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God the Father, Part 1

 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 face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. Genesis 1:1-4

One person of the Trinity, the one probably most often associated with God, is God the Father. This is the eternal creator, the mysterious one working behind the scenes, constantly making all things new in ways inconceivable to us. This is the face of God seen most often in the Old Testament, appearing, for example, as a pillar of cloud leading the Israelites out of Egypt. The people believed if they looked upon this God they would die. When Moses asked this manifestation of God for a name, God the Father said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).

Mysterious. Unknown. Unknowable. When these terms are used to describe God, they often refer to the person of God the Father, although the terms can be applied appropriately to any manifestation of God. From a human perspective, unpredictable, moody, and frightening are also apt descriptors. God the Father, in actuality, only appears this way to us because this manifestation of God is the one we are least capable of relating to in a personal way. Psalm 139:6 says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.” This is the face of God that places and holds heavenly bodies in their orbits, that sets atomic particles in motion, and sustains every part of creation in between. This aspect of God is simply incomprehensible to us, completely beyond anything we can imagine, not to mention being indescribable with words. Yet, we try.

In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the God-figure is a full-grown lion named Aslan. Aslan is described as always good, but never safe. The message is that, from our perspective, there is a wild, untamed aspect to God that will threaten everything we hold tightly to for safety, security, and stability. Of course, the reason God seems so threatening is that there is no safety, security, or stability outside of the love of and trust in God. We dare to believe God the Father is always for us, but we also recognize that this life can cause immense suffering until we fully trust that God will always make all things work together for good.

In the opening verses of the Bible, God sweeps over the waters and speaks creation into being. And God said let there be… God then breathes life into creation. It is instructive to look at speaking and breath and to remember that the word used for breath is the same word used for spirit. When we speak, we use our breath to set our vocal chords in motion, vibrating in specific ways that create specific sounds. Those vibrations create sound waves of particular frequencies. Waves of sound at specific frequencies will rearrange matter. On a large scale, this is what happens in an earthquake or a tsunami, which are vibrational waves with the power to recreate, albeit in destructive ways. Think of lithotripsy, where inaudible sound waves break up kidney stones inside the body. A violinist playing notes over a table will rearrange grains of sand into patterns consistent with the wave frequencies emanating from the violin. Sound waves manifest in infinite variety and intensity, well beyond our limited ability to hear them, so we only perceive a tiny portion of the infinite range of vibrational possibilities. This, then, is the image of the biblical account of creation. That God spoke, or that creational vibrations emanated from (and continue to emanate from) God to shape and reshape earthly elements into all created things. God’s spirit then hovered over these shapes and breathed life into them. This is not a scientific explanation of creation, nor is it intended to be. Whether we believe in a seven day creation or a big bang is irrelevant. The miracle of God speaking, shaping, and breathing life into being is beyond comprehension, both to scientists and theologians.

God the Father’s fingerprint marks everything that is; God is present in all things, and God is forever creating and recreating. Nothing is safe because God’s creation is in constant motion. Nothing is safe because no created thing remains the same. In its changing, however, everything is drawn closer to its true image and likeness in God.

Note: this is the 30th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

Three Faces, One God

 Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV)

The Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – is a foundational pillar of Christianity, even though the term does not appear in the Bible. Furthermore, if we removed all references to the Trinity from Christian thought, the practice of most Christians would not change at all. This is a testament to how difficult the concept is to grasp in a tangible way. It is humbling to attempt writing about a mystery that so defies expression in words. Yet, this series of essays on The Faces of God will not be complete without at least a cursory nod to the Trinity. Indeed, the faces of God expressed throughout the Bible and throughout human experience are manifestations of the persons of the Trinity.

