The God We Can Believe In

by | Jun 16, 2019

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will Glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
John 16:12-15

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers present. May we all give thanks for all fathers and father-figures of our lives, those who gave us life and care for us. Today, I am especially grateful for my husband, Paul, who is a wonderful dad to our two sons, one of whom–our elder son–became a father himself earlier this year.

My own dad died several years ago, and I’m thinking of him today. We had a tough go of it together, but thankfully we came to a place of peace and affection in his later years. I know that’s not always possible with parental relationships, broken human beings that we are. But there is, however imperfectly we have experienced it, a benevolent parental energy embedded in the human species, and an image of a good and loving father that  understandably resides in our primal images of God. It’s not the only image, and it isn’t necessarily male in the way we human beings experience gender identity, but it is real, and it’s there for us as a source of strength and compassion. It lives alongside maternal images for God, and others. Jesus prayed to God as abba, the most intimate term for father in his language, and in the prayer he taught us, encouraged us to do the same. Again, not because God is a man, but because the image of a loving parent is one way for us to imagine God and, I hope, to experience God in the times when we need such love. It is also, for those of us called to be parents or parental figures for others, an example of how we are called to love as God loves.  

I spent twenty-three years of my adult life in the Midwest, eighteen of those in Minnesota, which is sometimes referred to, for good reason, as Lutheran country. There are a lot of Lutherans in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor, host of the midwestern radio show A Prairie Home Companion, once observed that, in fact, everyone in Minnesota is Lutheran. The Catholics are Lutheran, the Episcopalians are Lutheran. Even the atheists are Lutheran, he said, because it’s a Lutheran God they don’t believe in.

Stay with me on this notion of the God we don’t believe in. What God don’t you believe in? Sometimes people will tell me–particularly people in my family and among my friends that don’t attend church–that they don’t believe in God. When I ask them to describe the God they don’t believe in, I often respond by saying that I don’t blame them. I don’t believe in that God, either.

We could spend the rest of the day talking about the gods we don’t believe in, or the images of God we have rejected, or struggled to believe in, or have wondered about–but I’d like to shift our focus toward the positive–and in particular, on the experiences which inform our understanding. Sometimes, for reasons ranging from trauma to boredom, we shut ourselves down and lose our curiosity about the mystery we call God. Or we imagine that the worst caricatures of God, or Jesus, are our only options and it’s better to walk away from those entirely. We can never fully separate our view of God from human projection, fear, and wish fulfillment. When it comes to God, we all see, as St. Paul said, through a mirror dimly. Nonetheless, we can, if we choose, come to know the mystery we call God better, guided and informed by our personal experiences of grace and holiness, the great repository of spiritual wisdom available to us, and the experiences of other people who by their example show us what a God inspired human life looks like.

Let me pause now and ask each one of you to think of a time when you had an experience that you would define as holy, a God moment, as some call it, or an occasion of grace.  

When I’ve done this exercise in a small group setting where people can talk about their experiences, while there is great variety, their experiences generally fall into a few overarching categories.

The first category is that of experience in the natural world, where the beauty and the grandeur of nature and the wonders of creation evoke a sense of awe and transcendence.

The second broad category is that of human relationships and human love. A teenager in a Confirmation class I taught years ago spoke of the love he witnessed between his grandparents as being holy for him. Parents often describe the miracle of the birth of their children, or the wonder of watching them grow.

A third broad category is that of a more mystical encounter, what the prophet Elijah experienced as “the still small voice” of God, that is, God’s presence in silence or struggle, and answered prayer–not in the sense of getting what we want necessarily, but of feeling that we are not alone.

A fourth is the experience of holiness in community, and in particular faith community, the wondrous things that can happen among us as we gather in collective prayer and commitment.

There are other categories of holy experiences, to be sure, and experiences that have no category. The ones I’ve mentioned here have deep resonance with the repository of spiritual wisdom and experience of faith traditions, and in particular for us, the Christian path.

Christianity, as you know, is a child of Judaism and a sibling to Islam. We share a common spiritual heritage and evolving understanding of the One we call God who is the source of all life. We speak of God as Creator, an image that sometimes draws our imaginations far outside ourselves and other times grounds us in ourselves. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich described God as the “ground of our being.” In the Book of Common Prayer, there’s a prayer that begins, “Oh God, in whom we live and move and have our being.”

From this broad faith heritage comes the powerfully affirming notion that human beings are created in the image of God. Thus if we want to know and love God, there is no better place to start than in knowing and loving ourselves and other human beings.

For Christians, the astonishing experiences of Jesus, both when he walked the earth and after his death, took this human expression of God to its definitive statement of faith: that in Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, that God became flesh and dwelt among us, and in Christ Jesus we can see and experience God for us. And when death did not end, but instead transformed his presence among his disciples and through them to others, this fundamental conviction in Jesus–an essential part of God is with and for us–became its own proclamation of faith.

Our spiritual forebears took things a step further in attempting to give expression to their experience of God as what Jesus called “the spirit,” the sense of energy, connection, and power that emanates from God but moves in and through human beings. Both Jesus and Paul speak of the Spirit being given to us, or coming to us, and working through us.

And so this image of God as One and God as Three in One came to prominence in the Christian worldview, articulated in faith statements we know as the creeds. But the most important thing to remember about our doctrinal statements of faith is that they were born of human experience, the experiences of the great mystery we call God.  

What I want to leave you with is an invitation to name for yourself and hold in your heart your own experiences of holiness and grace, of spiritual connection or hunger. Name them. Then hold those experiences in conversation with the great stories and practices of our faith. What those stories and practices can do is help us interpret our own experiences, and as a result, grow in our capacity to know and love God, and to be active participants, not merely passive recipients or disengaged critics, of that extraordinary, mysterious divine/human encounter that is at the heart of faith.

One of the most important reasons to raise children in a faith community is to give them language, metaphor and story to help them better understand and internalize their own spiritual experience. The same is true all of us.

Even more astonishing: the images of God as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit evoke the notion that at the heart of God is a relationship of love and mutual regard, and for whatever reason, an unceasing desire to be in relationship with us. However and whenever we choose to show up, be present, be open, ask for help, seek guidance–God will meet us more than half way, in whatever manifestation we can most readily receive.

So do your part, as best you can, and trust that God is with you, among you, for you, and through you for others’ sake. Take note of your experiences and longings, and follow where they lead. Let go of the images of God that you can’t believe in, and move toward the ones you can. Remember that definition of belief isn’t the absence of doubt but the willingness to trust and to give one’s heart. You can put your trust in God your Creator made known to us in Jesus, and whose Spirit is with us always. Your heart is safe in God.