Saturday, June 18, 2011

Squeezing God into our pea-sized brains

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Was Shakespeare right? Doesn't the name we give to something matter? Well, that may depend on what we’re naming. When it’s God that we’re naming, it does seem to make a difference.

In ancient times names carried a special significance. We tend to lose this in our culture where we give our kids names like Jennifer and Richard, names chosen more for the way they roll off the tongue and into the ear than for whatever their meaning might be. But back in the days of the Old Testament, to give someone or something a name was a sign that you had power over it. Consider the second story of creation in Genesis 2. After God creates Adam, then he creates all the other creatures and he trots them out one by one and gives Adam naming rights. Yes, God did the creating, but Adam did the naming. That was significant. It elevated human beings in the pecking order of creation.

It’s also significant that when it came time for God to be named, it was God who revealed his name to his people, rather than the other way around. When God tells Moses to go to the children of Israel and tell them that he has been sent to them by God, Moses says, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but when they want to know what your name is, what can I tell them?” Considering the task God has put before Moses, I’d say that was a legitimate request. But God’s response doesn’t seem all that helpful.
“I AM WHO I AM,” God says. “Tell them that I AM sent you.” Was God giving a smart-ass answer here or was he making a point?

When God referred to himself as "I AM WHO I AM", he was establishing the fact that he is beyond names and once we start naming God we’re robbing him of his power. Then we’re creating God in our image rather than the other way around. I wonder if the children of Israel got that when Moses told them I AM sent him.

Well, as the story unfolds, the name of God becomes expressed in four letters that are derived from the concept of I AM. We’re not sure how those four letters were pronounced in Hebrew because they’re all consonants (YHWH). Most of the time, we Christians pronounce the word Yahweh. In the majority of English Bibles, whenever this name for God is found in the original text, the word LORD in capital letters is used in the translation. There seems to be some controversy about whether this word for God was ever spoken by the Jews in Old Testament times. It might have been considered so holy that humans didn’t dare utter it. But whether it was spoken or not, this much we do know: God is more than a name. The depth and width and height of God cannot be contained in a name. We human beings can’t even begin to explain the mystery of God and, if we think we can, we’re not only fooling ourselves, but we’re insulting God.

And so, we come to the Trinity. It’s a way of understanding God that evolved through the years and became accepted as the true understanding of God by Christians sometime in the fourth century. It defines God as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is only referred to a couple of times in the Bible, so it’s not really the dominant understanding of God in the Scriptures, although the three persons of the Trinity are certainly revealed in the Bible.

Naming God as the Three-in-One has its down side and its up side for people of faith. On the down side, it is one more attempt for us human beings to put God in his or her place, to think that we are able to define the One who is impossible for us to define as human beings. I AM was probably the best name for God ever, and we would have done well to stop at that.

Anyone who has ever tried to explain the Trinity gets all tangled up in a circular argument. Although God exists in three persons, there is only one God because all three have exactly the same nature and being. The Father and the Son are one. The Son and the Holy Spirit are one. The Holy Spirit and the Father are one. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father. Say what? If you try to make it clear, you only end up digging the hole deeper and deeper until pretty soon it makes no sense whatsoever. You can only throw your arms in the air in exasperation and announce “It’s a mystery!” And, of course, God tried to tell us that from the beginning. But that hasn’t stopped us from picking God apart through the ages like an investigative team on CSI. We humans tend to be pretty arrogant that way, thinking we can actually understand what is ultimately un-understandable for us. Is it really possible to squeeze the eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, infinitely wise, infinitely holy, infinitely loving, omniscient one into our pea-sized brains?

But there is another aspect to the Trinity that we often overlook when we get so trapped in our heads trying to comprehend it all. And that is the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is not an intellectual concept to be comprehended; God is a relationship to be experienced. If you’ve ever read the book The Shack, you have seen an imaginary picture of what that might look like. The persons of the Trinity are in relationship with one another, and we’re invited to be a part of that relationship, too. We seem to mistake the life of faith as an intellectual belief we must accept when it’s really a relationship that we can trust to hold our lives.

If you read through the Scriptures, there are many names for God. Those names reflect the experience of God’s people in different times and places as they live in relationship with him. One of the most shocking names for God comes from the lips of Jesus. He is in the Garden of Gethsemane anguishing over his future. And here’s how he prays: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In his time of deepest despair, he turns to God, and he addresses him as Abba, Father. No searching for the most accurate name to describe God in that moment. No flowery language. No doctrinal formula. Just Abba, Father. It’s a name of endearment. Abba means Daddy. It’s a long way from I AM and a name no one can pronounce, to Daddy.

There may be times in our lives when God seems so far removed from us, so almighty and powerful, that we dare not speak God’s name. And there are other times when we experience God so intimately that we can crawl up onto his lap and feel him cuddling us in his arms as we whisper “daddy” into his ear. God is all of that and more. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds of us of that because it is both intellectually incomprehensible and always calling us toward intimacy with a God of relationship.

What in a name? Let’s face it, when we do the naming, not so much. But when God does the naming, well that’s a different story. When I AM names you his child and becomes your daddy, YOU ARE!

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