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.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

“Ah! Here.  And…you’re here.”

-“I am. You sound surprised, yet not.”

“Well…the dry sauna at the athletic club?”

-“Don’t you read the Psalms?”

“The Psalms?…

Oh! ‘If I make my bed in hell.…’ Very funny.”

-“I thought you’d be amused.”

“But, …seriously?”

-“Seriously, it’s the quietest place I know.”

“Really? What about churches and chapels?”

-“They’re loud with expectation and desperation.”

“Oh. I can see that. And here…

well, it may be the only place that even my mind is quiet.”

-“Exactly. Everything is remarkable still in here.”

“There’s something about the heat.”

-“Yes. It brings your mind and body together to be present with each other.”

<pause>

“That’s not always a comfortable place for me.”

-“I know.”

“There’s a lot I don’t want to feel that directly.”

-“Yes.”

“I’ve lost my dreams.”

-“Lost?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I know where they went, but they’re gone.”

-“Yes, sometimes people walk away with our dreams whether they intended to or not.”

“I just know I went to find them last week and there was nothing there.”

-“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you….

I’d ask why you didn’t stop them, but I’m long past thinking that you push people around like that.”

-“There’s no love under compulsion or manipulation.”

“Right.”

<pause>

“You know, I never know where these conversations are going to go when they start.”

-“Neither do I.”

“Really?”

-“Yes. They’re something we create together.”

“I like that.”

-“I’m glad.”

<pause>

“So what do I do about the dreams?”

-“What do you think?”

“Well, they didn’t die – then I could bury them or burn them. They just…left.”

-“Do you think they’re coming back?”

“I want to a lot of the time. But I think that’s clinging to something that’s gone, and even if they did come back, they wouldn’t quite be the same.”

-“That makes sense. Nothing that’s alive ever stays the same.”

“I don’t know what to do with the space they left.”

-“What do you want to do with it?”

“Not lose it.”

-“Why not?”

“Because…it’s part of the shape of who I am now, and I like who I am now.”

-“I like who you are now, too.”

“That’s good to hear. I don’t want to lose that.”

-“So you feel stuck between new dreams and losing who you are?”

“Maybe?…

There aren’t really any new dreams taking root. I have plenty of wishes flying around, but new dreams – not so much.”

-“And the wishes?”

“Most of them are connected with the dreams that are gone. Some of them still mean something on their own, and that’s good, but they aren’t the sorts of things that turn into dreams.”

-“Ah. I see.”

“What? What do you see?”

-“I see you.”

“You do?”

-“I do.”

<pause>

“Maybe that’s enough for the moment. I don’t know….

Can that be enough for the moment?”

-“It’s why I’m here. If you make your bed in hell…”

“You’re here.”

-“Yes.”

Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

“You’re here.”

      -“I am.”

“In the middle of the night, with the snow falling so softly and steadily.”

     -“Yes.”

“I still haven’t figured that out.”

     -“Don’t worry, you won’t.”

“Really. Do you like playing hard to get?”

     -“It’s actually not about me.”

“It’s not?”

     -“It’s not.”

“But…isn’t everything supposed to be about you?”

     -“Why would you think that?”

“‘All things have been created through him and for him’?”

     -“Who is ‘him’?”

“You, I thought?”

     -“Okay, if that’s the case, who am I?”

“Huh? How am I supposed to be able to answer that???”

      -“I’m not trying to play existential games with you. You know me. So who do you know me to be?”

<pause>

<pause.>

“Love.”

     -“So, ‘All things have been created through Love and for Love.'”

“I like that, but I’m lost.”

     -“Stick with me. I’ll get you there. And what’s love ‘all about’? What does love care about?”

“The one loved.”

     -“Exactly! And I’m Love. It’s all about everything but me.”

“What about your ‘glory’?”

     -“What’s the glory of Love?”

“Ha! I know that one…’You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love!'”

     -“I love your jokes, but close enough. Does Love play hard to get?”

“No. That’s not what love is about.”

