Imagining God

How do you and I imagine God? I realize that God exceeds our capacities for imagination, but most of us live with some mental image of the Divine. It’s almost necessary. For example, when I pray, I can’t speak with any intimacy to something that is formless, shapeless, and total mystery.

When Jesus spoke about the One who had sent him, he said, “Father.” Is that image exhaustive of all that God is? Of course not! Does the metaphor have limitations? Ask someone whose earthly father has abused him, and a lot of pain has to be unpacked before the term “father” can be redeemed.

Yet, we continue to use mental images of the Holy One because we need ways to connect with the God we love but don’t see. As a child I always envisioned God as male, old, kind, and sitting down. God smiled a lot, was overweight, and in many ways looked like the Santa Claus who appeared at the department store during Christmas. I knew God was responsible for a log of big stuff, but I figured God had done most of that before reaching this doddering stage of life.

If God became angry, God didn’t remain that way, although I recognized the things I did that would raise God’s ire, at least until I had asked God’s forgiveness. Things like drinking, cussing, talking back to my parents, and dancing with the opposite sex. I suppose God may have been angry if I danced with members of the same sex, but at the time that wasn’t a pressing issue…. Regardless, God seemed kind but relatively passive. Of course, the more I learned about the God of the Bible, the more I changed my image of God. God was involved. God was active. God was seeking to draw us back to God’s love and grace.

Yet, God always seemed to give us a choice about our response. God invited, but God didn’t impose. God called, but God didn’t coerce. As a minister, I was called to be a voice to extend God’s invitation. At times, my own desire to see things happen or my insecurity that people or things were not changing in ways that I wanted caused me to cross the line between invitation and imposition. After all, wouldn’t it be so much easier on God and all of us if God shouted and never gave us the option of saying “no”?

However, that’s not the way the grace of God seems to work. In the biblical witness, God shouts periodically, but more often God speaks in the whispers of events, other persons, or circumstances we encounter. Since God whispers, that means those of us on the receiving end have to become good listeners as well as interpreters of the messages we believe are from God.

I often hear people say God told them to do this or God led them in some unmistakable way in their lives. For me, the voice of God has been more nuanced. Frankly, I’ve envied those to whom the Divine One speaks through the fire or the strong wind. I have felt gentle breezes, but I didn’t know for sure where the breeze had begun or where it was trying to take me in my life.

To say God speaks in a still, small voice and that we have to interpret that voice raises several implications. I live with the humility that I may misjudge or misinterpret, but that God can work through the mistakes of my life. In a profound way, this removes the burden from me of always trying to interpret God correctly. For example, many people speak of God’s having a perfect plan for our lives and insist that our responsibility is to discern and follow that plan.

While I don’t deny that God has plans and desires for each of us, I have difficulty in saying that I see those plans clearly or am able to follow them correctly. But if God moves us through life like a master chess player, what does that do to our free will? What does that do to the grace of God that permits us to say no as well as yes? What does that do to divine Love that issues invitations instead of sending us on forced marches?

I look around my office at the numerous pictures of my grandson. In one picture, I’m holding Finn, and I’m reading a book to him. He was about four months old, and he let his Grampa set our direction. Now Finn is almost four years old. When Finn came to visit recently, he wanted no part of Grampa’s reading to him. He wants to read himself.

He and I go into our “magic room,” which is filled with his books and mine. Finn has a chair of his own, and he pulls it beside mine. He selects two books from his shelf. He reads one and gives me the other. What makes this interesting is that we read aloud at the same time. Then we trade books, and both of us read aloud again.

Finn doesn’t get all the words right. In fact, some of what he says he’s reading isn’t found in the book at all. A picture of a dog may send Finn into an imaginative tale of a dog who is happy because he’s being patted by a little boy.

What is happening between my grandson and me is about more than dogs, little boys, or even reading books. On the surface, the whole scene of our reading at the same time sounds chaotic. In a way it is. However, what I like is listening to my grandson’s emerging voice, the voice of Finn whom I deeply love.

It’s an unfinished voice. It’s a child’s voice, soft but warm and filled with wonder at a world becoming alive through books that take us on wonderful journeys. I like the velvet feel of his voice, and though Finn doesn’t say all the words right, it’s his voice that stops my reading once in a while so I can listen to the dog who is happy because the little boy patted him.

Sometimes I even think I hear something of God’s voice in my grandson’s words. Chalk it up to grandfatherly pride, but while Finn is saying nothing overtly religious, he is reminding me of deep things like love, simplicity, and wonder.

How different from the way most of the rest of life arrives at my ear and finally at my heart. It’s shrill. Somebody is yelling at me on television to buy a car from his dealership. Someone else tells me I need a new carpet and demands my wife and I drive to the outlet mall right now.

Even church can be loud. I hope it’s just not my age, but I really don’t like somebody’s telling me that I need to give God applause or I have to clap my hands to make a joyful noise. My life is already filled with lots of noise, and, frankly, I believe I may lean forward if something profound is said in a whisper. I may even listen if the minister says, “Let’s be still.” No words—no background music; listening to the silence and through the silence, hoping that we may know that there is a God who is with us.

When I was in elementary school, I remember the so-called “Quaker Days” we had during lunchtime. Our school cafeteria was like most school cafeterias, with clattering of dishes and silverware, scraping of chairs on the floor, and all of us talking to and about each other. Once in a while, though, our teachers would declare a “Quaker Day.” In fourth grade, I didn’t know much about the Quakers except that the teacher told us they were people who knew how to be quiet and who actually enjoyed silence.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’m sure that the teachers instituted the day so they could enjoy their lunches and have a reprieve from the noise. As students, we actually liked it. It was different. We walked softly into the cafeteria, quietly picked up our trays, gently placed our silverware on our napkins, and didn’t talk. When we finished eating, we lifted our chairs away from the tables so we wouldn’t make that grinding noise on the floors.

Years later, when I had the chance to worship in a Society of Friends’ meeting, I recalled my “Quaker Days” at Fairlawn Elementary in Miami, Florida. As I worshipped with these folks who didn’t seem compelled to fill the air with the steady stream of words, I was deeply moved. Silence wasn’t a gap between sounds. It was a moment of “holy listening” when God spoke without anyone’s having to speak for God.

This post originally appeared in Lingering Grief: Listening for God in the Pain by Charles Bugg.

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