Praying

sometimes I start out praying

on my knees

eyes closed and dry

elbows on the bed

fingers locked and still

head even-keeled

my whole body piously symmetrical

the Thank You For The Food kind of praying

the In Jesus’ Name Amen kind of praying

praying in a posture I can get behind

 

what happens next happens slowly

an arm lies down

a forehead seeking shelter

eyes open in the blanket

legs crossed or bouncing

a shoulder blade protruding

my body wondering who’s listening

the Please Have Mercy On Me kind of praying

the I Don’t Know If I Can Do This kind of praying

whispering my sins into the mattress

 

sometimes I end up praying

on my bed

eyes closed and wet

hands above my head

fists in the pillow

legs at awkward angle

my whole body in desperate display

the Oh Father Father Father kind of praying

the No More Words Just Needs kind of praying

falling into everlasting arms and sleeping

God Won

it is salty

it tickles the fleshy underside of his foot a little

it is pooling in the hollows above his collarbone

warms him up

 

blood like a woman caressing the tendons in his back

blood behind his ears and in his eyes

and he can’t rub it out

blood won’t leave him alone

 

he has never noticed tiredness in his fingernails before

or in his skin

there is pain in his hair

that is new

 

someone in his skull is banging hard on the door

let me out

these gates are shut from the outside

you’re trapped in there for good

 

he wanted God

God wanted him

and God won

God as father

Why is the biblical God typically (not exclusively) described in masculine terms?

So far I’ve had two friends cite this as one of their main complaints against the Christian God: “he” is too paternal. Too male. In an era when, thankfully, women are finally able to challenge the structures of male domination which have caused inestimable suffering, and when, unfortunately, the subsequent attempt to purge our culture of “patriarchy” has led to a unilateral rejection of masculinity even in its virtuous forms, this is not surprising. I have asked myself the same questions: is there a reason that God wants us to call him father and not mother? Since he is spiritual, not bodily (John 4:24), why does he use gendered terms at all? Why not something more philosophical or mystical such as “pure being” or “the One”? Something less tainted by the kind of emotional baggage that human male authority figures tend to create?

In fact, from the beginning, the biblical God has used a brilliant, non-gendered ontological self-descriptor: “I am,” which is the root of the Hebrew word Yahweh/Jehovah, the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. This teaches us that God cannot be fully described by human language and that (his) self-existence far transcends the limited categories of sex and gender.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” Exodus 3:14

All our ideas about God are limited by our “epistemic humility,” our inability to grasp anything beyond our familiar world of matter, space, and time. Anything we know of the divine is nothing more than a fraction of an infinite whole. That much has always been clear.

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand? Job 26:14

With that said, here are four ideas as to why the Bible generally presents God as a masculine, paternal figure.

1) The Bible anthropomorphizes God as a gift to us, making him more comprehensible than he would otherwise be.

The question “why use gendered terms at all?” points to a larger question regarding the Bible’s tendency to use anthropomorphizing terms to describe God, and worldly terms to describe otherworldly phenomena. Think also of how often Jesus spoke in parables, or short stories, rather than theological treatises. The Bible is mostly made up of stories and poems which were first composed orally and only later codified in written text. This reflects a fact about our world: most humans in most times and places have been illiterate, oral learners. As a species we tend to absorb information better and faster through storytelling than through argumentation. What’s easier to remember: a two-hour movie or a two-hour powerpoint presentation?

Human languages divide the world into categories which God doesn’t fit into, but which God nonetheless adopts in order to give us a foothold into understanding who he is. Language is limited, but without it we wouldn’t be able to say anything at all about God. One could object to this and say that, therefore, we shouldn’t even try and should be content to be agnostic. But if God has actually given us a set of images and terms and has told us to latch onto them, while recognizing their inherent limitations, then that is an incredible gift. There is a risk that we will take it all too literally and think that heaven is really made out of gold or that God is really male. But at least gold and fathers are things we can imagine, while heaven and divinity are not.

Especially considering that the vast majority of human learning is picture-oriented, the anthropomorphizing terms that the Bible uses to describe God are an expression of grace, proving that our Creator wants us to know him.

2) Many people lack father figures (more so than mother figures).

