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God the Spirit, Part 2

 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20

The third person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, which is a product of relationship. Relationship occurs when someone is in fellowship with one or more others. Reflecting on my marriage, there is a third something present that has grown out of our relationship, our love and care for each other, and the life experiences we have endured and enjoyed together for over 30 years. That spirit is unique to the two of us, it changes with us and our circumstances, and it is a manifestation of God the Spirit. A description of marriage found in Genesis 2:24 says the two “become one flesh.” That does not mean that either individual ceases to exist, nor is it exclusively a sexual reference. Quite the contrary, it can be read as referring to a third being – a spirit of the relationship that manifests from the connection between the two. Whenever you and I interact there is an us produced, and the essence of that us is the Spirit. We do not perceive this Spirit because we focus on the two people as separate individuals. As we become aware of the Spirit around and within us, we realize there is no such thing as separate individuals because we are all connected. As the apostle Paul writes in many of his letters, together, we are all one Body.

In our bodies, we have largely anonymous groupings of cells called connective tissue. It is everywhere in the body and connects skin, organs, muscles, and bones with each other. It functions to hold things in place as well as to exchange nutrients, water, oxygen, and wastes between the various activity centers in the body. We do not often speak of the connective tissue because most of our attention goes to the major organs. Just as our connective tissue fills the spaces between our bodily parts, so the Spirit fills the spaces between what we perceive as individual beings. In other words, we all are connected in and by the Spirit, even though we cannot see or touch it. We can feel it, however. The feeling of the Spirit may be comfortable among friends, familiar among family, and frightening with those who are threatening.

The Spirit is a product of interaction and proximity, and it is not limited to interfaces between people. The Spirit manifests in solitary walks in nature, while gazing at the night sky, or witnessing a stunning sunset. These, too, are interactions within God’s creation. Likewise, it develops between people and their beloved pets – the joy of being greeted enthusiastically by a wagging tail or the comfort of a purring cat asleep on one’s lap. We see it manifest in intimate relationships, but also among co-workers, students and teachers, parents and children, and everywhere there is conscious interaction. The Spirit is unique to each relationship, although the experience is not always pleasant. Some people walk into a room and seemingly suck every ounce of joy out of it. Their own pain and need is so great that their contribution to the collective spirit is negative. Fortunately, other folks enter a room and immediately brighten the atmosphere.

One way to picture the Spirit in our everyday life is to describe an electrical circuit. For electricity to power something requires a connection between two points, one giving and the other receiving. When the circuit is complete, electricity flows between one end of the circuit and the other and accomplishes a third something – powering our lives. When the connection is broken, our world goes dark. When two or more interact in giving and receiving ways, the Spirit will manifest – a circuit is completed and power is generated. Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Love is the substance of the Holy Spirit, and we are connected by that love. The Spirit arises out of God, and the Spirit is God. It is incomprehensibly larger than we are, and yet we are intimately and inseparably woven within it. This love, this Spirit, is more real than anything we can touch, smell, see or hear. The Spirit of love surrounds us always, and in that love we live and move and have our being – forever and ever. Amen.

Note: this is the 35th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

God the Spirit, Part 1

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

John 14:2-26

The three persons of the Trinity of God are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One can describe God the Father as the unembodied creative force, the impetus behind everything created. God the Son, the creation, is the resulting life formed by the outpouring – the Word – of the Father onto the substance of the earth. The progeny of the unbroken relationship between Father and Son – Creator and Created – is the Holy Spirit. For this reason, it is nearly impossible to have an insightful discussion about the Spirit, or God for that matter, except in the context of relationship.

Perhaps more than anything, the relational nature of the Trinity trips us up as we try to understand something discerning about the nature of God. Here are a few writings that help me imagine God as dynamically relational, as opposed to the static, distant being I learned in childhood. First, Meister Eckhart, a 13th Century mystic, wrote:

             …the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son.

            The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit.

            The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.1

Here we see the Spirit described as the product of a joyful relationship between the Father and the Son. Further, we live inside this dynamic, loving relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Although most of us are unaware of it, we all – individually and corporately – exist in the Trinity of God. A second image is in Richard Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance2, where he writes, “the principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional…; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic, and generative.” Later, in the same book (p. 82), Rohr writes “…you can know and love God on at least three distinctly wonderful levels: the Transpersonal level (“Father”), the Personal level (“Jesus”), and the Impersonal level (“Holy Spirit”). Finally, on page 98, Rohr paraphrases Richard of St. Victor, writing, “For God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two. Because love is always a relationship…But for God to ‘share excellent joy’ and ‘delight’…God has to be three, because supreme happiness is when two persons share their common delight in a third something – together.”

The initial manifestation of the Spirit grows out of the mutual love between the Father and Son within the totality of God. The Spirit within us is a product of our relationship to and in God, as well as a manifestation of our relationships with others. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples the Father will send the Spirit after his departure. This means that while God was present in the bodily form of Jesus with the people of his time, God would continue to be eternally present within everyone in the person of the Spirit.