One reason the Trinity is so difficult to understand is our misunderstanding of the nature and being of God. Many of us grew up with the image of God as an old, angry, white male with long, white hair and an unkempt beard. That is a very limiting image, and to the extent that is our picture and understanding of God, to that same extent do we miss the immensity, the love, the relational nature, and the personal intimacy of God. The concept of the Trinity begins to crack that old image by presenting God as three persons. One God, but one God manifesting in different ways. A less than perfect example that helps me is to recognize that I am one person serving many distinct roles. I act as a husband, father, brother, son, uncle, nephew, friend, co-worker – sometimes all in the span of a few hours. I relate and appear differently to others in my different roles, but I am one being. If someone only knows me as an employer, he or she may not experience the love and tenderness I express in other roles. When we limit our understanding of God to a single expression, we miss the infinite diversity and endless possibilities of the one we call God. We all wear many faces, so why would the God who formed us be any different? Three persons, three faces, three roles – one God.

In the coming weeks, I will express my limited understanding of the three persons of the Trinity as individuals, but understand up front – they are all 100% God, and they are one God. The three faces of God are no more separate from each other than my various roles are from my essence – they are simply different expressions of it. What differs in the persons of God is how we experience God. In his devotional, A Spring Within Us, Father Richard Rohr summarizes the Trinity in this way (p. 258): “God for us, we call you Father. God alongside us, we call you Jesus. God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.”

Besides the multiplicity of the expressions of God, I hope to convey a sense of God as constant motion or flow, ever moving, ever changing, and always inviting us to join in the dance of life. As we enter that flow, we experience life as good and natural; our yoke becomes easy. To the extent we try to hold onto our lives as they are, resisting growth and change, to that same extent do we separate ourselves from the security of this loving flow, the ever-evolving beauty, and our participation in the intimate relationship awaiting us from inside this mysterious, Trinitarian God. When our image of God restructures as a relational interaction of three or more persons, we recognize our personal invitation to participate in mutual giving and receiving, in shared evolutionary movement. We experience together the joys and pains, the beauty and barrenness, the on-going birth, growth, death, and resurrection of all that is and ever will be. We are co-creators and co-experiencers with God. Until we begin to understand God’s true nature – God’s relational nature –we will mistakenly experience God as separate, aloof, limited, and unpredictable.

Our lives manifest in ways similar to the changing seasons. Winter contains within it spring, summer, and fall, and we contain all that we are from before the moment of our first breath. Life is an awakening to possibilities that have existed since the dawn of creation, a divine dance with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. The Trinity invites us into a dynamic relationship as participants in this eternal celebration of life.

Note: this is the 29th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

The Face of Submission

 Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done. Luke 22:42

The setting for this passage is a garden on the Mount of Olives, moments before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the temple police to be tried, tortured, and crucified. Jesus is spending his final free moments on earth in prayer with his Father. He asks if this cup – the upcoming suffering and death – can be eliminated and some other, perhaps less gruesome way to accomplish God’s purposes be found. He closes by submitting, however, saying, “…not my will but yours be done.”

There are those who claim Jesus could have saved himself from the agony of his final hours by exercising the divine powers he displayed throughout his ministry. Perhaps he could have set a series of plagues in motion, as was done to the Egyptians. Maybe a crumbling of the city walls, as occurred in Jericho. A pillar of cloud could have covered Jesus and allowed him to escape unnoticed. While these options may have been possible, none were realistic. Jesus could not escape the fate awaiting him without denying the essence of who he was. It was the fact that he expressed his divinity in his humanity that threatened others so. No doubt, the religious and political elite would have preferred to have Jesus renounce his divine nature, to deny that he was the Son of God (and thus equal to God), discrediting Jesus for the rest of his days and allowing everyone peaceably to go back to their normal lives.

Being true to who and what we are makes us vulnerable and forces us to submit to certain realities. When we commit to love another, we make ourselves vulnerable to that person. Jesus’ foundational commandment was for us to love each other. In our relationships, we submit to some things we might otherwise resist because the value of the relationship outweighs the value of our own preferences. The deeper we love and submit, the more exposed we become; thus, the deeper we can be hurt. Jesus loved unconditionally, he submitted completely, and he suffered tremendously at the hands of those he loved. And yet, from the cross, he sought forgiveness for those who took his life because he knew they did not know what they were doing. They could not help themselves.

