presents of mind

Whenever I drive into town via Main Street, there he is sitting always on the same public bench. His wizened body swaddled in baggy trousers and a shirt as large as a tent, and long-sleeved, no matter the heat. By turns, he is calm, perfectly still, his arms folded across his chest, then agitated, flinching, fidgeting, running his hands through his silver mane. Oft I’ve wondered. Who are you? Why are you there? What are you doing?

He always catches my attention and, now, my imagination…

During last night’s waning moments (or was it in the small hours of this morning?), I dreamed about him, which really means, I think, that my unconscious had welcomed him, embraced him as a symbol of something both reflective and restless living (looming? lurking?) within me.

Having spent this day deep in reverie, I believe I know what that something is…

As of late, in the course of my nearly daily contemplation of aging and mortality, across my mind’s screen, I’ve beheld kaleidoscopic images of the faces of people I’ve known or, having lost touch (for a variety of reasons, uncontrollable circumstance and acts of commission and omission, some mutual, some not) people I used to know. Depending on the memory, when our last meeting and parting was pleasant, I am calmed by a spirit of serenity and when not, my soul is o’ershadowed by twin specters of discontent and lament that painfully afresh reveal, expose my flaws, my failings to have been the person I long wish I already was.

Either way, even, perhaps especially the latter, I accept these images as presents, gifts of my mind, which, when opened, compel me to remember, to reflect, and to repent. In this last, perhaps I, one day, before I die, will draw closer, will be closer to the image of God I’d like to see in me.

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

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[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

imago dei – a reflection on Earth Day, April 22, 2015

created in imago dei“Then (after all things had been created) God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, and all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” Genesis 1.26

Humankind was granted dominion. O’er time, we have confused that call and charge with our will to power, exercising domination over creation. The effects of our handiwork, despite the claims of those who deny our creaturely despoliation of the environment, are evident.

The English words “dominion” and “domination” both bear the overtones of rulership, ownership. However, for me, the determiner, definer of the Genesis’ warrant of dominion is expressed, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and…” Human dominion is a fruit of being made in God’s image, which…

By necessity, begs the question: What is the meaning of “image of God” (or imago dei) or rather, more properly, I think, how is it to be interpreted? (As I am wont to say, I do not believe that any two of us ever mean precisely the same thing even when using the same words, hence the constant prerequisite of any, all communication of defining our terms.) And, no surprise imago dei can be understood in a variety of ways; traditionally, substantively (that humans are, in some sense, of the substance, nature of God), relationally (that humans, having benefit of the gifts of reason and freewill, are unique among all creatures in being able to conceive and perceive, to know and, thus, be in conscious relationship with God), and functionally (that humans, by virtue of substantive relationality with God, have the duty to act as God’s representative in the created order). And, also no surprise, in each case (as with other definitions and descriptions), many are the digressions and distinctions, filling libraries and fleshed out in unending cybertext.

Concerning our parental abuse of Mother Earth, of the three traditional views of imago dei, the third, functional interpretation poses the greatest problem. So easy it has been and is for us to overstep the responsibility of God’s representatives, ambassadors to creation and, misusing our reason and freewill, usurping the role of “creators,” and, therefore, becoming destroyers.

As one who believes or rather who perceives (and, therefore, believes) the hand of God in creation as the profoundest and eternal (not once upon a faraway, long ago moment at the dawn of time, but ongoing and endless) labor of love, my conception of my imago dei, my being made in God’s image is rooted in, what I term above, substantive relationality. I, of the same substance of God, which, Who is love, strive to live in loving relation with God, with the creation, and with all creatures therein and thereof.