     -“So who is ‘playing hard to get’ in this?”

“Oh!…Oh.”

     -“Your words, not mine.”

“Why is it so hard for me?”

     -“Because you make the wrong things all about you. You have a hard time just being loved.”

“I do?”

    -“Yes. And when you stop making the wrong things all about you, you know you have a hard time just being loved.”

“What do you mean?”

     -“You don’t want responsibility for the things that are about you, like loving. And you want to take credit for the things that aren’t about you, like being loved.”

“Ouch.”

     -“I know. Being loved makes you vulnerable.”

“I’ve always thought it’s loving that makes you vulnerable.”

     -“It does, but not as much.”

“Really?”

     -“Loving leaves you in control.” 

“Huh???”

     -“Yes, your love can be rejected or betrayed, but you can still choose to love or not. You can even make yourself a martyr to love. But being loved? There’s nothing you can control about that. Accepting it makes you deeply vulnerable.”

“And that’s why I have such a hard time figuring you out?”

     -“Yes. It’s hard for you to really accept love. It’s hard for you to trust love.”

“Wow. It is, isn’t it.”

     -“And I am Love.”

<awkwardly long pause>

“I’m in pretty bad shape then.”

     -“No. Remember, I am Love. It’s not all about you either.”

“Will I ever get this figured out?”

     -“You’re further along than you think.”

“I am?…How?”

     -“You love.”

“I do. But I’m pretty bad at it a lot of the time.”

     -“You do your best. That’s love. It’s not all about you.”

“Oh! Right. Okay.”

     -“Don’t worry. Stick with me – I’ll get you there.”

“The snow is still coming down.”

     -“It is. Isn’t it beautiful? I love it!”

 

(The Conversations, part 1 and part 2.)

Advent and Absence

Advent and Absence

We don’t like it when someone experiences God as absent. At least, Christians in the Western traditions don’t. It doesn’t fit our theology, what we know (or at least think we know – maybe more what we feel like we need to know).

Yet the stories of Scripture and the traditions of the church prod us to stop insisting on the theology that “God is always with us” and sit with the reality of experience. The history of Israel is a history of waiting on God to show up, to speak, to do something.

  • David feels God has hidden himself; he experiences a painful silence from God (Psalms 13, 30, and 88).
  • God withdraws himself from Israel, refusing to listen to their cries to him (Jeremiah 11, Lamentations 3, Zechariah 7).
  • The parables of Jesus are full of absent masters, grooms, and landowners.
  • On the cross, Jesus experiences the absence of his father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures are full of the presence of God, but they also show us a people wrestling with God’s silence and absence. For all the stories we have been given, the arc of scripture leaves gaps of silence. Thousands of years of silence.

It is the absence of God that is our ordinary experience.

Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolowski has written,

“God himself, as God, does not appear in the world or in human experience.  He is not the kind of being that can be present as a thing in the world.  And yet, despite this necessary absence, he is believed to be that which gives the definitive sense to everything that does appear in the world and in experience.  We first learn about the Christian God in the course of Christian living.  We hear about him through preaching, we address him in prayer, and we attempt to respond to him in our actions; however, we approach him as one who will always be absent to us while we remain in something we now must call ‘our present state.’”

Advent testifies to this absence, for how can we long for what is already here? The virtue of hope requires something that is not present. Healing, knowledge, deliverance, provision, the very presence of God.

For the last forty years of her life, Mother Theresa felt the absence of God.

“Lord, my God,” she wrote, “You have thrown [me] away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.” She added: “I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

If Theresa felt God’s absence, she herself was surely his presence to the thousands of the dying and abandoned she served.

Our reality is not God’s reality. But guess what? We have to live with our reality. And God not only knows that, God made us that way, and God condescends to meet us in the reality God gave us. In the incarnation of Jesus, in the gift of the stories and words of the scriptures which are as human as divine, in every story they give us of God meeting with and speaking to God’s people, God comes in human ways. He speaks words humans can understand. He meets us where we are.

And sometimes he doesn’t. There is room for that, too.