The Three Visitors

The Three Visitors

 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Genesis 18:1-2

Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is relaxing outside of his tent on a hot afternoon when the Lord appears to him as three men. Remember, the names given to God in Genesis are plural nouns. The name translated as Lord is Adonai, which is not only plural, but also has feminine connotations. Regardless, the Lord appears to Abraham as three men in this story. Abraham offers the visitors a place to rest, water to drink, and food to eat, which they accept.

As they converse, one of the visitors says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). As was noted in last week’s Life Note, Abraham and Sarah were already advanced in years and had no children. Sarah laughed at the thought, and one visitor responded, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (v. 14). The visitors – one God manifest in three persons – talk among themselves and include Abraham in their conversation. The three discuss the rampant evil in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and their plans to destroy both cities. Abraham asked why the Lord would slay the righteous with the wicked. The Lord agreed to preserve the cities if even ten righteous people could be found there.

My primary reason for considering the story of the three visitors, however, is because it is the first biblical evidence of God manifesting as three unique persons – what will later be referred to by theologians as the Trinity. While I will consider the Trinity in greater detail later in this series, the significance of the story of the three visitors in Genesis is worthy of consideration on its own. So many encounters with God in the Bible seem to imply meetings with a single being, notwithstanding the plurality of the names used.

The picture above is a recreation of an icon produced by the monk Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century. It provides a visual reference to the plural God of Genesis presented in Genesis 18.  Although Abraham labels the three as “Lord,” there is no explanation as to how he knew their divine nature, except perhaps from the content of their conversation. Their discussion with Abraham about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah was clearly a two-way conversation, meaning that Abraham seemed to be included as an equal participant. When he questions whether everyone in the towns needs to be destroyed, they go into something of a negotiation over who, if anyone, is righteous enough to warrant saving.

Here is what I find so interesting about this story. The God presented in Genesis 18 is a relational and personable God, consulting and communing with humans. The three visitors invite Abraham into their discussion and consider his point of view in shaping their decision-making. Not only is God presented as a relationship of persons, but there is also give and take both within and without this God-circle. This God is not a distant and dictatorial ruler sitting on a throne high above us, but a God that is here with us, wrestling with how best to handle the issues of the day. The story also refutes any fatalistic notions of God, that God has the future mapped out in advance and nothing we can do will change it. The God of Genesis includes us as co-creators of and co-participants in our daily reality, just as God included Abraham in the determination of what to do about Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Trinity – one God in three persons – is a difficult concept to grasp. The story of the three visitors, however, refutes the traditional image we hold of God as being distant and aloof. Instead, God invites us into the divine relationship that is God and that is the foundation of our being. We cannot hope consciously to experience more of God’s presence in our lives without first eliminating our limiting misconceptions of God.

One of the faces of God is that of three visitors. One God; three persons. Hmmm…

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

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

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