It seems counter-intuitive to think of God as submissive, as bending to our will, but that is a face manifested in Jesus. When we remain faithful to who we are, we open ourselves to criticism, persecution, and hatred, especially by those who have no such grasp of their own identity. When we know the why of our existence – our purpose for being – we become a threat to those who do not. To be in the presence of one who understands their who and why is a powerful and humbling experience. It often leaves those who are less secure feeling inferior and frightened. In Jesus’ case, they captured him, beat him, publicly shamed him, and killed him the in most excruciating manner known at the time. It was the best option their limited identity at the time could find. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s haunting poem, Carol, one character, observing Jesus on the cross, concludes “We’re surer of God when we know he’s dead.”  Jesus understood that reality and submitted to it. He loved, in spite of the high personal cost.

Jesus, in all his acts on earth, manifested God as love; and love submits. Always, and in all situations, love submits to a higher good. Does this mean we do not defend what we believe is right, that we do not resist evil and correct injustice? Certainly not! It only means that we refuse to act in ways beyond what love and our identity allow. For example, if we identify with the non-violent face of God, we might physically shield a loved one from danger but not take the offensive against the perpetrator. Love’s focus is outward to the beloved, not inward to the personal needs of the lover. Jesus modeled that perfectly on the cross. Love is always other-focused, always true to its nature, and always submissive to greater purposes, even to the death of the lover. Not my will but yours be done.

Note: this is the 28th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

The Face of Normal

The Face of Normal

 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only (child), full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:14,18

In his book Convictions, the late theologian Marcus Borg has a chapter titled Jesus is the Norm. Borg’s thesis is that trying to discern and follow the will of God from scripture and other religious teachings can be confusing. We only need one source to follow – the life of Jesus. The more we know about how Jesus lived, the more we know about how we can live in harmony with the divine. This stems from the belief that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus and lived among us as a divine example. God, as Spirit, is invisible and mysterious. God in Jesus, however, became visible and tangible. The question, “What would Jesus do?” has often seemed trite to me, and yet it recognizes Jesus as the standard-setter for our behavior. So, what are the implications for our lives if Jesus is the face of normal?

To find answers, we look to the stories of Jesus in the New Testament. Matthew’s chapters 5 and 6 are full of words of wisdom to guide our lives. For example, in 5:42, Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” With regard to nonviolent resistance, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (5:39). A few passages later (5:44), “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” There are lessons in humility, as in 6:1: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” For the hoarders: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (6:19). And for the worriers, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (6:34).

Words of wisdom are a start, but applying them is another matter. How did Jesus live these principles? In Matthew 8:16, “That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick.” Healing the sick was one of the primary acts of Jesus’ ministry. While we may not be able to cast out spirits with a word, we are all capable of giving our attention, fixing a meal, doing yard work, or visiting the lonely. Healing does not only occur by removing, but also by relieving the physical or mental symptoms. Another pillar of Jesus’ interactions was to feed the hungry. In Matthew’s version of Jesus feeding five thousand people, Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (14:16), and he made certain there was food enough for all.  Jesus was not afraid to challenge established authority when they used their power in improper ways. For example, when his disciples were criticized by the religious elite for not observing their dietary laws, Jesus rebuked them, saying, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (15:3). Jesus also demonstrated the importance of individual and private communion with God. From 26:36, “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there to pray.’” If alone time with God was important for Jesus, it is important for us, too.

This is a small sampling from the Gospel of Matthew about how Jesus thought and lived. If I knew anyone who practiced half of what Jesus taught, I would consider them extraordinary. But if Jesus is to be believed, these are not extraordinary acts – they are the norm. Rather than feeling discouraged and inadequate, however, we should remember that the people in Jesus’ time probably did no better than we do. Otherwise, Jesus would not have felt the need to show them a better way. Patterning my life after Jesus’ life is a herculean task from where I am today; but by studying his life I can discern a next step, and then another, in order to draw my life closer to the face of normal.

Note: this is the 27th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.