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the biological reasons behind this, and for people who have been around long enough, it’s a simple reality. It’s easier for fathers than for mothers to abandon their children, and so more of them do. That means many more people lacking a loving, protecting, paternal voice, which is universally desired – at least, I can think of no exceptions. The Bible has always called out “the fatherless” as a special group for whom God is concerned. Thus, God as father fills this gap when he tells us to call him abba, the term used at home with dad because you’re safe under his domain and you know that he loves you.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15

*The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture (note from the NIV).

3) The fatherhood of God redefines human fatherhood.

Most human societies have placed little emphasis on the father’s role in child-rearing. The phenomenon of the stay-at-home dad is extremely modern, again because of biological reasons and the realities of pre-industrialized life. By calling God “father,” the Bible combines the traditional archetype of the distant authority figure who rules by domestic decree with the idea of an intimately involved parent who loves his children ardently. That is, God is “other” from us in his divinity and moral purity in a way analogous to the traditional concept of the distant patriarch. Yet he is compassionate and loving towards us in a way that challenges that traditional concept.

Thus the Bible subverts our assumptions about patriarchal gender roles by teaching fathers to love their children gently and to care for them intimately, in the same way that God loves and cares for us. Think of the father in the story of the prodigal son, who as an aged man runs to meet his rebellious son and kisses him before he has a chance to say anything. That father, representing God, refuses to be treated as a master or employer. Instead he insists on being affectionate and “prodigally” kind to his undeserving child.

And you saw how the LORD [Yahweh] your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child. Deuteronomy 1:31

And my personal favorite verse comparing human and divine fatherhood, in that subtle, piercing tone so typical of Jesus:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:11

4) The Bible doesn’t only use masculine, paternal imagery to talk about God.

There’s lots of potential for reflection here, but for now I’ll just list a few examples of the times that the Bible speaks about God as a mother/woman.

[David:] But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2

[God:] Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49:15

[God:] As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:13

[Jesus speaking, right before the story of the prodigal son:] Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. Luke 15:8-10

God is not a man. We have to remember that. In his mercy he has revealed himself to us in certain ways so that we can start to know him even now. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of working through all of this, emotional baggage and all, and gradually learning what it means when we pray, “our father…”

 

Your Love In My Pocket

I’ve got your love in my pocket, ready

for when I get nervous at church,

unsure how to talk to good people.

When I was younger I kept it chained

’round my neck like a locket,

shiny and pretty good-looking.

Ask me, I dared you, sincerely,

bold in an ignorant way;

now I’m more wise and less happy

and I’ve got much less to say.

Pain helped me shut up and listen

and distrust the glistening things

and ignore the rambunctious laughter

and cherish the caged bird who sings.

Then I wore your love like a bracelet,

dangling, obstructing my actions, and

right in the middle of everything.

That made me stop and be patient

enough to be present in more things

but still threatened when in a crowd,

your love vulnerable to their thieving.

At some point my hands quit performing

and found themselves needing a cave,

a warm place to rest and be restless,

a hiding spot, sheltered and safe.

So I’ve got your love in my pocket,

ready to hold my hand tightly.

I Remember You And Suddenly

Sometimes late at night my roommate goes to bed.
Still awake above her, I’m warm, safe, and well-fed;
But fears shimmy up me from my belly to my head.

They pause there long enough to make my eyes wet,
Pressing repeat on bad ideas I’d rather forget.
In the quiet dark my balancing act is quietly upset.

But I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to cry.

Sometimes in a room full of voices I cannot be heard.
Even with my organized thoughts, no one hears a word.
Everything I’m fearing, I guess, must be absurd.

Defeat shimmies down me from my chest to my pit.
In the middle of my body I can’t shake the weight of it,
But if it shoots out of my mouth, then I’m the hypocrite.

So I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to yell.

At times I’ve lost my cool and given up the ghost.
Grief like television keeps my mind engrossed
And blank to the world outside, to what I owe the most.

A whirlpool of introspection drags me down into
Vague trepidation towards what comes out of the blue.
Cowardly doubt rains on me and starts to soak me through.

Yet I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to drown.