The reason the Spirit is so difficult to perceive, aside from the fact that it has no physical nature, is that it is the unembodied product of relationship. We tend to underestimate or ignore this third something that appears in all our encounters with others. As we open ourselves to a closer relationship to God, we sense a presence that never leaves us, that gives substance to our faith, and that gives hope when there is no tangible reason for optimism. That presence is the Holy Spirit, our divine teacher, spiritual companion, and Advocate.

The Spirit of God is also referred to as the Wisdom of God. In Proverbs 8, wisdom is described as something of immeasurable value that we should desire more than anything else. “For whoever finds me (wisdom) finds life and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 8:35). Our Trinitarian God imparts its wisdom through the Spirit dwelling within us. Of course, we must build a relationship with and an awareness and acknowledgement of that Spirit in order consciously to benefit from its presence.

Next week, I will explore familiar ways in which God the Spirit manifests to us.

Note: this is the 34th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 1 Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), 129.

2 Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, Whitaker House, 2016. Page 28.

 

God the Son, Part 2

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Luke 1:26-28

A virgin is one who is pure. Mary, the mother of Jesus, modeled untainted, non-desecrated earth – a willing and surrendered canvas upon which God could create. One can picture her in a way similar to the “formless void” of the earth described in Genesis 1:2. Just as the spirit of God overshadowed the amorphous earth to give birth to creation, so the spirit overshadowed Mary, and she gave birth to Jesus, Son of God. The tangible birth of Jesus substantiates the ethereal creation account in Genesis. It helps to make creation and God’s work in our world personal and relatable.

We often confuse the Son of God and the Christ. Christ is a designation for one who has attained an exceptional awareness of their relation to God, as in Jesus the Christ. It means anointed, or to make sacred, or to dedicate to the service of God. In Eastern philosophy, Christ Consciousness is attained when one perfectly unites their essential physical and spiritual natures. Recognizing we, too, are children of God – products of spirit and earth – it is getting in touch with the spirit within that saves us. Such knowledge rescues us from the fear that we can ever be separated from God. Here is how we become lost: We grow enamored with our material existence early in life and lose sight of our spiritual, eternal nature. When our lives are out of balance on the physical side, as most lives are, we identify with earthly, non-permanent stuff. Do not get me wrong, there is true beauty and pleasure in the things of the earth. They are impermanent, however, and so cannot provide the security we seek. Referring to our physical natures, Genesis 3:19 says, “…for out of (the ground) you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The spiritual side of us, however, never dies. That part of us comes from God and takes on an earthly body for a time. When our body gives out, our spiritual essence lives on.

As long as our spirits are embodied, physically, we are living in the Son of God – God’s creation. Our access to and relationship with God is through the Son. Unfortunately, we continue stubbornly to focus on our temporal, physical natures. We think we are our jobs or homes, but jobs and homes are lost every day. We think we are our possessions, which wear out, break, or are stolen. We think we are our thoughts, which distractedly flitter and flutter in every direction. We think we are our bodies, which wither and die. Is it any wonder we become such insecure, frightened beings?

The Christ is creation when its spiritual essence has opened into conscious awareness. Jesus of Nazareth displayed that realization, whether by birth or by growing into it, becoming the perfect combination of earth and spirit we are to aspire to. Because we live in the Son of God, we are known and loved completely, just as we are. When Jesus looked upon the suffering people in his midst, he encouraged them not to identify with their pain or their problems. Rather, he encouraged them to look at themselves through him, to have faith, to believe in his reality, knowing his was their reality, too. It is as if he were saying, “I know you, and you are so much more than your suffering. Your pain will end, but your life in me will never end.” It is in the Son of God that we live and move and have our being. God in us, Emmanuel, is our true identity and our eternal nature, and that cannot be taken from us. As we increase our ability to manifest our divine nature, we become instruments for God to work through on earth.

In some ways, our task is to become like Mary, ready and willing to surrender completely to the urgings of the Spirit. And one day, by the unfathomable grace of God, the Spirit may overshadow us and manifest the Son of God, the child of the Most High, the Christ within us – Emmanuel.

Note: this is the 33rd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God. 

 

God the Son, Part 1

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:1-4

Any attempt to capture in words that which cannot reasonably be explained, let alone understood intellectually, will ultimately seem futile to both the reader and the writer. Such is the case with the mysterious and primal reality of the Trinity. We can only talk around this foundation of our faith. Further, I address the three persons of the Trinity separately in order to point out distinctions in the ways they manifest to us. In reality, the three persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are a single Unity that we call God. They are inseparable, interdependent, and constantly in dynamic communion with one another and with us.

God the Son is the Incarnate (embodied or manifest) Word of God, as opposed to God the Father, who does not have a physical body. God the Father enters into and shapes the material reality of the earth to create life as we know it – humans, plants, animals, hills, rocks, trees. Creation, in its many forms, is the child of God. As with our discussion of God the Father, God the Son necessarily implies a relationship. In other words, for there to be a Son (or daughter), there must also be a parent. What I attempt to describe is a relationship more than a specific being, and our lives are an integral part of that relationship.

