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Archive for March, 2017

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

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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