The world outside threatens to kill, infect, or maim.
The world inside me is prone to more of the same.
My silent killers are tyrant gods like money, sex, fame.

Nothing cures what ails me like the memory of you.
“In remembrance of me” does what other gods don’t do:
Takes these dying insides and gives them life anew.

So I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to die.
I remember you and suddenly I’m more alive.

We Forgot The Morning

As sleepy, drugged, bored as we are,

we may have neglected to ponder the difference

between what we made and what made us,

between light turned on and light rising up,

between a spark in the dark and infinite sun.

Forcing the point with a floodlight,

we exchanged the golden heavens for a bulb Made In China.

 

The hum of the fridge and the elevator jazz band

are gradually deafening us to the distinctions

between cacophony and harmony,

between inner narrative and ads on TV,

between rivers with birds and our Nature Sounds CD.

Even when sleeping, white noise,

so that even in dreams we can’t hear ourselves think.

 

We forgot the stillness. We forgot the silence. We forgot the morning.

When God turns on the light will we still stay asleep?

Unless God Has Spoken

Reminders and prayers when college gets hard.

There is no objectivity
unless God has spoken.
There is no real redemption
unless Christ is risen.
There is no hope of healing
unless there’s an incision.
There is no truth or beauty
without God’s existence.

And the world is a war, waged without waiting for me to wake up.
I’m sleepy from ceaselessly singing my sighs to the silence — speak to me!
Find me in fear, frustration, and f**king things up,
In the midst of the muddiness made by our madness in mushing
Our lies with your truth.
Unmuddle me!

Loneliness lurks, laughing at love and lying about life that’s coming.
I’m tired from trying to take on the task of transforming
The hearts of the hardened, the heads of the half-paying-attentions.
Be with me, bear with me, bring me back to basic things:
Your love of my mess.
Unmangle me!

Because the Lord has spoken,
there is a word that’s certain.
Because the Lord is risen,
I know I am forgiven.
Because there was a piercing,
I know there comes a healing.
Because you are existing,
I’m giving up resisting.

First Names

After I looked you in the eye that first time,
When I stated my mantra, and parroted my lines,
And asked for your name, and forgot it moments later,
I realized I had sinned against both you and your Maker,
Who remembers your first name and never forgets.

After I looked you in the eye that second time,
At a gathering composed of your acquaintances and mine,
I wondered to myself where your line of vision had been,
Where it had elected to go and where it had gone at God’s whim.
Is not he who formed the eye quite able to see?

When the third occasion of our eyes meeting happened,
I felt myself to have a smaller soul than I’d imagined.
A world of a person had three times come before me:
A living creature, a sacred image, a breathing history,
Eyes I can see into, and a hand I can hold.

I’m told there’s a gathering or some event next week.
For a fourth time I will look into your eyes, and see
The windows to the human soul that’s standing there,
With all that has come in and out, the wants, the cares.
Again I’ll see your eyes, and I will want to peek behind them.

And I will look at them with love, and without pretense,
And I will speak your given name with proper reverence,
And I will plead the God of First Names give you mercy,
And he will tell you his first name, and then his story.

…God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” …And [God] said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Exodus 3:4-6

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” John 20:16

paralyzing failure and God

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go.” 1 Samuel 16:1

To me, how a person responds to failure is one of the truest tests of his or her character – who that person really is.

Samuel served Israel as a judge, priest, and prophet. He was much more than a distant military leader, symbol, or figurehead. “Father figure” is a better way to describe his relationship with the Israelite nation. The Israelites turned to him like children, on the one hand immaturely expecting him to solve their problems for them and acquiesce to their foolish desires, and on the other hand wisely recognizing him as a remarkable leader with a remarkable relationship with God (see 1 Samuel 7:8, 8:5). “I have walked before you from my youth until this day,” he told the people at his farewell address (1 Samuel 12:2).

Samuel was the real thing. He held the nation together as everything was falling apart, leading God’s people with transparency, integrity, and devotion. When the people of Israel demanded that Samuel step aside and replace himself with a king who could lead them militarily and compete with the monarchies of their neighbors, he obeyed, understanding that, fundamentally, their act of rejection was against God, not him. Therefore, he anointed (and thereby identified) Saul as Israel’s first king.

