I’m wondering if you all would do something with me this morning. I want each of you to close your eyes, and I promise I’ll close mine too. Now with your eyes closed, I want you to picture God. What, or who do you see when you picture God?
Keeping your eyes closed I want you now to think about God’s character traits. If I was a betting man, I would bet that each one of us has our own unique image of God and our own unique idea of God’s character traits. At least I hope that is true.
If you are like me, at some point when you were growing up, a lovely well-meaning Sunday School Teacher asked you to draw a picture of God. Would you believe that I still remember what I drew on that piece of paper? And while physical images are one way of thinking about and imagining God, the physical nature of God is not the only thing that come to mind when I think about the various ways I have pictured God throughout my years. In fact, a few days ago I asked my mom if it would be OK for me to share a story about a conversation she and I had when I was around 10 years old.
I want you to know that I’ve learned that whenever the story involves more than just yourself, it is always a good idea to ask the other people involved if they are ok with it being shared publicly, and sometimes those people say yes and other times they say no. Well fortunately for me (not sure I could have thought of another story) mom said sure.
Now, I’m not exactly sure what prompted our conversation about God and who my 10-year-old self believed God to be, but I do remember sharing my beliefs… And even though I was only 10 at the time, my beliefs about the nature of God have never changed. These beliefs of mine were there before I shared them with my Mom and have remained throughout. In fact, those beliefs I shared all those years ago were foundational for my decided to go to Seminary, and they are foundational to my understanding of ministry.
So, there we were all those years ago when, for the first time, I said aloud that God loved me know matter what I did or said. And while some might say that is what most innocent 10-year-old children would say, I assure you that I still believe it today. There is nothing I can do or say that would cause God to love me any less than God does today, or any day hereafter. It had never occurred to me that anything I could do would change God’s love for me. I have never wavered in my belief that I could be fully open with God, and when I say fully open I mean fully open about me, warts and all. I can always share anything about my day and myself, whether it be and my shortcomings, if you will, and no matter what I knew God was listening to me and loving me the whole time. No matter what I shared… the good… the beautiful… the not so beautiful… the downright ugly. What I shared with God never determined my understanding of God, or my understanding of how God viewed me.
In fact, until that conversation with my Mom all those years ago, I didn’t know other people held different understandings of God. At that point in time in my Mom’s life, her image of God was of one who always and forever kept score. Each and every day, for her, seemed to consist of God, the score keeper, tallying up all the points, or the lack thereof, and adding them to the running total that summed up my Mom’s life to date. Sadly, I don’t think her score ever increased like she wanted because to score points you had to do certain things, or live a certain way, or say certain things, or not say certain things, and there were so many rules that increasing your score felt too hard.
Late last week I asked my Mom about her recollection of that conversation. She said that back then she remembered being so very thankful that I had a loving, intimate relationship with God. One where I could just tell God about my day knowing full well that God was listening. Looking back, I have no doubt there were numerous external influences that helped shape my particular view of God. And that is normal I believe. I also believe when we are honest we acknowledge the role external forces play in constructing the images we rely on. Images that some so fully believe that whenever someone suggests a different image, or different way of understanding, the typical response is to call them just plain crazy. We find ourselves vehemently defending these images, without ever stopping to ask how it was we came to embrace it in the first place.
That’s the thing about the way we enter into and experience life. No matter what, we always bring our own particular understandings because those understandings have in some ways become who we are. It helps us initially orient ourselves to our encounters with other people as well as our encounters with creation itself. And while the stuff we bring can be beneficial, it can also close us off to new and more expansive understandings. This, I believe, is especially so when it comes to God. At times these created images of God seem to cloud the situation and in turn cloud our ways of understanding. When this happens, we fall victim to binary type thinking, where there are only two options: good/bad… right/wrong. This binary type thinking requires us to cling tightly to our unique opinions. Such thinking leaves us too defensive when face to face with someone holding a different opinion.
So, all last week I found myself asking people what they saw when they thought of God, and I did this because it seems to me these images that we’ve created about who God is determine how we feel about God’s words, especially the words Carol read for us today. These words, what we refer to as the Ten Commandments, have a life of their own. They even have their own movie for goodness sake. Knowing how important these have been throughout history is better understood when you realize that these commandments have been central to the Hebrew tradition and our own Christian tradition. It is interesting though, how each particular tradition has their own unique understanding of them. For instance, did you know there are 13 sentences in the acceptance Jewish version of the Ten Commandments and 17 in the Christian? Or did you know there are 13 commandments in the actual text, but their allocation to the 10 can be done in a variety of ways. This is why the Jewish tradition differs from the Protestant Christian which differs from the Roman Catholic.
No matter what your religious tradition is, I believe your understanding of God, your image of God, if you will, actually determines the way you approach these commandments. For some, like a mother I spoke to just yesterday while waiting for a soccer game to start, these commandments are a lofty and unattainable set of rules handed down to us by the ultimate rule maker. And while it feels like you should try to live up to them, the truth is not all of them are attainable and that make you feel bad about ourselves, which also means that God feels bad about us. Then there are others, like the handful of people I spoke with this past week who have never really thought about them at all and struggle to find an image of God. For them, these commandments don’t really play any role, which makes you wonder if God does. Then there are those like myself, who believe these commandments are expressions of love given by the ultimate lover to the beloved in hopes that the beloved will find right relationships with God and right relationships with each other. These commandments, I believe, are better understood as gifts being given to help guide us along our journey. If we let them, these gifts can teach us about love.
While most people only think of love as a strong emotional feeling toward another person, the love most often spoken about in the Bible is an outgoing concern for others as shown by our actions. These gifts, show us the actions that demonstrate love toward others, first toward God and then toward our fellow man. Maybe this helps explain the timing of the giving of these gifts. After all, in the lead up to this presentation of gifts, God had delivered the people from captivity, from oppression, from slavery. God had provided food and drink all along the way and had even provided it in the face of complaints. But that is what real love does. Real love takes action for the benefit of others. Real love is concerned for others and how they are being treated and cared for. Real love not only cares about the oppressed, real love takes action for their benefit. And real love never does any of it for self-gratification.
And in rather remarkable ways, like this past Wednesday night as part of our Lenten Prayer time, real love shows up in the form of Lectio Divina prayer and reminds you that you don’t have to do it all alone. Reminds you that during the times you can’t fight any longer, real love fights for you and all you need to do is rest.
So, I wonder, what was the first image you saw a few minutes ago when your eyes were closed, and you pictured God? Were you interacting with that image?
Did you see someone or something full of love or did you see someone or something you should fear?
No matter what, from this day forward may our image of God be that of the ultimate lover, who is always present. Who is always taking action out of concern for others. And may this image rightly order our relationships, both with God and with others.