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  • DAVID GREEN

What God Looks Like

May 31, 2020


Monica Parker is an author and actor, and she decided to ask children really big questions about God. Monica’s parents are Christian and Jewish, and she said that religion wasn’t discussed or practiced very often at home when she was growing up.

But when she became a parent, she was determined to celebrate every holiday with her family, including religious holidays. And her own kid’s concepts about God, inspired her to reach out to other children.

She sent questions to at least 300 kids, ages 4- 12. These kids came from a variety of economic and religious backgrounds around the world.

In response, she received funny, poignant and sometimes unexpected answers. And she collected them in her book called, OMG!: How Children See God.

In the drawings, some of the kids were unsure of God’s gender, while others were convinced that God was a superhero.

Abby, a 9 year old from New York, had a bit of advice. She said,

“God needs someone to take his picture, so we’d know what he looks like. Maybe he could do a selfie?”

That sounds cute. But it’s actually an awesome piece of insight. And if we think about it,

it wouldn’t only change and enrich our understanding of God. It would change and enrich our understanding and love of each other and ourselves.

In western culture, whether or not you grew up in a church, there’s a certain image of God that’s so typical and iconic, we often take it for granted. This stereotypical image of God – I think – no one seriously believes is anything like a selfie.

We all know that the image of an older white man with a flowing beard, perched in the clouds of heaven, gazing down in our direction, either with a look of anger and judgment or with love and compassion; we’re all aware that’s an artistic expression.

It’s an artist doing their best to imagine the character of God. As a creator, father, judge, the omnipotent all-seeing and all-knowing God of the universe.

I certainly grew up with that image, and even though these days I have a much more nuanced understanding of God, it’s still the first thing that pops into my head. That may be true for you, too. It’s imprinted on us in a powerful way.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how I never really questioned that image, and how easy it was for me to find comfort in it. Like I said, God as a benevolent, wise, older white man, suspended far above me, looking over me, somehow able to keep track of everything I was up to – good or bad – and even controlling my world in ways that were mysterious - all that seemed to make perfect sense.

And the Bible – at least the way I was taught to read it as a kid – confirmed that image. I had not yet been exposed to all the different ways God is presented in the Bible for that image to be challenged. And I wasn’t interested in it being challenged. It was all very comforting.

So, it wasn’t until later that I realized there could be some problems with that image of God. Problems that go well beyond how we might imagine what God looks like.

For one, there’s gender. I’ve known plenty of people for whom the image of God as a loving father does not work so well because they’ve had a really bad experience with their own father.

We use the pronoun “he” so often in referring to God, as well as the word “father.” And that tends to confirm that God has a specific gender, as if that would really matter.

It might’ve made sense to the ancients who composed the Bible over the course of almost 2,000 years, in a very male-dominated world.

But today, does insisting that God is a guy, really have any relevance?

Race is another issue. The way God’s depicted in classic western art is inevitably as a white western European. And it’s safe to say, the majority of the world’s population then or now, is neither white nor European.

If you’re white, it’s so easy to identify with that God we don’t give it a second thought. God’s obviously one of us.

But to anyone who’s not of western European ancestry, that image of God is saying something. If you’re not white, it’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy affirmation of who you are.

And it’s not just gender or race. It kind of makes sense that God is pictured as being older, because God’s been around for a very long time, and with age comes wisdom.

So, I kind of get that, although I know plenty of young people who are far wiser than I am.

But I’m really more interested in geography. Because God is so often understood as being “up there.” We even look up, sometimes, as if we expect to catch a glimpse of God.

And that’s a throwback to a really old notion of a separate holy realm, somewhere elevated, somewhere set apart from our everyday existence down here in the nitty gritty of things.

In the Bible and in other traditions, people are always climbing mountains to reach these high places – shrouded in clouds – to find the answers to life. Church architecture reflects that. The higher the steeple, the closer your congregation is to God, I guess.

And most people’s concept of heaven – our afterlife address where we’re fully in God’s presence – is that it’s suspended way up there, because that’s where God lives.

