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Wrestling for Blessing
By MARILYN McCORD ADAMS
Church Publishing, IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 Marilyn McCord Adams
All rights reserved.
'Show us who God is, and we shall be satisfied!'
'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that Igo to prepare a place for you? And if Igo and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.' Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.'
Philip said to him, 'Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.' Jesus said to him, 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father"? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.'
Most people are aware at one time or another of a deep desire to give and receive love, to know and be known and fully accepted, just as we are. We read in books, and some of us believe in our heads, that God is the answer to these desires.
But who is God? When we meet someone more 'into' religion than we are, who has obviously spent more time in prayer, or radiates a kind of holiness, we hope that they will know. In one way and another, we beg, 'Show us who God is, and we shall be satisfied.' We read the Bible, participate in liturgy, say our prayers with the same background question: Who is God? And what and how do we have to do with each other?
Of course, some answers are presupposed in the prayers we have already learned to say.
At least every Sunday, we recite, 'Our Father in heaven ...'. What feelings does that bring up in you? A sense of warm, secure, strong provision? Of inexhaustible know-how and patient willingness to teach? Or is it rather a stiff formality of children who are to be seen and not heard? When you pray 'your will be done', is it with a child's happy confidence in the parent full of wonderful surprises? Or do you think of Jesus in the Garden the night before his passion, harbour dark suspicions that the Father's expectations will be harsh, alien, dangerous to your health? Or do you seek the Father's will with the hope that if you are very, very good maybe he will love you after all? Or is your formal tone a signal that God had better keep his distance? Do you secretly fear that his intimacy will not respect your boundaries, that God will overwhelm, wipe you out personally, the way others in your life have tried to do?
Some prayers address our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Does he perhaps feel safer, friendlier than the Father? Do you imagine yourselves as one of those little children who were blessed when they crawled up into his lap? Does he put his arm around you when it hurts the most, and say, 'There, there'. Or is Jesus older brother, running with you, teaching you how to run, how to pray, how to love? Is Jesus your example of loyalty and courage? Is he your mentor? Do you long to imitate him in all things?
Most of us come to church because deep down 'we would see' God 'in Jesus'. Most of us do, at least through a glass darkly, and what we glimpse makes us long for more. But today, as in Bible times, not everybody can. Some shy away, steer clear of Jesus, because they see him as a powerless fellow victim of an aloof or tyrannical God, his cross the unbearable reminder of our fate in a hostile world. Others see the prototype male saviour, who first strips women of their power and self-esteem, coerces us into dependence, then demands eternal subservience in return for the rescue he provides. One young woman explained recently, 'They taught me in church I had to be grateful to Jesus because he died for my sins. But why should I? I didn't ask him to do it! No one consulted me!'
Our Scriptures hint at it only occasionally, but have you ever tried praying to Mommy? Would that make it easier to be vulnerable, to be with God in your failures? Would it make you more confident of God's comfort and willing help? Or do you shudder at the thought of omniscient manipulation, designing inescapable guilt trips and no-win double binds, of omnipotent smother-love that won't let her little darling grow up, be independent, have a mind or will of your own?
What would it be like to address 'Our Goddess'? Did that make your defences shoot up like the Berlin wall? Was it because the very word 'goddess' has connotations of the erotic ... because attributing sexuality to God violates some dark taboo? Besides, we are enlightened enough to know that God is spirit and therefore has no body or sexuality; right? Or does the suggestion give you goose bumps of anticipation, like one woman I knew, who said, 'My whole (fundamentalist) upbringing taught me to feel guilty about being a forceful person. But if it is the Goddess who is omnipotent, then my power is in her image and makes me good!'
When it comes to relating to God, we find ourselves in a predicament! Because God is so big and we are so small, we have no choice but to begin with analogies. Because God is personal, we appeal to models of human relationships. The trouble is that all of these images are many sided, each coloured by our life experience, evoke various combinations of good and bad. Without really thinking about it, we project both sides of the ambivalence onto the heavens, make God in their image and play out our role accordingly. No wonder our relationships with God can be so confining and confusing! Yet, how do we get out of this maze?
The first thing to do is try to relax. God isn't up tight about the names and titles we use. God knows who God is; the blessed Trinity are secure in their identities. They also know who we are, about the limitations of our factory equipment, and the distortions our experience brings. If you've stopped praying, really, except for the prayers you read out of books in church, the Good News is that God is eager to renew the conversation under whatever image will make you feel most comfortable. After all, as people get to know each other better, there is a continual process of revising who each thinks the other is. So it doesn't matter very much where you begin.
A second corollary of Divine flexibility is that – more than the best of therapists – God is so trustworthy, God's acceptance so unconditional, that we can safely talk openly about our difficulties relating to God with the blessed Trinity themselves. If applying certain images to God makes you cringe or wince or worse, tell God about it. To be sure, some models are more appropriate than others. But strong visceral reactions are usually rooted in the traumas of our past experience. Saying to God, 'You know, it really freaks me out to think of you as Father ... Mother ... Goddess ... or whatever. Please show me where all this fear is coming from' – such a prayer can begin a process of deep inner healing that will enable us to recognise both God and ourselves with clearer eyes.
When Bible readings or the daily office paint pictures of God or Jesus that feel uncomfortable or downright incredible to you, don't stuff your reaction; tell God about it. Ask God whether God really is the sort of person who would do such a thing. If you find praying to Jesus difficult, take your troubles with Jesus to Jesus himself. At the very least, the answers will convince you that God is different from, because immeasurably better than, any merely human person could ever be. Remember, when Job and the disciples and the saints pressed such questions, they saw wonderful things!
