September and “back to school” cause me to be nostalgic. I loved that first month when I was a kid. When September begins, my thoughts still turn to school. One of the things I remember from middle school is transparency biology books. Mrs. Marshall’s media center had a special display table for them. There was one on pond life, and a tree book – maybe others – but my favorite was that of the human body. The opening page showed a person bundled up in a winter jacket, hat and scarf, boots and gloves – eyes were the only visible body parts. Under that first transparency, the person appeared in clothing. The second transparency must have revealed skin, but I don’t remember it. I was probably embarrassed and turned the page. That’s when it got interesting. As each successive transparency was lifted, a new bodily system presented itself – the veins and arteries and heart; lungs and airways; then the brain and nervous system; muscles, tendons, fascia, and ligaments; different pages of internal organs; and, finally, the back cover of the book was just bones. To this day I have a hard time envisioning the human body other than as flat layers that can be lifted off revealing the next flat layer.
Transparencies provided mystery and revelation all in one book.
In high school, I read Antione de St. Exupery’s, The Little Prince, for the first of many times and was caught by the mystery of what we cannot see – (“that which is essential is invisible to the eye.”) So the book of transparencies might not have enough pages: it might not be delicate enough, agile enough, to show what is really inside us. What is the essential you, the core you? What reveals or defines your ultimate worth? Is it your body – its beauty, capabilities, strength – its flaws, disfigurement, or disease? Is it your job, your vocation, your daily work, what you produce or create? Is it the relationships you are invested in – the long term ones or those that have failed? Is it your intelligence, your mind and thoughts, your memories, your spirit? Is it your past or present self? What image is on the back page of your personal transparency book upon which all the others are laid? Do the layers of transparencies function to reveal or conceal you?
I’ve been wondering similar questions about God.
Here is my problem – and it may be one you can relate to. Over the years, I’ve constructed a transparency book of the divine. For whatever reason, my childhood image of God – that back page picture – is one of fear: power, judgment, anger, disapproval, separation – and for eternity. It’s not a pretty picture.
On top of it I’ve laid transparencies, layer upon layer upon layer as I’ve learned and lived, and thought and taught, prayed and preached about this triune divinity we call God. The top page now is a beautiful view of God’s suffering love and gentle kindness toward us – a God of creation, goodness, and peace whose essential nature is to gather in and redeem. There is challenge and critique and urging there, but not wrath. The top image is a God I can love and serve and converse with. It is Christ Jesus and sacred Spirit and kenotic Love – a self- emptying divinity who divested divine power and sovereignty for our sake – who adapts to our human ‘will and ways’ rather than expecting or demanding that we align ourselves to the divine will and way. This is a God who offers us new life, a new start, evolving grace, mercy, and belonging. This is a God whose power is in forgiveness, who is almighty in forbearance and love, whose right arm is not a sword arm, but a mothering arm – outstretched to draw us in.
But what about the image at the bottom of the book? What do we do with the violence and wrath and judgment and condemnation in scripture – in both Old and New Testament scriptures? Many of the Psalms, histories, and prophets report God’s power (and intention) to destroy and to condemn. Jesus died not by his own will, but by his Father’s, the gospels imply. The early church often insisted on Jesus’ death as a ransom, a human sacrifice necessary because of human sin. A substitutionary necessity. And Jesus, the visible face of an invisible God – to whom we ascribe compassion and love and hospitality and grace – speaks some awful, violent, and exclusionary things in the gospel mix.
I am embarrassed by this, and still somewhat afraid of the back page view. I’m uncertain what to say about the God of scripture who is out of touch with our cultural belief in a loving, nurturing divinity, and so I quickly flip the pages of transparencies to cover the harsh words and judgment.
But in doing so, am I revealing or concealing the true nature of God? What do we do with the discrepancy of these disparate scriptural images? Is it right to simply ignore and deny what we don’t like or can’t relate to?
I’m coming to think, yes – sort of.
The mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-1282), saw all things in God and God in all things. If this is true – really true – then the anger and judgment and exclusion are just as true of God’s essential nature as loving kindness and mercy. All of it is of God, must be of God. It’s okay to know that and still to cover one view with images of another. It’s okay to ignore some of it – sort of – because God is also the God of all times, places, and people. And the Bible’s purpose is to draw us toward God, not drive us away in fear.
We are at a point in the pendulum swing of culture and history that is very far from the avenging, people-purging, battle-waging tribal God who sometimes shows up in the Old Testament and from the Roman occupied, persecuted church of the New Testament launching itself into a new orbit from the mother-ship of Judaism. There were reasons those faith communities and prophets looked for divine power in vengeance, reasons they believed Jesus was invested in separating sheep from goats and hurling people into the outer darkness, wailing and gnashing their teeth.
Current American culture is relational, extroverted, permissive, pluralistic, driven by the quest for self- esteem and documented by selfies. The image of God we are drawn to, the Christ we love and trust and find comfort in, is going to reflect our societal mores and values just as the inspired authors of scripture reflected theirs. God is not confined or defined by either one, but surely encompasses both and much more. And, although we are insulated from much of it, we do still live in a world where terrorism, war, hunger, oppression, violence, neglect, and poverty destroy – and so for the victims, these dark images of divine wrath and vindication perhaps bring consolation and justice; they form an image of the underside of mercy. God is not a fairytale happy ending or a TED talk of inspiration, nor limited by our understanding or cultural or personal needs. God died on the cross as/in Jesus – a victim of greed and jealousy and fear. God walks the valley of the shadow of death alongside us, and understands our desire for justice even when we confuse it with vengeance. God, after-all, knows the difference.
Transparencies provide mystery and revelation all in one book. The thing those biology books of middle school lacked was depth. Bodies aren’t made of flat layers laminated together that can be neatly peeled back or re-stacked. It’s neither the back page nor the front cover image that defines us. It is the interwoven depths of the whole in which we must claim our being. The flaw with my envisioning of God is that I want a single view to trust and believe in when, in fact, we need an imagination for the whole. God is thick. There is a sacramental complexity weaving through all layers and images and truths that both reveals and conceals. God is not simply for us, but for all situations and all people. Love, justice, holy compassion will look different depending on one’s perspective and circumstances. There may be a single truth about God, but our best chance of discovering it is in developing an imagination and openness, a ‘sounding,’ into the depths – a consideration of all images and actions written and witnessed throughout time – biblical and otherwise. We are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and then, because of that, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
So, find an image of God you love – passionately, wholeheartedly, ‘withoutdoubtedly’, and then cling to it, and let God find you and fill you… and be glad. You/we, don’t need the whole – it’s too hard for us to grasp. What we need is God-with-us (Immanuel) to love and to be loved by and through, and then to accept the risk of offering that image – and that love – to others outside our box of inclusion. Go outside of that and you will find that God is already there – transparent in love – revealed and concealed in other’s lives – and thick. God’s being is thick, being filled with all things. ☩ Pastor Linda