But Saul disobeyed direct commands from God. He became a proud, presumptuous, vindictive man, totally unfit to lead God’s people, much less to hold the title of king (a title previously reserved only for God).

Scripture says, “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul” (1 Samuel 15:35). One can easily infer why Samuel grieved. Saul had transgressed God’s law, disappointed Israel’s hopes, and forfeited his royal title and dynasty. Saul had utterly failed as a leader and as a man of the covenant. To Samuel, it must have felt as if he had failed, too.

To be human is to experience failure. We often treat the two things as synonymous: “You can’t expect everything from her, she’s only human.” “Don’t get ahead of yourself, you’re only human.” In other words, “You are prone to failure and inadequacy simply because you are a human being.” Christian thought associates the undeniable reality of our imperfection with something called The Fall of Man.

When a Christian fails in a major way – or in a minor way, depending on how sensitive the person’s conscience is – there are three levels to it: failing God, failing others, and failing yourself.

Failing God is at once the hardest and the easiest of the three. He asks the most from us and is the least deserving of the offense, but he is also the most ready to forgive. God holds no grudges. Other people are rarely so forgiving, or so eager to repair trust. Perhaps, hardest of all, it is disappointing one’s own inner vision of oneself that hurts the most. “Is this what I really am, after all?” We ask, but we fear the answer.

How do you respond to failure? To letting yourself down? Maybe you wallow. Maybe you allow cynicism to harden your heart, or apathy to atrophy it. Maybe, by giving up on yourself, you give up on God and his promises to make you beautiful in his sight. Maybe, like me, and like Samuel, you simply feel paralyzed. Maybe you cannot stop grieving about Saul, and you have allowed your horn of oil to stay empty for far too long.

God had something to say to Samuel, and he has something to say to you too.

He wants you to know he is pleased when you confess your failures freely, without excuses or attempts at self-justification. What he wants from you is humility and a heart ready to receive grace; what he hates are eyes unwilling to see or lips quick to explain away (cf. Genesis 3:12-13).

Imitating our primeval parents with attempts to hide our failure, whether from God and the angels or mom, dad, and the world, is the last thing we should do when confronted with our own inadequacies. Running to Jesus (and Jesus alone) for the confidence to be transparent before even the harshest judging eyes is really the only thing for us. The cross says: you have nothing left to prove to God. With acceptance from the everlasting God, total vulnerability before our fellow mortals is the only thing that makes sense.

God is present in strength and success. He grants and blesses them both. He is not absent, however, in weakness and failure. There is truly a sense in which he is even more deeply present, more deeply there, in our weaknesses and failures than in our strengths and successes. We are closer to God at the end of our ropes than anywhere else.

The deepest mysteries of the gospel – the incarnation, when God became a man, and the atonement, when God died – speak of lowering, humbling, weakness, apparent defeat, and death. The gospel itself is the precedent for claiming God is deeply present in our failures and intensely near to us when we come to the end of ourselves. We are weak, but he is strong. Paul said it like this:

But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Not longer after, he said,

He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 2 Corinthians 13:3-4

We who live with Jesus by the power of God are no longer at liberty to let our failure paralyze us. It precisely when we fail that we know Jesus’ strength, precisely when we disappoint everyone and ourselves that we know Jesus’ sufficiency.

God told Samuel to leave Saul behind, fill his horn with oil, and go. Jesus told Peter to leave his boats behind, “feed his sheep,” make disciples of all nations, and go. The Lord tells us, now, to leave our regrets and our failures behind, cling to him, hold on to our hope, and go forward: his mission in mind, his cross behind.