The Face of Calm

The Face of Calm

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Mark 4:39-41

When we think about the faces of God shown by Jesus, we must consider the face of calm. Many times in the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid. This is consistent with the numerous Old Testament writings where those having an encounter with God or angels were told not to be afraid. When something well out of the ordinary occurs, one natural reaction is fear. If I were to come across a bush that was burning and not being consumed, I would be curious. If and when that bush began speaking to me, I would probably be afraid. In the passage from Mark, above, Jesus is crossing the sea with his disciples. Jesus falls asleep and a great windstorm hits, threatening to swamp their boat. The disciples are terrified and wake Jesus up, accusing him of not caring that they are about to drown. Jesus tells the wind and the sea to be still, and they obey. He then turns to his disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Tying fear and a lack of faith together is profound and an often-overlooked connection. Did Jesus think it was not appropriate for the disciples to be afraid when the waves were crashing over the sides of their boat? Was he criticizing them for their lack of faith in his ability to keep them safe? Did he think they should not be afraid to die for his ministry? These questions are not answered in the Gospel story, but there are other ways to understand the story aside from a literal reading.

If we look at the chaos from the windstorm as a metaphor for the chaos sometimes caused by the circumstances in our lives, the story takes on a very personal meaning. When I work myself into a frenzied state over something that may or may not happen in the future, when I become frustrated with traffic, or when I feel shame over something I did or said in the past, I can almost hear Jesus whispering over my shoulder, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The most obvious answer, whenever I succumb to these manifestations of fear, is that my faith is very small. I have lived far long enough to experience problems being solved – stormy seas being calmed – in ways I could never have imagined and that clearly were initiated by a power beyond anything I am capable of exerting.

There are several elements to this story. The first is that Jesus displayed power over the wind and sea. That, in itself, would cause both fear and wonder. Indeed, the disciples respond, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Perhaps they were still uncertain about the divine nature of Jesus, or even unaware of what a divine being might be capable of doing. I think one lesson of the story is that we cannot know or predict how God may intervene in our lives on our behalf.

A second element in the story is Jesus criticizing their fear of the situation, their lack of faith. One can make a good argument that we have nothing to fear, ever! If we truly believe God is lovingly present in our lives and that God can transform whatever is evil in our lives into something beautiful, what could we possibly be afraid of? Our fear, like that of the disciples in the boat, simply shows our lack of faith in God’s care.

Finally, and most instructive to me, is the need to become quiet enough to hear the voice saying, “Do not be afraid.” It is counterintuitive that we must silence the chaos in our own minds before we can hear and know the still small voice of God that has all situations well in hand. And yet, that is exactly what the calm face of God in Jesus encourages us to do.

Note: this is the 26th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God. 

The Bridegroom

The Bridegroom

He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:29-30

Here is an unexpected face of God: the bridegroom. In its context, the passage above is John the Baptist speaking to his followers who are wondering if they should now follow Jesus. John confesses that his own ministry must now decrease so that of Jesus can increase. John was the warm-up act, but Jesus would now be the star of the show. This was not reason for sadness but for rejoicing. In fact, John says that hearing the voice of Jesus made his own joy complete, and therein lies a lesson for us.

We live in obsessively individualistic times, and the idea of willingly taking a back seat to anyone seems absurd. Many of us act as though the universe revolves around us, which in a sense is true, but only in a very limited sense. Anything and anyone that might remove us from our privileged pedestal is a threat. Certainly, one of the biggest and most frequently occurring threats is that of change. Our ego does not like change, except for when it is someone else who changes to accommodate our desires. In order to allow Christ to increase in our lives, however, our ego must be coaxed out of the limelight and corralled into its subservient place.

The biblical analogy of Jesus as the bridegroom positions us – including those of the male gender – as the bride (“He who has the bride is the bridegroom.”). Although this reference is not widely used in the Bible, it is particularly interesting and thought-provoking. In Genesis (2:24), speaking of marriage, the author writes: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Could it be that Jesus left his Father in heaven to come be one life with us? I think that is exactly the implication. A marriage implies a close relationship – so close that the two lives become one. The New Testament references to a wife submitting to her husband (Titus 2:5, for example), so troubling for so many, may stem from the need for us, as the bride, to submit to the Lordship of Christ, the bridegroom.

