Naming God for Who God Is

Naming God for Who God Is

“…and you enjoy being loved by God.”

They were passing words from a pastor who was counseling me — not even his point. But something in my mind got caught in them and stayed there while we finished the session. Something inside me that said quietly and without the least drama, “But I don’t.”

Oh.

God loved me. That was as basic a fact in my world as my mama and daddy’s love for me. It wasn’t something it had ever occurred to me to question.

But somehow, in thirty years of life and being loved by God, it had also never occurred to me that I should be enjoying it.

Being loved by the Creator of the universe, the God without whom nothing was, the God who was sovereign over everything that happened (including daddies dying, injustice, abuse, bullying, starving, war,…), the God who gave and took away, the God who made all things work for the good of those who love him?

That was something to be enjoyed?

I trusted God with everything in me I knew to trust with, but something inside me still braced.

You can make yourself do a lot of things, but one thing you cannot make yourself do is enjoy. And I knew the reality that I didn’t enjoy being loved by God meant something was seriously messed up.

I had no idea what to do about it. I didn’t know how to fix it.

But I knew there was a problem somewhere in what I believed, consciously or unconsciously or both, and I became willing to put everything I thought I knew on the table.

I didn’t do it all at once. It was a step at a time. Years in which momentum slowly grew in ways I didn’t really understand. But it started with recognizing that as I had grown up in the church, I had learned to redefine a lot of things — things like love, joy, and peace. These were all things we experience when we know Jesus. I knew Jesus, my (mostly) unconscious mind reasoned, therefore love, joy, and peace must be what it was I was experiencing.

Depression and anxiety got suppressed, redefined, and ultimately, when they were undeniable, blamed on purely physical factors. “I know a peace I don’t feel.” I’d actually said those words and meant them.

It had to be better than this, I decided, or it was just a farce. “It” being life with God, following Jesus, being a Christian.

And over the years, as I let go of a lot and looked for love, goodness, and beauty, it did get better. I wrestled through some really hard stuff and came through it with a relationship with God that was deeper than ever. Something in me relaxed, and I wasn’t bracing any more.

And then a year or so ago, for no apparent reason, the prayers and creeds and words in church started to trigger bracing in me — the instinct to draw back and distance myself. The same words of the liturgy that had been so healing for me for so many years became painful.

It was the word “God” that was doing it. “God,” “Father,” “Christ.” Most any word that referred to deity except “Jesus” triggered in me a reaction to a God I no longer believe in — a God who demands death, a God who turns his back, a God who cuts some people off, a God who is willing to sacrifice a child for the sake of his plan.

Not the God of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. Not the God who

is love.

It hurt. I missed the presence I’d found in those words. I also realized I wasn’t just going to be able to get them back. I had to move through this, not back away from it.

So I started replacing the word “God” in the prayers and affirmations of the liturgy with the word, “Love.”

It was a revelation. I hadn’t realized how much my mind and heart still held of a god who isn’t Love.

I did the same thing with hymns, and the first time I sang Patrick’s Breastplate the new way, I couldn’t stop crying.

“I bind unto myself today

the power of Love to hold and lead,

Love’s eye to watch, Love’s might to stay,

Love’s ear to hearken to my need,

the wisdom of my Love to teach,

Love’s hand to guide, Love’s shield to ward,

the word of Love to give me speech,

Love’s heavenly host to be my guard.

Love be with me, Love within me,

Love behind me, Love before me,

Love beside me, Love to win me,

Love to comfort and restore me.

Love beneath me, Love above me,

Love in quiet, Love in danger,

Love in hearts of all that know me,

Love in mouth of friend and stranger.”

There is no perfect way to approach the holy, the divine. But, love, we have been told, comes closest.

“Beloved, let us love one another.

For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knowers God.

He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love.

Beloved, let us love one another!”

(1 John 4:7-8)

So I’m still learning to know God, to grasp what is at the heart of the universe.

And to enjoy being loved.

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Abandoning the Shoes that Brought Me Here

Abandoning the Shoes that Brought Me Here

There’s a poem I’ve been living with for the last couple of months. Written by David Whyte, it’s about a pilgrimage in Spain, Camino de Santiago or The Way of St. James, and the traditions that have arisen at its end at Finisterre:

The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea,

and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean:

no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,

no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you brought
and light their illumined corners, and to read
them as they drifted through the western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;

to promise what you needed to promise all along,

and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.

from Pilgrim, copyright 2012 Many Rivers Press

My family is hardcore fundamentalist. I often tell people that they believe Jerry Falwell started to compromise along the way. It’s funny (not to them), but true. They didn’t jump on the anti-gay bandwagon in the 90s; my step-father built it in the 80s.

They taught me many things.

They taught me that God’s love was great and that he had committed himself to working certain ways, within certain boundaries.

That’s the thing about fundamentalism (and much of Christianity that wouldn’t describe itself as such) — it’s not just people that are inside or outside those boundaries. God’s work is inside them, too, and his only work outside those boundaries is to call people to come inside them to him.

They also introduced me to Jesus and taught me to do what he wanted me to do no matter what they or anybody else thought.

And I followed Jesus to places that stretched them. I went to seminary and got an MDiv at a scary “neo-evangelical” school. I started preaching a little. And they rolled with it.

But then I saw Jesus dancing on the other side of the boundary line, and I knew what it would mean to cross that line, to follow him there. In the end, it was no choice really — of course I would follow him.

But I didn’t know how. The shoes that had brought me here weren’t made to dance, much less walk on across the water.

I didn’t begin to know how to walk across that line.

So with the help of a friend, I began to walk along it — to get to know a community of LGBTQ followers of Jesus who were trying to figure things out themselves. I listened, for months. Some of them came to trust me enough to honor me with the gift of their stories and struggles. They grew to be family to me.

They gave me space to learn to take off my shoes, to learn to walk without them. To let old ways of understanding and believing and relating die, and new ones be born and grow.

And one day, after about a year, I looked around and realized I’d left the line far in the distance. I’d taken off my shoes to find the ground on which I was standing was holy.

That moment was beautiful and terrifying.

I knew what it would mean. I knew that for many of my family and friends, crossing that line meant they would rewrite the story of Jesus in my life as a delusion — if the path had led me here, it had to be false.

And that meant that so many people I love, whose fingerprints I’m proud are on my life, who gave me the shoes that brought me here, would no longer be home for me. Elders whose voices brought deep wisdom to my life would not advise me going forward.

I’d found a new family, new elders, but they will never be replacements.

The shoes that brought me here still mark the water’s edge. They are well worn to the shape of my feet and journey. And they stand empty there in testimony that there is yet more beyond.

…to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.