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Archive for October, 2017

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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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