By Stephen Fox
I love to Grocery shop.
I always have.
I get anxious if it’s been more than 48 hours since I last visited Hannaford’s.
When I lived in Tampa and there were three grocery stores within one mile of my house I would shop at least once a day and was known to go as many as three times a day. Patricia cured me of that excess.
I love walking into the store and experiencing the colors and the smells, seeing the produce, baked goods, fish and meats displayed, begging to be taken home and prepared and consumed. The variety of product is immense, even overwhelming, especially during this, the harvest time of year. So much to choose from; different varieties of onions, potatoes of all sizes shapes and colors, different species of mushrooms. I can choose between broccoli, broccolini or broccoli rabe. One day I counted no less than fifteen different varieties of Triscuits in the cracker isle. What a world we live in, so much to choose from. I have a rather limited palate, so in spite of the variety of foods available at the grocery store I tend to choose only a few things, those that I am familiar with, and that are agreeable to me.
All that choice at the grocery store got me thinking about all the choice we have in every domain of our modern lives; everything from the clothes we wear, to the music we listen to. The internet, of course is littered with choice; from Amazon to Zilo.
Choice is not limited to the material world only, it is very much a part of our spiritual lives. I need only drive around town and I can see a range of Christian churches, even in culturally homogenous southern Maine.
Travel further afield in this state and other regions of our country not to mention other parts of the world, and one is confronted with an amazing array of religions, denominations, sects, faith communities, creeds and beliefs. There are more than 400 recognized organized religions in the world and over 45,000 Christian denominations world-wide. All of these have their own theologies, churches, temples, synagogues and meeting places. Each one seems to have its own special way of worship, it’s own special image of the Devine, a different idea of God.
So then, similar to grocery shopping with all those choices, the question becomes how does one choose which church to attend, which God to worship? The answers are far too complex to fully address in this meditation. I do believe though it can be helpful to consider how we all came to Union Church, and examine how we imagine God. I think I can best do this by sharing with you some of my own spiritual journey that led me here., recognizing that you all came here by different paths yourselves.
My own spiritual journey began as a child growing up in a household with a father who was raised attending Mass, and a mother who was brought up in the Lutheran Church. So naturally, my sister and I were raised Presbyterian. I did, however, attend Mass in my preschool days with my paternal Grandmother. From that early experience, I gained an image of God as an old immutable man, looking like the artwork found in the cathedral I visited with my grandmother. You know the guy I’m talking about, sitting on that big throne, long white beard and flowing robes, with cherubs and angles hovering about as he gazes down on earth with a vaguely disapproving look. Very much a Renaissance image that stays with us to this day.
The God I came to know in the Presbyterian church was physically and emotionally remote, watchful, judgmental, giver and withholder of what I wanted or needed, based on whether or not he was pleased with me. And very definitely a stern father figure. Again a rather frightening and intimidating image for a child.
I stopped going to church when I was 18 and did not attend for a long time. Years later, when as a young father living in Tampa, Florida, my family and I were invited by a neighbor to attend a Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod. Being a person who has a hard time saying no, we attended one Sunday, and our first attendance led to a second Sunday and many more after that. It seemed that my selective taste for religion was not much different than my palate for food. It was rather limited and did not stray far from what might be described as meat and potatoes theology.
Within a few years we were deeply involved in the church. As a new school year rolled around I was asked to teach Sunday school. I am not one for working with children and so I begged off; but I was convinced to give it a try when I was told that I would be working with the high school kids, which to me sounded more tolerable.
I was given a textbook, the name of which is lost to me, but it was something like “Religions Around the World.” I think the expectation was that I would teach the class with a slant toward Lutheran Christianity as being the “true religion.” However, it didn’t work out that way.
The kids in the class were inquisitive and interested in different beliefs, and the more we talked, the more they began to question the beliefs of their own church. Of special concern amongst the girls was the Synod’s exclusion of women from positions of authority and voice. This too began to weigh on me as I have three daughters and became wary of raising them in an atmosphere where they were treated as less than men.
My sojourn at this church ended shortly after 9/11, when fear ruled and God was called upon to protect us and to punish the other. There was no attempt at understanding, no self-reflection on what part we might have played in the genesis of those tragic events, and certainly no room for, nor thought of these words of Jesus’ found in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Verse 4
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,
do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
The God I needed, the God I was seeking, was nowhere in sight at that time or in that church.
Once again my church attendance ceased, not to begin again until Patricia and I first attended church here. I spent many years away from church, and my spiritual life was sadly neglected. My church experiences were unsatisfying and the only spiritual sustenance I received came from my reading, and my time spent in nature. All that changed with Union Church.
When Patricia and I were planning our wedding here at Union Church, I realized I wanted my children to have an appreciation for how different this community is from others that I, or they had experienced. I told them that it is a progressive and inclusive church community whose members have varied spiritual backgrounds, but are all spiritual seekers.
My participation in the spiritual life here at Union Church opened up an expanded image of God, one that was more in tune with what I was searching for. The images of the God inhabiting the spiritual life of this community are different than I have been exposed to.
