What’s God really like, really? And how might we ever communicate with this deity?
I like the story of the Pastor, who had just finished a hospital visit. As he walked out of the sterile environment of the emergency room, and into the warmth of a late summer afternoon, he was suddenly, in a moment, intensely aware of everything around him.
Everything seemed to go in slow motion.
A gentle breeze was cooling the warm summer day.
The late afternoon sun was deepening the colours of trees, grass, flowers and buildings around him.
There was an exceptional quietness all around.
He could hear the voices of people talking some distance away, and somewhere a bird was chirping. He inhaled deeply the warm summer afternoon air.
Every sensory perception of everything around him seemed intensified. It’s as if his inner soul was suddenly alert, and paying attention as never before. He felt himself fully in the present moment. A warm sensation of calm, peace, and loving assurance seemed to embrace him like blanket.
Some would say, in that moment, he had a mystical encounter with the divine. God showed up.
But what’s God really like, this God with whom we might have these unexpected, mystical moments?
Diana Butler Bass shares some survey results in her recent book Christianity after Religion.
To the question: “What kind of God do you believe in?” 31% of the respondents envisioned an “Authoritarian” type of God.
24% believed in a “Distant” God.
23% imagined a “Benevolent” God.
And 16% envisioned a “Critical” God.
Wow. That’s a pretty wide-spread array of different images of “God.”
Today is called “Trinity Sunday”, and the scripture readings all hint at what God is really like, and how we might ever communicate with this God.
The Isaiah reading shows us a transcendent quality to God – majestic, awesome, even mysterious and incomprehensible. The prophet Isaiah experiences God as a mighty King seated on a high and lofty throne, surrounded by a host of multi-winged, singing angels, enveloped in cloud and smoke. Very otherworldly. Extraordinary.
In Psalm 29, that transcendent power and glory carries through, as we get this image of God who not only creates the world, but is present and active in it. God’s voice is heard, for example, in the majestic thunder and lightning, in the crashing waves of the sea, in the wind and fragrant forests … etc. etc.
But even so, this Psalm suggests that God is not only and merely some otherworldly, distant, transcendent being.
The very last verse of the Psalm indicates that God is also, at the same time, One who cares for you and me. Verse 11: “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” God cares, and wants to bless us with strength and peace.
The Romans passage brings that point even closer to home, where the Apostle Paul shows how we can pray to God, a way that even Jesus prayed. Paul addresses God as “Abba, Father.” Abba. The Aramaic word denoting intimacy, tenderness, and familiarity. Abba. We can talk honestly and openly to God as we would to our very own parents, our very own loved ones.
That’s because God has always loved us from the beginning of time. In today’s Gospel reading from John, what do we read? “For God so loved the world…”
Nicodemus also had many spiritual questions, like “What’s God really like?” and “Who are you Jesus?”
Just like Nicodemus who was searching for God, and who sought out Jesus under the cover of night, so too, we can look to Jesus. In our questions, in the dark night of our own souls and the turmoil of our own lives and world, we can search out and call upon Jesus of Nazareth – itinerant preacher, healer of the sick, feeder of the hungry, friend of the forgotten.
We look to Jesus, who shows us the true heart of God, who loves, cares for, and cherishes us deeply.
But in order to experience this kind of God, we need to learn how to slow down, pause and notice God who is already there, who’s always been there, right before us, close to us. Even in the silence, and the darkness.
Learning how to slow down, listen, and pay attention is harder than it sounds. And it takes a lifetime of learning. None of us are perfect experts in this.
I like the true story of a renowned older priest who was well known for his spiritual direction skills, someone many believed was especially attuned to God’s presence.
There was this young man – his name is Kevin – who was seeking and searching, with many spiritual questions.
Kevin meets with this priest.
The priest asks Kevin: “So, where are you from?”
Kevin answers, “I’m from Boston.” And then he goes on to ask the priest, “Father, what would you say is the most important part of spiritual direction?”
The priest answers, “Well, that’s easy Kevin. It’s listening. You have to be a good listener, bottom line. Not only listening to the people you’re with, but listening for the presence of God in your life and the lives of others.”
“Thanks Father,” says Kevin. “That’s really helpful.”
Then the Priest says, “Oh by the way Kevin, where are you from?”
Learning to slow down, listen, and pay attention to the present moment is hard, especially in our North American context with the loud noise and many distractions coming at us from every direction – the jangling of cell phones, the ugly shouts of partisan politics in the media, and all the chatter, music and gaming from iPods, Xboxes, and Wiis.
It’s hard to clear away all that noise, and pay attention to the silence out of which God often shows up.
It is said that the highest form of prayer, is not talking to or at God, but rather, being with God. Just taking a few minutes to be aware of God’s loving presence surrounding us, of basking in the light and warmth of God’s love. This is prayer.
I like Anthony de Mello’s statement. He says that when you pray, “Look at God looking at you… and smiling.”
This is the God of the Scriptures, the God who smiles at God’s creation, the God who comes to us as “Trinity” – as the loving Creator of the World, as the Compassionate Person of Jesus, and as Energizing Holy Spirit blowing in and filling the world around us.