“eyewitnesses of his majesty”

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. -Peter, “the Rock,” an apostle (2 Peter 1:16-18)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. -John the Beloved, an apostle (John 1:14; cf. 1 John 1:1-3)

For most of his life, people saw Jesus as everything other than glorious. He was born in disgrace to an unwed mother and raised in the midst of a genocide (Matthew 2:16) below the poverty line (Luke 2:24, cf. Leviticus 12:8) in a town known for its nobodies (John 1:46) by his step-father. He surrounded himself with the outcasts of society, damaging his reputation by doing so (Luke 7:34). He was the king no one saw coming because he came in carpenter’s clothes, riding on a donkey, on the way to his execution. Among all the gods and kings and lords and heroes worshiped by the human race, mine can’t be beat for proving the power of merciful humility to change the world.
There was a moment during his time on earth, however, when Jesus pulled back the curtain on his true identity. For one afternoon atop a local mountain, three of his closest friends caught a glimpse of who it was they were dealing with; for a moment they got an idea of who this Son of Man, as he called himself, really was. Christians have traditionally called this event the “transfiguration.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke record it and John alludes to it in the first part of his Gospel, quoted above.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light… behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. Matthew 17:2, 5-6
Peter and John, eyewitnesses of the transfiguration and contributors to the New Testament, pointed to this event as the basis of their confidence in Jesus’ divine identity. They held on to that confidence to the point of martyrdom and exile, respectively. That is part of the beauty and simplicity of the Christian faith: eyewitness testimony of historical events is what grounds the whole thing. “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ,” said John (1 John 1:3).
So then what does the transfiguration say about this Jesus, this Christ?
One part of the answer comes from a totally different part of the Bible and from an event that occurred some fifteen hundred years earlier. At that time, Moses had also spoken with God on a mountaintop and had asked, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 34:18). Then, too, God had descended in a cloud and proclaimed his name and his identity, giving Moses a glimpse of his glory. Then, too, Moses had immediately bowed his head to the ground and worshiped. Read Exodus 33:17-34:8 for the details. The similarity between the two events is amazing.
In their choices of included information, the writers of the Gospels were careful to make sure we understand the point of the similarity: this Jesus is God Incarnate. He is the God of Moses, of Sinai, of Israel, standing in a body before the eyes of a few stunned men, putting a face on God. His life demonstrates in tangible detail the Exodus 34 character of God, the “I Am.”
All three accounts of the transfiguration record that Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain for a short amount of time with Jesus and the disciples. Moses and Elijah correspond to the Law and the Prophets (biblical shorthand for the two main parts of the Old Testament), Moses being the great lawgiver and Elijah the archetypal prophet. Moses and Elijah were also the two main miracle-workers of the Old Testament, another role in which they specifically foreshadowed Jesus’ ministry. Together they represent the entire sweep of the old covenant.
Their presence corroborates and compliments God’s announcement of Jesus’ identity. Jesus is the beloved, sole Son of God. He also fulfills every aspect of the old covenant as the true Israelite, the true Mediator, and the true Spokesman for God. He is the prophet of which Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 18:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen… And the LORD said to me… “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Deuteronomy 18:15-18
“Listen to him,” the voice told the disciples, echoing this promise of Moses. Jesus himself said, “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). Jesus not only spoke God’s words, he was God’s Word (John 1:1). He is the perfect expression of his character, and the precise thing God wanted to say to humanity.
He is the “messenger of the covenant” to be preceded by Elijah of which Malachi spoke in Malachi 3 and 4:
“And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly appear in his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Malachi 3:1-2, 4:5
It was at the transfiguration that Jesus first identified John the Baptizer as the one who fulfilled this prophecy about Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah.
Jesus’ fulfillment of the old covenant is comprehensive, and worth a lifetime of study. Suffice it to say that Moses and Elijah “passing the torch” to him meant a confirmation of his ministry, a testimony to his worthiness to represent the people, and a testimony to his identity as the definitive revelation of God.
The apostle Paul had this to say about Jesus’ shining face, alluding again to the event on the mountaintop:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6
Did you catch that? “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” All in the face of Christ. Just before, Paul had said,
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18
Beholding the light in Jesus’ face, by the power of the Spirit, transforms our own “faces” into that same light and glory, in the same way that the moon reflects the light of the sun. Contemplating Christ changes hearts.
Therefore: let us come to the mountaintop, as it were; boldly, with all the confidence in the world, knowing that the Father’s announcement about the Son – “This is the one I love and with whom I am very pleased” – is true of us as faith inextricably joins us to Jesus. As amazing as that is. Let us pray with Moses, “Show me your glory.” Show me the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform me into that same image, from one degree of glory to another.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… Hebrews 1:1-3