Sunday, May 20, 2007
IN THE BEGINNING, GOD...
O sing to the Lord a new song because he has performed wondrous things! His right hand and his holy arm have gained him victory. The Lord has made known his salvation; He has unveiled his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his loving-kindness and his faithfulness to Israel's descendants. All the ends of the earth have witnessed the salvation of our God...
Let the sea in its vastness roar in praise, the world and its inhabitants! Let the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing praises together before the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with justice, the peoples with unfaltering fairness..
Psalm 98:1-3 and 7-9, Berkeley
There is a God in heaven... God is with you. God conceals himself... God reveals mysteries.
The Lord is King; the people tremble... He has pity on the weak and poor.
The high and lofty One who inhabits eternity... inhabits the praises of Israel.
The world and all that is in it belong to the Lord... the cattle on a thousand hills... Rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake.
God is ready to judge the living and the dead. Our God is a consuming fire... He will save his people from their sins.
I am your God -- let nothing terrify you! God remembers those who suffer. God is wise and powerful! Praise him for ever and ever. He reveals things that are deep and secret; he knows what is hidden in darkness, and he himself is surrounded by light. How deep is God's wisdom and knowledge! Who can explain his decisions? Who can understand his ways?... All things exist through him and for him.
The Lord's unfailing love and mercy still continue, fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise. The Lord is all I have, and so I put my hope in him.
In view of all this, what can we say? If God is for us, who can be against us? Nothing can separate us from God's love. God, the source of my happiness.
(Daniel 2: 28; Isaiah 45: 14-15; Daniel 2: 29; Psalm 99:1 and 72: 13 -- all GNB; Isaiah 57: 15, RSV; Psalm 22: 3, KJV; Psalm 24: 1 and 50: 10; 2 Corinthians 8: 9; 1 Peter 4:5 -- all GNB; Hebrews 12: 29, RSV; Psalm 130: 8; Isaiah 41: 10; Psalm 9: 12; Daniel 2:20 and 22; Romans 11:33 and 36; Lamentations 3: 22-24; Romans 8: 31 and 38; Psalm 43:4 -- all GNB)
The novelist Katherine Mansfield, an atheist, woke up one lovely morning at her villa in the south of France, looked out her window at the beauty of it all, and said: 'How I wish there were someone to thank!'
There is, Katherine. And God heard you... Who is God? Where is God? What is God like? When you come into contact with the God depicted in the Bible, you'd better be ready for some surprises. We define reality in terms of our limited experience and, if that experience was flawed by bad relationships, 'bad luck' or bad life-management, we may create expectations about God that are also flawed. We know only in part and see through a glass darkly. So our 'God-talk' suffers from severe limitations.
Who is God? The German mystic Gerhard Tersteegan wrote: 'A god understood, a god comprehended, is no god.' After all the words and theories, preachings and theologies, God is still incognito and beyond our comprehension. 'We cannot see light,' wrote C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, 'though by light we can see things. Statements about God are extrapolations from the knowledge of other things which the divine illumination enables us to know.'
The Eastern Orthodox tradition has always held that God in his essence is unknown; he is discerned through his works and words.
'God' is not a static noun but a dynamic verb. It's like trying to understand a train trip by studying the timetables: you have to take the journey to experience it. Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher, reminds us that theological doctrine is not necessary for faith, but that faith is necessary for theological doctrine. Believing is seeing.
According to Paul the apostle, the God of the Bible is one who can make the things that are out of things that are not: he can make the dead come to lffe again. God is the sum of all possibilities.
God is love and God is just. God's justice, says C.S. Lewis, is his love labouring to make us lovable. When our sin is abhorrent to us as it is so manifestly to God, we may understand a little of his holy anger against that which is destroying us. He has given us ten commandments (not ten suggestions) to preserve a moral environment in which humans can survive. God's kindness and severity (Romans 11: 22) are joined together in the Bible, and what God has joined together let not the Pharisees or the sentimentalists separate (even if there is great mystery here). The judge of all the earth will act justly, he can do it without our help, and that's comforting.
