaac after having been barren. Once Isaac had grown into a young man, Abraham heard God tell him to sacrifice Isaac. Forever the obedient servant, Abraham took Isaac to a mountain, laid him on a pile of wood, and prepared to stab him to death before burning his body. As Abraham raised the knife, an angel stopped him and offered a ram in Isaac’s place.

Of the many faces of God in the Bible, the one demanding the sacrifice one’s own child is among the most disturbing. It is completely inconsistent with the loving, nurturing God I experience. It makes no sense that after God promises Abraham countless descendants that Abraham would be directed to kill the one through whom those descendants would descend. The traditional moral of the story is that Abraham’s faithfulness was being tested by God and, thus, he was proven worthy to father a great nation. While I agree that obedience and faithfulness are important, I find myself questioning whether sacrificing Isaac was actually a directive from God.

Interestingly, there are numerous passages in the Bible indicating that God does not want our sacrifices. For instance, Psalm 51:16, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” Likewise, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus twice quotes Hosea 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Even so, offering sacrifices to atone for sin and to show one’s obedience to God was a routine practice in the Old Testament.

A common thread running through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that of original sin, which is said to have occurred when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Some believe that original sin is etched into our human DNA, forever making us corrupt creatures and more deserving of God’s punishment than God’s love. When we believe we must earn God’s blessing, we may feel the need to sacrifice something to justify the undeserved gift. Many believe they will pay a painful price for anything good that happens in their lives. Do not misunderstand me; I know it is human nature to sometimes act in ways that are inconsistent with good behavior. Even so, why do we focus on the disobedience from a mythical story and ignore the consistent blessings God has bestowed on every generation since? Particularly for Christians, if we believe Jesus bridged the sin gap between humanity and God, why would we continue to feel we can or must pay for the love God so freely gives? Responses of gratitude and generosity would be more appropriate than self-denying guilt. The feelings of worthlessness – our poor self-esteem – lead us to feel the need to offer God sacrifices that God has no need or desire to receive. The sacrificial system may have derived more from our poor self-image than from God’s demands.

Sometimes we simply cannot accept our good fortune. Perhaps this is what happened to Abraham. Ultimately, God had to intervene to keep Abraham from destroying the very blessing God had given to him. We know how that is, do we not? Sometimes our subconscious guilt causes us to sabotage, or at least diminish the good in our life. When we act out of a deeply rooted sense of guilt, the outcome will not bestow blessing. When we act of out of a sense of blessing, God’s love flows through us to bless others. God’s nature is to bless, not to punish. Our human frailties punish us sufficiently already. God is accommodating enough, however, to allow our free will to sink us to whatever depths we feel we deserve. Once we are sufficiently low, God lovingly and patiently works to help lift us out of whatever hole we find ourselves in.

God’s demands are not contrary to God’s blessings. Our hearing, however, may be.

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

A Sorry God

A Sorry God

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Genesis 6:5-6

Some people believe the story of Noah’s Ark to be historically accurate, meaning that the events happened as described in Genesis. Others believe the story is mythical, meaning it is not factually correct, but rather was written to teach the reader something about God and God’s relationship to man. While I respect both views, I am most interested in the Noah’s Ark account for what it teaches about God, more so than what it may teach about history.

As the story goes, God looks over his early creation and sees corruption and wickedness. Humankind is behaving in a way that makes God sorry for creating them. God decides to destroy all living things, except for Noah and his family. From them, the human race will then be regenerated. Noah is to gather pairs of every other living thing, build a huge ark to preserve this cross-section of creation, and prepare for a flood of enormous proportion.

To consider that God might be sorry for something God created is inconsistent with the way I was taught to understand God. According to the story of Noah’s Ark, the depravity displayed by human beings toward each other and toward the rest of creation seemed to catch God by surprise. While the Bible does not explicitly say that God made a mistake, the story certainly makes it sound like that is the way God saw the earlier creation. For me, the fact that humanity’s corruption and wickedness made God sorrowful is an indication of how intimately God is involved in and cares about this creation. If that were not the case, why would God be sorry?

God did not introduce corruption and violence into our world – we did. Yet, because God experiences creation through us, corruption and violence break God’s heart along with ours. Wickedness is a creation of the human mind, not God’s, and yet God is victimized by it every bit as much as we are. The pinnacle of human depravity in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus, where humanity applies its cruelest techniques of torture to maim, humiliate, and kill the One who came to display and model divine love in human form for us.

I think there are at least three lessons we can take from the story of Noah’s Ark. First, God suffers with us in our suffering, and God is involved with us in relieving that suffering. Second, just as God saw something worth saving in Noah’s family, so God sees something of value in each of us, something worth salvaging, and something that can be used to further God’s work on earth. No matter how far we have fallen, how corrupted we feel, or how badly we have messed up our lives or the lives of others, God can and will redeem us. Finally, perhaps God is not all-knowing in the way we usually assume. Perhaps even God cannot predict the depths to which our free will can sink us. What we do know about God, based on Romans 8:28, is that God can and will make all things work together for good for those who believe. God needs on our help and cooperation, however, to build the Ark that will lead us out of whatever swamp we find ourselves in.