In this context, masculine and feminine refer to an orientation to another and not a gender assignment. Any of us can choose this orientation in a particular situation regardless of our gender. Although some feminine traits may come more naturally to those born as a woman, we all possess unique combinations of masculine and feminine characteristics. In Ken Wilber’s book Integral Spirituality (p. 15), he writes, “…the healthy feminine principle tends toward flowing, relationship, care, and compassion…” The inference is that in order to receive the invitation of the bridegroom, we need to be in a flow with the divine, to be in right relationship with God and others, and to have those relationships characterized by care and compassion.

God in Jesus manifested as a perfect union of physical body and spirit – 100% human and 100% divine. With the Christ as our bridegroom, we are invited into what some contemplatives refer to as a mystical marriage. It is mystical in the sense that it is not a typical physical union – we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch this bridegroom. We must develop a broader set of perceptual capabilities – spiritual senses – in order to consummate this union. A mystical union is one where two lives unite, yet retain their individual natures. Jesus’ humanity did not diminish his divinity, nor did his divinity diminish his humanity. He retained all of both. A new being is created – reborn, if you will – that is neither, yet both. The face of God as bridegroom invites us into a mystical union where we do not lose the traits that make us who we are, but which strips those traits of the distortions that limit their use for higher purposes. In other words, we become far better and holier versions of who we already are in Christ.

The bridegroom awaits…

Note: this is the 25th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

An Intimate and Personal Gaze

 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Mark 1:40-42

The portrayals of God in the Old Testament are largely impersonal. Readers can come away with an image of God as distant from, inaccessible to, and unapproachable by the majority of humanity. Personal relationships with God seemed to be reserved for a select few. It is a familiar structure because many churches give the same impression with their organizational hierarchies. The pastors, bishops, and cardinals are often assumed to be more connected to God than others are. Although most of these people receive formal training about the Bible, God, and matters of the church, their relationship to and with God is no more exclusive than that for anyone else.

Unlike the God of the Old Testament, God in Jesus communed intimately with many different individuals on a very personal level – not just the upper class, the religious elite, or the societal leaders, but with regular, everyday, run-of-the-mill folks like you and me, including many considered undesirable by society. The Gospels are full of stories of masses of individuals seeking out Jesus for healing, and he willingly accommodated as many as possible. In the passage from Mark above, a person with leprosy approaches Jesus and acknowledges that Jesus has the power to make him clean, if Jesus so chooses. Jesus does choose and frees the person from his disease.

There was a significant event documented in Matthew (27:51) and Luke (23:45) as Jesus died on the cross that symbolizes God’s personal openness to us. The curtain of the Temple, whose sole purpose was to keep the worshipers separate from their impersonal God, was torn in two. This tearing of the curtain symbolized the removal of a barrier to our direct access to God. This was one of the messages of Jesus – that God is the God of all of us, individually and collectively, and that God is accessible to everyone.

Many of us are reluctant to believe in a personal God. It defies logic. Indeed, I believe we miss the personal nature of God because we tend to learn about God in our head instead of experiencing God in our heart. Intellectual knowledge about anything does not lead to a deeply personal experience. Further, since we can only know God by faith, some find belief in a familiar God a leap too far. We feel unworthy, or we believe God is too big, too busy, or too important to care about us in our individual quirkiness. God came to earth in Jesus, though, precisely to be in direct relationship with individuals. Although the person of Jesus died 2000 years ago, that personal face of God remains connected to us through the Spirit whether or not we are aware of it. What is hard to accept, what seems too good to be true is that God knows and loves us in our entire individual idiosyncrasy. Those who are parents love their children for their unique traits, even when they disappoint or annoy us. Why would we expect less from a divine parent?

The personal nature of God is important. We know from our other relationships that it is difficult to dislike a person we know well. Once we get to know a person, once there is a trusted, mutual vulnerability between us, we cannot help but appreciate who they are, where they have been in life, and their hopes and dreams for the future. Indeed, knowing someone in much of their specificity is a prerequisite to deeply loving them. It seems to follow, then, that for God to love us, God must know us in a detailed and specific way. That love is the source of our inestimable worth, for if God knows us in all our particulars and still loves us, who else’s opinion could possibly decrease that value? When we seek the face of God with our heart, an intimate and personal gaze gazes back.

Note: this is the 24th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God