Where is God? In heaven, in sacred places and religious celebrations, yes, but also within us, as the ground of our being (Tillich), in ordinariness and in crisis, in the variegated beauty of creation, in others and uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth -- 'God was in Christ'. We think about God in terms of transcendence -- ('out-thereness') -- and immanence ('down-hereness'). God is not merely far away, beyond the bright blue sky; he is closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet. God is the life in every living thing -- Justin Martyr says he is 'present in all his works though still unseen' -- but as Creator he is greater than the sum of all his creation.
But the more urgent questions are: 'Where is God when it hurts?' and 'Is God deaf?' From biblical times, God's apparent absence or silence have puzzled and pained his people. In Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, 'God', we assume, does not come. Since Auschwitz we wonder if we can still praise him. And today, in many parts of the world, his servants are ridiculed, tortured and killed. And the cries of the martyrs are still louder than those protesting the injustices done to those martyrs.
God is not deaf; he is listening. He suffers with his people and hears their cries. 'Where was your God when my son was killed in a car accident?' asked the distraught mother. The pastor quietly replied, 'The same place he was when his son was killed.'
What is God like? Our hunger for God was articulated by Philip: 'Lord, show us the Father, that is all we need' (John 14: 8). Jesus' answer was breathtaking: 'Whoever has seen me has seen the Father' (John 14: 9). What is God like? He is like Jesus. Jesus is God for you, near you. Your faith depends on him from start to finish (Hebrews 12: 2). He cannot stop loving you. He thinks you're beautiful, he delights in you, so in the joy and comfort of this total acceptance, make room for surprise and hope and wonder and the unexpected and, above all, the warm certainty that you are loved for ever.
And never forget, as an old mystic said, if you have God and everything else you have no more than having God only; and if you have everything else and not God you have nothing.
No philosophical theory which I have yet come across is a radical improvement on the words of Genesis, that 'In the beginning God made heaven and earth.'
C.S. Lewis, Miracles
Some people want to love God in the same way as they love a cow. You love it for the milk and the cheese and for your own profit. So do all people who love God for the sake of outward riches or inward consolation. But they do not love God correctly, for they merely love their own advantage.
You are looking for something along with God, and you are behaving exactly as if you were making of God a candle so that you could look for something. When we find the things we are looking for, we throw the candle away. Whatever you are seeking along with God is nothing. It does not matter what it is -- be it an advantage or a reward or a kind of spirituality or whatever else -you are seeking a nothingness and for this reason you find a nothingness.
God is a lover different from human lovers, who give a gift which is exterior to them. God is working in all his gifts, giving of himself as a sign of his love. Creation is an ongoing process and God is patiently working from inside each creature in the potentiality he has poured into that finite creature. He is the ground of being directing all creatures to their full actuality...
George A. Maloney, Alone with the Alone
The God of the gospel is the God... who again and again discloses himself anew and must be discovered anew... In this he is, without doubt, a God wholly different from other gods. Other gods do not seem to prohibit their theologies from boasting that each one is the most correct or even the only correct theology...
The God of the gospel is no lonely God, self-sufficient and self-contained... He is our God. He exists neither next to us nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us and, most important of all, for us... The content of God's Word is his free, undeserved Yes to the whole human race, in spite of all human unreasonableness and corruption.
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology
People become like their gods. It is not that we, since the creation of the world, have created gods in our image. Rather we have imagined the sort of gods who might be useful for us. If we want to conquer our enemies, our god will be warlike; if we need to feel okay when we've done wrong, then our god will be appeased through sacrifices.
The gods of the American Zuni Indians are kindly and beneficent; so these people have no sorcery, they dance a lot and life is a constant celebration. The Ojibwa gods, on the other hand, have to be bargained with and bribed; their religion is fear motivated; life is selfish and there is an abundance of black magic...
The god of the Pharisees is stern and legalistic, so life for them is governed by 'decency', authority and duty, and their preaching aims to induce guilt. The God of Jesus loves sinners, so Jesus enjoys partying, life is zestful and spontaneous, the kingdom is one of feasting, of joyful celebration. For the Pharisees 'repentance precedes acceptance'; with Jesus it was the other way around.
William Temple once wrote: 'If your conception of God is radically false, then the more devout you are the worse it will be for you... You had better be an atheist.' A legalistic religion is a heavy burden to carry. Jesus' religion carries us...
The appropriate stance in relation to the Holy One is utter openness and flexibility and high sensitivity. We humans must prepare for God's coming with silence, emptiness and receptivity.