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

A Beingless Being

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” Exodus 3:13-14a

It may seem odd to discuss God as a beingless being in a series about the Faces of God. The following will sound more like a discussion of a faceless God. In fact, that is exactly what I intend to convey. The reader will have to wade through the obscure language, as I know of no other way to communicate this foundational, undefinable aspect of God.

A being implies someone who can be known, described, and even predicted, at least to an extent. Human beings can be known, at least to a degree that is usually comfortable. Even though human beings are created in the image of God, the opposite cannot be completely true. The only place where we know God is created in the image of human beings in the minds of humans; and that God is but the limited image of a limitless being. God, as Spirit, enters and animates all living creatures, including us. Father Richard Rohr, in his daily devotion for April 2, 2017, writes, “Spirit is forever captured in matter, and matter is the place where Spirit shows itself.” God has no visible, tangible, physical being except in and through God’s creation. In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses through a burning bush on top of a mountain. The people below see only dark clouds and lightening and hear only thunder. When Moses asks for God’s name to share with the Israelites, God says, “I am who I am.” The Israelites wanted to know God as a being like themselves, but God refused to be known in such a limited way.

All attempts to know or name God ultimately fall short, because once we have given something a name or description, we have limited its being. While we are more comfortable with that which we can describe, God resists confinement to any limited form. God assumes an infinite number of faces. Indeed, this series of Life Notes is exploring some of the ways God manifests to us. None of these faces exposes the entirety of God, but all of them provide glimpses into God’s unfathomable nature. Above all, God is mysterious. Thus, God is a beingless being – God cannot be known as we know another person, the trees of the forest, or the ingredients for our favorite casserole. In this sense, God remains distant from our conscious understanding. Yet, God lives and experiences through us, so God is also closer than our next breath. When we look at the infinite variety and diversity in nature, and when we understand that God expresses in every part of creation, we begin to imagine the incomprehensible vastness of God’s beingless being.

God is a God of endless possibilities, not an unchangeable rock. Even rocks change over time. Even mountains crumble. Rivers change course. Our limited experience of time makes some things of the earth appear eternal, but that is simply not true in the context of eternity. If there is a constant quality to God, it is that God is constantly changing, shifting, and forever creating new tapestries of being. God shepherds all of creation through the on-going process of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, ever transforming everything into something new. Being less; being more; simply being.

God will be what God will be.

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

A Lonely God

A Lonely God

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

Genesis 3:8-9

Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden after eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the Garden, Adam, Eve, and God lived peaceably together with the rest of creation. After eating the forbidden fruit, they became self-conscious and felt exposed in their nakedness. They hid from God, presumably because they were ashamed. God calls out, “Where are you?”

One question from this allegorical story is this: If God is all-knowing, as it seems safe to assume, why could God not find Adam and Eve? I remember playing Hide & Seek when my children were young. They would hide while I counted to ten, and I always knew where they were hiding long before actually “finding” them. Here is where the story gets uncannily timely and personal. Perhaps the hiding done by Adam and Eve was not physical. Perhaps they were hiding their attention from God. Perhaps they were intentionally turning away from God. After all, our attention can only be given; it cannot be taken, not even by God.

Throughout the Bible, it is clear that God wants to be in relationship with us. An important part of any relationship is the willingness to give the other our attention. Attention is life-giving. We have all had experiences, however, when someone was physically present with us but not all there – their attention was elsewhere. In this age of smart phones and multitasking, it is common to attempt to converse with someone while they (or we) are texting or trolling someone else that is not physically present. It is annoying and inconsiderate. Sometimes, I want to ask, “Where are you?” when someone is standing in front of me looking at their phone. Unfortunately, I return the favor too often.

What motivates us to divide our attention away from those we are with in a given moment? Are we too busy? Are we not interested? Are we easily distracted? These are common maladies with so many seductive diversions readily available, inviting us out of the present. Adam responds to God’s question, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (3:10). Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake, and we have been scapegoating others for our poor self-esteem ever since. Why were they suddenly afraid of God? Adam and Eve had changed. Instead of delighting in the beauty, abundance, and divine fellowship of the garden, they began seeing everything – including themselves – as good or evil, black or white, right or wrong, naked or clothed. Neither one was comfortable in God’s presence any longer, and the extension of the story is we are still uncomfortable today. A similar discomfort led society to crucify Jesus. God calls and we turn away. While we cannot turn God’s attention away from us, we can refuse to reciprocate by withholding our attention. In so doing, we miss the love, acceptance, and grace God willingly offers. When our nakedness is exposed, as it necessarily must be in God’s presence, we forget about our divine kinship, and we feel ashamed. In truth, it is our innocent nakedness that God most desires to receive.

There is a modern-day fable of a person having a near-death experience. Her spirit journeys to a wonderful place where she finds herself in the presence of God. What she experiences is pure, unsullied love. She feels a call back to her body, however, and just before returning, she asks God if there is a message to bring back to her earthy companions. God says, “Yes, tell them I miss them.”

A lonely God desires your attention. Where are you?

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

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?