Let me talk about the images of God as I have come to perceive them from my participation in this faith community.
First and most important there is a deep appreciation here for the mystery of the Devine. God is truly unknowable in any complete way by any one person. Our prayer today talked about God filling all things with a fullness and hope that we cannot truly comprehend.
St. Augustine said.
If you understand it, it is not God.
In the third chapter of Proverbs, Verse 5, we find this:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on
your own understanding”
I find that this unknowing to be paradoxically comforting. I can let go of the belief that, if I can’t understand, then there must be something wrong with me. Letting go of the need to understand allows me to simply trust and believe. Here is a God that is immediately present and gives me hope. God is no longer “up there” but right here, with me and within me and with and within every part of creation. (Examples) God is more accessible, I find it easier to simply sit quietly and do nothing.
Second, the elimination of gender specificity has also been a relief. It took me some time to get used to not applying the gender specific pronoun “he” to God, but I still slip at time and do so.
The theologian Marcus Borg studied scripture and drew these observations about God and gender. He writes, in part:
The Bible is filled with images of God, metaphors for God
that are not male; yet within the “common Christian community”
male images of God have often been absolutized. God is “father,” “King,” and Lord. These words and images are enshrined in the Lord’s Prayer and creeds, the male image of God dominates
much of our liturgy.
But the Bible includes many metaphors for God that are not male and some are beyond gender because they image God in non-human form. God is fire, light, rock, wind breath, spirit.
Even when God is imagined in human form, the person metaphor is sometimes female. For example: “El Shaddai,” one of the Hebrew names of God is most often translated into English as “God Almighty.” But its linguistic roots suggest that it meant “breasted God” or, God as Mother, not Father.
Another example is “womb –like.” Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible argues that the twentieth verse of the thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah, in which God remembers Israel, should be translated,
“My womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion
Two verses later the prophet goes on to say,
“YHWH is creating a new thing upon the earth: a woman,
(in this context, woman means God), who will seek and protect a man, (in this context man means collective humanity).
In the readings today we get a sense of the different images of God in the Bible. In Exodus God instructs Moses to “build him a tent” so he can live amongst his people. This is an image very different from that of a remote inaccessible God. One can imagine stopping by God’s tent for a chat and a cup of coffee.
In Matthew we hear about a God that is seen as a “mother hen caring for her chicks.”
The many rooms in my father’s house that Jesus talks about I take to be a metaphor of the many ways that God can care for us.
Thirdly, this seemingly infinite responsiveness that is God is yet another new image of God I have come to appreciate here at Union Church. It is a blessing to know so many of you and through these relationships come to realize that there are as many images of God as there are human needs. As individuals we have many spiritual needs and they change as time passes, our life situations change and we grow older.
Take a moment and reflect on events in your life, a birth of a child or grandchild, a death, a wedding, an illness, a financial challenge, and how these events generated changing spiritual needs. Certainly COVID has caused significant life changes for us all accompanied by its own unique spiritual needs.
Is it no wonder, that what we seek from God changes as well?
We seek a God that can comfort us, direct us and sustain us in the ever-changing present moment.
The value of this responsiveness to the needs of the moment I first witnessed when I was just starting out in health care. I was working on a psychiatric inpatient unit in an urban hospital and I was fortunate to have good mentors at that time. One man in particular stands out, a psychologist. One day I was walking down the hall and I saw him standing outside the door to a patient’s room. He appeared to be deep in thought, his mind someplace different than where I was. After a few moments he seemed to shake himself, straightened up and entered the patient’s room. Later that day, I ran into him and asked him, “What were you doing in the hallway prior to entering the patient’s room?He paused a moment as if to recollect, and then said,
“I was becoming the person that the patient needed me to be.
She is in need of a strong father figure at this point in her life
and I can best serve her by being that person.”
This lesson has stayed with me in my professional life as I try to provide a healing relationship for the people I work with.
This lesson also comes to mind when I consider the many images of God. What am I in need of in the moment? And, how have those needs evolved over time with the changes in my life? How remarkable that I have a God to fill those changing needs.
In God’s house there are many rooms.
When I talked with Paula about the theme for this meditation, she told me a story about a professor she had in graduate school. He talked about what happens when you find a spiritual message that resonates with you, and how it feels like the message gets inside your heart and sticks to you like Velcro. That has been my experience here at Union Church. I hope you have a similar experience.
Choosing a God that answers our needs demands that we have an awareness of those needs and a deeper understanding of our role in this world. It is critical that we choose a God that will move us to a new spiritual life, and a new relationship with the Devine and with God’s creation. The God we choose can open our eyes to that which has been previously unseen and invite us to enter a new relationship with this world and with the sacred. This is a different God than the God I first experienced in the cathedral with my grandmother, the Renaissance God
Union Church introduced me to a different image of God, one of welcoming, unconditional love, acceptance, a God of indwelling presence and compassion. I began to become acquainted with a much different image of God. I want to be more like that God.
And so, in closing, I leave you with this question to think about:
What God do you imagine, and what God do you choose to embrace?