To me, God is the Holy One whose other name is Surprise. The willingness to let the Ultimate assume whatever form he will and come in whatever manner he chooses is absolutely crucial, and it must be coupled with our trust that God wants to become known to us and is able to communicate with us, if we will allow it on those terms...
The bumper sticker 'Let God be God' states the most important imperative of life. What could be more important, really, than letting one's god be the true God -letting the one who is God by nature function as one's God in fact? Every day of our lives the God who made us does battle with the gods we have made... Only the Creator can fully satisfy and genuinely fulfil a creature. As St Augustine said so long ago, 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.'
The self we love is not the self God loves; the neighbours we do not prize are his treasures, the truth we ignore is the truth he maintains, the justice we seek because it is our own is not the justice that his love desires. The righteousness he demands and gives is not our righteousness, but greater and different.
He requires of us the sacrifice of all we would conserve and grants us gifts we had not dreamed of... repentance and sorrow for our transgressions rather than forgetfulness; faith in him rather than confidence in ourselves; trust in his mercy rather than sight of his presence; instead of rest, an ever-recurrent torment that will not let us be content; instead of the peace and joy of the world, the hope of the world to come. He forces us to take our sorrows as a gift from him and to suspect our joys lest they be purchased by the anguish of his Son incarnate again in every neighbour. He ministers indeed to all our good, but all our good is other than we thought.
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation
There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist.
John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman
...God is still the God who evokes reverence and awe. It is a distorted Christianity which in the midst of the joy of the heavenly journey forgets the awe and the dread... 'Our God is a consuming fire' (Hebrews 13: 16).
Michael Ramsay, Be Still and Know
[When young I used to say to myself] 'If God does not punish me for my sin, he ought to do so.' I felt that God was just, and that he knew that I did not wish him to be anything else but just; for even my imperfect knowledge of God included my recognition that he was a just and holy God. If I could have been certain of salvation by any method by which God could have ceased to be just, I could not have accepted even salvation on those terms; I should have felt that it was derogatory to the dignity of the Most High and that it was contrary to the universal laws of right.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Great Texts of the Bible
'I love you,' said a tiny voice. I looked around. No-one was there. Just a chain link fence with a sign that said 'Humpty Dumpty Nursery.'
Then I saw a little girl, almost hidden, perched in a bush. Her friendly, chocolate-covered smile peeped out among the leaves. I felt warm inside... like a squeezed teddy bear. She loves me, eh? But she doesn't know me.
But wait. She wasn't evaluating me; she was expressing herself.
God says, 'I love you.' But we don't believe it. How could he love us? He knows us. We forget God's declaration isn't a judgment about us, but a revelation about him.
Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you. For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell upon those lovely things that you have made. You were with me and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me and broke upon my deafness; and you sent forth your light and shone upon me, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for you: I tasted you and I now hunger and thirst for you; you touched me, and I have burned for your peace.
St Augustine of Hippo
Lord God, Creator, Saviour and friend, I see glimpses of your creative beauty in the stars, in the mountains, in trees and birds and flowers. The sun sings your praises, the moon gives you glory, the oceans, storms and thunder join the mighty chorus to extol your majesty.
You are the One in whom I live and move and have my being: you are not a remote unfeeling deity but, amazingly, are deeply concerned about all my ways. I even 1, can experience your healing presence in my valleys, my lonely nights and my grievings.
In my waywardness when I am inclined to self-destruct, your grace covers a multitude of sins. Your will is my peace. To obey you is perfect freedom. Your energising power gives my life purpose and meaning, and the promise of your nearness offers renewing hope. Thankyou for your gifts of fresh new mornings, work and play, laughter and cheerfulness, rest and sleep. Above all, thankyou for your word to guide me, strength to love, the fellowship of your people and the sure promise of eternal life.
Lord, may I give you the same place in my heart that you have in the universe.
Eternal God, the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you and the strength of the wills that serve you; grant us so to know you, that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
St Augustine of Hippo
May the 'Lord of all being, throned afar' be enthroned within you. May he whose 'glory flames from sun and star' be glorified in your life.
May the 'centre and soul of every sphere' be centre of all your thinking and speaking and acting. May the One who is near each loving heart stay close by you, for ever. Amen.
Chapter one in High Mountains Deep Valleys, ed., Rowland Croucher (Albatross/Lion).