To use sexual imagery, God the Father – the divine masculine energy – penetrates the formless void of the fertile, maternal Earth (see Genesis 1:2), and creation results. The Father is the creative force, the Mother is the receptive Earth, the Son is the resulting creation – God’s offspring, God’s prodigy. The ultimate example of the impregnation of earth by spirit manifested in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the perfect combination of body and spirit, being 100% God and 100% human. Jesus’ seamless integration of divine and human natures makes him our Savior, our Messiah, the Anointed One. It is the lived experience that we are both body and spirit that “saves” us because, as Jesus so graphically displayed on the cross, only the body part of us suffers and dies. That which rises from the earth falls back to the earth. The rest, however, lives on.

The Genesis account of creation provides the image of God speaking creation into being. In John’s account of creation, the Word is created reality. That Word, in its ever-changing forms, has been one face of God since the beginning. John says, “All things came into being through him.” In addition, John writes, “What has come into being in him was life.” The words in and through are keys to understanding the Word, or the Son, or the creation of God. We come into being through the Son and live in that incarnate aspect of God. This is why we often close our prayers by saying, “In Jesus’ name” or “Through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We live, physically, in the manifested reality of the Son of God, even as we are influenced by the non-manifest energies of the Father and the Spirit. We cannot know this intellectually, we can only recognize our participation in this Oneness experientially.

In a dynamic, ongoing process, the creative impulse of the Father penetrates the fertile womb of the Earth and creation results: light separates from darkness; the waters above part from the waters below; dry land divides from the waters; vegetation appears; seasons, stars, sun and moon rule the day and night; birds fill the skies and fish fill the seas; animals of every kind spring up from the earth; and humankind appears. The Creator creates, and the created gazes back in awe. This, then, is one way to picture the unfathomable relationship between us, God the Father, and God the Son. Creation – the Child – is the physical manifestation of the Spirit of God in everything created. The Christ is the Spirit clothed in flesh, completely aware of its Oneness (body and spirit), embodied in the stuff of the earth, and perfectly displayed in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

Note: this is the 32nd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

God the Father, Part 2

 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

There is a profound but subtle point in referring to God as Father. It is that for there to be a father, there must also be children. In other words, for the reference to hold there must be a parent-child relationship. This, then, is the characteristic most overlooked about God – that we are in close relationship to God. It is our choice to acknowledge and pursue that relationship or not, but either way, we are related.

My daughter, Grace, was born seven weeks before her due date. She was very small, even by infant standards. I could literally hold Grace comfortably in one hand, with her bottom at the base of my palm and the tops of my fingers securing her head. It was a reverential experience to hold this tiny, beautiful, perfect human being in my hand. I was an enormous being by comparison – stronger and infinitely more powerful. She, in her weakness, however, held complete power over my heart. Much as I vowed to protect both of my children from harm, they got sick, scrapped their knees, and had their hearts broken. For my part, I suffered alongside them, albeit not physically. In one of his Living School lectures, James Finley said, “God is the presence that spares us from nothing, even while it sustains us in everything.” This is the promise from our divine parent – not that bad things will never happen to us, but that we will never be alone in our suffering.

To refer to God as Father causes many of our brothers and sisters to turn away because their earthly experience with one or both parents was so painful. A parent-child relationship is not a relationship of equals. At least in a child’s early years, their father is probably the biggest, strongest being they know. That strength can be used to protect and provide security for the child, or that strength can be used to inflict unspeakable suffering. Too many parents are so wounded and broken themselves they cannot allow their child to have any emotional power over them – they cannot get in touch with their natural protective, nurturing instincts. Often, their own abusive parents victimized them. Some parents use their power over children to strike back at the world that struck them in their most vulnerable state. It is a heartbreaking and difficult cycle to break. The worst of the abusers end up in jail, but the abused children are still left to abuse their children one day unless and until they are healed in a way that transforms their pain.

It is the inequality of the relationship and the vast power discrepancy that makes a parental figure especially intimidating. It is difficult to feel safe if there is any hint they may use their power to harm us. Many times in the Bible we are exhorted to fear God. I think one purpose of this is to recognize the immensity of God in relation to us. The parent always has the upper hand, and we are always vulnerable in their presence. Trust is required if there is to be any sense of mutual giving and receiving.

The reference to God as Father cannot be dismissed as irrelevant just because many of us earthly fathers fall short in caring for our children. That we are in a relationship with God, one where the awesomeness of God looks upon us as an enamored parent lovingly gazes upon their precious child, is an image we are clearly to discern from scripture. The good parent uses their greater power to protect, nurture, teach, and empower the child. They are loving, patient, and kind. They defend their children against as many threats as possible. This is supposed to be the norm, not the exception. The parental model is God the Father/Mother, not because God keeps bad things from happening to good people, but because God the Parent never abandons and never stops loving his/her children. A child may not understand why their parent loves them, but they know when they are loved. A child cannot earn parental love, but they can respond to that love in loving ways. A loved child becomes a loving parent, and this is one intended outcome of any parent-child relationship, including our relationship with God the Father.

Note: this is the 31st in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

 

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.