So, what’s implied in all of that, is that we can have a collective sense that God is somehow separated from us.

Maybe God’s too pure and holy to be polluted by the everyday stuff we have to deal with. And way up there, with a bird’s eye view of the big picture, God’s better able to keep track and manage what happens down here.

And in fact, from that lofty perch, God can be acting as some kind of a puppet-master, determining who gets cancer or who doesn’t, and who is born into poverty or wealth.

We might even believe that from that vantage point, God punishes us, or allows bad things to happen, to warn us or teach us a life lesson. Do we really believe that? I know some people who do.

The reason I think all of this is important to ponder, is that we’re missing out on so much when we cling exclusively to those old notions about God.

When we understand God as a judge, or as being far removed from us while at the same time pulling the strings of our lives as if we’re helpless marionettes, what does that say about the freedom we say we have to choose our path in life?

What does it say about our responsibility as stewards of creation, and our calling to behave as loving, compassionate, generous people?

So, I’d like to invite you, to broaden your image of God.

To understand that those familiar images of God came down to us through the ages from a combination of Hebrew and Greek and Persian mythology.

It only makes sense that we hang onto those long-held cultural concepts, but only as long as they’re not hurting anyone.

And, as long as we’re willing to open ourselves to the fact that not everyone – not even every Christian – and not this Christian – thinks of God like that. And that doesn’t make us any less Christian.

It does not make anyone any less faithful to believe that the image and the nature and the character of God goes far beyond a lot of our traditional understandings.

And that’s not a new idea, by the way. People have been imagining and debating what God is like ever since there were people to talk about it.

I mentioned that the Bible actually describes God in a lot of ways: as a rushing wind, a dove, a burning bush, a pillar of fire and a column of smoke. And that’s just in the first two books of the Bible!

And Jesus – wow! – he knew what he was talking about, and he described God in so many ways it makes your head swim.

Yes, as a loving Father. But also as a woman looking for a coin, a shepherd finding a sheep, and a hen – yes, a chicken – gathering up its baby chicks.

But the author of First John – in our passage for today – gives us what I believe is the ultimate and broadest description of God.

For me, it’s where I put my idea of God to the test. If it doesn’t meet that this test, then I don’t think it has to do with God.

Very simply, it’s this: God is love.

Mandy Spears was a high school teacher in a private school.

There was a prayer class offered to juniors and seniors as a religion elective. She taught it for five years, but one particular class session from her first year stood out to her the most, and it laid the foundation for an exercise she would walk her students through when it seemed like they needed it.

One day a student was asking some tough questions; questions like, why a good God would allow evil to exist in the world, and the ways that people of faith can use religion to give them the authority to treat other people terribly.

Her questions were about people who do bad things to others in the name of Christianity, and how it doesn’t make sense.

So they talked about how a lot of people can take their image of God – who God is and what God does - and how that can be damaging and how it requires a lot of mental gymnastics and intellectual dishonesty.

For instance, how can you believe God loves all people equally but still be a racist? How can you believe in the goodness of creation and not be concerned about the environment? All of those inconsistencies.

Her students decided they all wanted to have personal beliefs that were consistent. But how could they check it?

So, Mandy had her students write out their tough questions. Why does God let bad things happen to good people?

They tossed all of their questions into a box, shook it, pulled them out one by one, and read them aloud.

But they replaced the word “God” with the word “love.” Because, God is love. So now, a question went from, “Why would God hate a particular group of people?”, to “Why would love hate a particular group of people?”

They realized, it doesn’t. Love cannot hate, it goes against the very definition of love. So, they decided that any of those beliefs about God were nonsense.

And, why does love let bad things happen to good people? They talked about how no matter how much their parents love them, they still fall off their bicycles. They’re still bullied. They still get their hearts broken.

What they discovered, is that love is very powerful, but love can’t stop us from feeling the pain that comes with the laws of nature, or all of the choices that we and others make.

At the same time, they realized that love can help us heal. Love can forgive. Love can do just about anything.