Third, getting to know God better will require us to experiment. If you've been praying in the same vein for years, maybe it's time – say once a week – to put yourself in the presence of God and then deliberately and explicitly address God with that metaphor you've been flirting with ... if you're brave, take one that scares you silly. Try it, then offer God the somersaulted feelings, describe the men-as-trees-walking that you see! God will help you sort them out, make appropriate distinctions, suggest new experiments, startle you with the height and depth, the length and breadth of God.
The main point of these manoeuvres is to take down our defences, the barriers we erect against knowing God, other people, and ourselves. The aim, that is, is to open ourselves to God, to God incarnate, to the blessed Trinity who really know the answer to our question, to God, the One whose presence will satisfy both now and evermore!
[Preached at St Augustine's-by-the-Sea, Santa Monica, Easter V, 1990]CHAPTER 2
Holy Trinity: Divine Comedy
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, 'I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.' When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.' Then he said, 'Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.' He said further, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1–6)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.' Jesus answered him, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.' Nicodemus said to him, 'How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?' Jesus answered, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. You must not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above." The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.' Nicodemus said to him, 'How can these things be?' Jesus answered him, 'Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
'Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.' (John 3:1–16)
Trinity Sunday, our assigned propers pull on us one of the oldest tricks in the spiritual director's book: all try to startle us out of our spiritual stupor by thrusting us into the tension of puzzle and paradox: unconsumed burning bushes; born-again adults; poisonous serpents lifted up to heal; crucified Messiah; and finally, holy Trinity, Great One in Three!
Seemingly, the liturgical timing couldn't be worse! This is the first weekend of summer. Our minds have just disengaged from the year's problem-solving intensity. Like Moses keeping sheep in the midday desert, eyes staring blankly through rising heat waves, half closed against the monotonous sandy glare, we semi-consciously glimpse the invitation to theological adventure. But a little voice tells us, 'We've earned the right to dismiss it. Surely well-articulated explanations are stored on our hard disks under "Sunday School" or "catechism", or at least in dusty books in the Divinity School library. We know where to look them up if we ever need to. But do we? Didn't Bernard of Clairvaux forbid Cistercians to preach on this day, because the holy Trinity is a mystery beyond human telling?'
Just your luck to draw a philosophical theologian as preacher this morning! Not to worry! My professorial question is simple: have you ever considered that the doctrine of holy Trinity is a Divine joke?
Jokes surprise, amuse by exploiting ambiguities, misfitting things together. They also instruct by exposing the cracks in our elaborate facades of propriety. We try to impose order and decorum on public and private, even cosmic worlds. The truth is, it's all too big and messy for us to straighten out. Jokes remind us that human life is a comedy, that people – well, we – are funny, relentlessly attempting the impossible. And we are always at our silliest when we put on our Sunday best, don pious expressions, speak in tones of extreme unction, and pretend to tell the truth about God!
Where the holy Trinity is concerned, we have all been so serious, the Divine wit so subtle, that it's been easy to miss the punch line. This is embarrassing, because the incongruity is right on the surface in the words 'holy Trinity', in our beliefs about God!
On the one hand, 'holy' means 'cut off', 'separate'. Applied to God, it is a gasp of awe at the unutterable uniqueness of Divinity: this One is so unlike all others, that even for cherubim and seraphim, creatures who know God best, there is nothing better to say: 'Holy, holy, holy!' Such a God, we feel, must dwell in a world of his own, approachable at most by favoured servants, in secret inner sanctums, under protection of faultlessly performed liturgies!
How many Bible stories warn, more than any cosmic ray gun, naked Divinity is dangerous to a creature's health! Remember how Sinai/Horeb trembled, quaked, coughed up fire and smoke when YHWH descended with the Law, how God warned the people to wash their clothes, abstain from women, not even get close to his holy mountain. Despite the best of intentions, Divinity leaps out to strike Uzzah dead when he puts forth his hand to steady the slipping ark of the covenant. Earlier, Moses' own situation had become maximally precarious, when – following the mindlessly munching flocks – he unwittingly trespassed on Divine turf. Before God's other plans for Moses can go forward, the cleansing shoe-removal ritual has to be prescribed. Likewise, God instructs that gold bells be sewn around the hem of Aaron's priestly robes, to ring when Aaron ascends the altar steps, a signal for God to draw back lest Aaron die.
Yet, God's joke is on us: for the Bible also tells us, and we are deeply convinced, that God is personal, and we know from human experience how it is impossible to be personal all by oneself! No, baby selves awaken to an environment of tender loving care, focus around the centre of a mother's face. Interacting with father, sister, teacher, colleague, friend, lover brings out new dimensions of nature and character. Personal bonding is important to us, because our sense of who we are is not something we contain in isolation; rather it hangs weblike in-between. Moreover, it takes two to tango: you can't make me your partner without doing a different dance step yourself. Again, opposites attract for a reason: for if we begin life by imitating mom or dad, big brother or Aunt Maude, the truth is that we can all learn to dance to a wild variety of rhythms. The full beauty of each person comes to flower only through cross-fertilisation with others very different from ourselves.
Excerpted from Wrestling for Blessing by MARILYN McCORD ADAMS. Copyright © 2005 Marilyn McCord Adams. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing, Incorporated.
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