She then asked her students to write down beliefs they had about God, or beliefs they’d heard from others about God, and whether they agreed with them or not.

And they did the same thing — they replaced the word God with the word love and waited to see if the statement would still make sense.

If it did, maybe they could hold it. If it didn’t make sense, they decided it was nonsense and they let it go.

Mandy says she knows that doing this can easily be altered to fit someone’s personal needs or motives. Plenty of Christians claim that God allows us to be hurt, to teach us things.

It helps explain things that seem inexplicable. It helps us hope that there’s some meaning – some rational God sense – hidden behind the chaotic and random and bad stuff that happens in the world.

But if you replace God with love, that claim doesn’t hold up so well.

Maybe, it’s that we just get hurt – that the world works that way, sometimes. We’re human. But it’s love that teaches us and walks with us through that hurt.

Maybe, it’s just that the world can be random and scary and inexplicable. But love teaches us and helps us navigate our way through that chaos.

It doesn’t take anything away from the power of God to say that. It just acknowledges that God’s power is about redemption and forgiveness and healing.

It’s not about causing us pain to teach us a lesson. It’s not about fear, but hope. It’s not about control, but freedom.

And it’s not about some far away holy old white man up in a cloud looking down at us. If God is love, that love is made real, not at a distance, but up close and personal, where we are.

So what does that have to do with us? One of the most unfortunate legacies of the notion of God as a judgmental white man, has to do with how certain people feel entitled to exercise power over others.

It’s linked to the western European – and American – conceit of having the right to control and exercise authority over people who don’t fit that image.

Like people of color. Indigenous people. Women. I’m not saying that if you’re a white male, you’re racist or sexist. I’d like to think I’m not either of those things.

But there’s no denying the legacy we continue to deal with. The legacy of colonization. Slavery. And institutional racism and violence.

The ingrained and poisonous bigotry, the brutalization and marginalization of people who historically don’t have the same rights and power.

As much as we talk about African Americans having all the same rights and privileges as white people, we know that is a lie.

If I’m out strolling down my street late at night, minding my own business, few people looking out their window will notice or care. If an African American man does that, there’s a good chance someone will call 911. We know that to be true.

And let me be clear: I am not the least bit antagonistic toward law enforcement. My son is a former police officer.

But we also know there are serious problems that need to be addressed.

We know that way too often, and for so many years, the color of a person’s skin is a matter of life and death.

This past week in Minneapolis, a black man named George Floyd – who was being arrested for passing a counterfeit $20 bill – was choked to death. I’m sorry, but I just can’t picture that happening to me under the same circumstances.

Things like that – and far too often we see things like that as isolated incidents that don’t concern us, so we move along with our lives. But they do concern us. They’re not isolated. That should be clear as a bell by now. What we’re seeing today in the response to the death of one human being, did not come out of nowhere.

George Floyd’s death is a tragedy on its own. But it is also part of a terrible legacy of injustice. It is systemic, and we are complicit if we say and do nothing.

It concerns you and me, very much, when any of our neighbors are hurting and grieving and angry and afraid, if we claim to care at all about the love of God that’s more powerful and enduring, than a world that can be random and scary and unjust.

If we care at all about redemption and forgiveness and healing. If we care at all about justice, and saying no to hate, and saying yes to God’s love that is up close and personal and where we live.

God is located right here, in you and me and in our neighbors. God is love, so God is wherever love is made real.

The thing is, it’s our job - your’s and mine - to make it real.

God is in the hands and hearts and voices of anyone and everyone who helps, heals, forgives, stands up, and perseveres.

God is in people who are hurting, and in the healers. God is in a word of kindness and forgiveness and unity.

God is in laughter and joy. God is in courage. God is in hope. God is in any act of love.

Want to know what God looks like? Take a picture of someone giving themselves away, serving and loving their neighbor.

Take a picture of someone standing up for someone else when they could have stayed silent, someone holding another’s hand when they could have let go, someone taking the journey with you when they could have stayed home.

Take a picture of that love. You might even need to take a selfie.

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