Readings: Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22
I used to think my dad was God. He was a Southern Baptist preacher and each Sunday I’d see him ascend onto the stage and take his place behind the pulpit. There he was – placed high above those of us who sat on the pews below. His mere presence would cause the sanctuary to fall silent. Then he spoke – and people laughed. My father, you see, missed his calling as a stand up comedian. His sermons always began with jokes. He would eventually tie the jokes in with the sermon topics, but they were always funny.
I grew up thinking that God must be very funny, because my dad – my image of God – was very funny. He was a cut-up, always ready with a witty remark and playful spirit. My father died when I was 17. At the visitation the night before his funeral, I remember waiting for dad to spring up from the coffin and surprise us all. It may sound morbid but it’s something my dad would do – engineer an elaborate prank to fool us all. I expected it up until the moment they lowered him into the ground. “Perhaps he’s gone to sleep,” I thought in a panic, and had lost his chance to pull the perfect prank.
But, I also grew up believing that God was angry and vengeful. You see, along with a sharp, and often morbid sense of humor, my dad also had a horrible temper. Little transgressions, like scraping your plate with a fork, would set him off. I learned early as a child to keep my head down and hope mom got to dole out the punishment and not dad.
Finally, I learned that God is a liar and not very reliable, because my father – my image of God – divorced my mother when I was 9-years-old. I remember hearing sermons from my father about the evils of divorce and how it destroyed families. God hated divorce, according to my dad. Imagine my shock then when I learned my parents were divorcing because my father had met another woman. My image of God was shattered – almost beyond repair. I still own my childhood Bible and every single passage on divorce is underlined. I don’t remember doing it – but obviously my parents’ split affected me deeply. I hated my father. I hated God and I especially hated preachers.
But, if anything, I was right about God having a wicked sense of humor – for here I am today, a pastor – becoming the very thing I loathed, but of course, always felt called to do, despite my father.
I imagine we all have different images of God, either planted there by our parents or our churches. Often those images of God remain the same from childhood into adulthood – unchallenged by whatever goes on around us. I imagine that’s why so many in our community leave the church – that image of the vengeful God that hates who we are never changes because we’re so sure of that image of God we were given as children.
A parent was perplexed that her child opened his bedtime prayers every night by saying, “Dear Howard.” Finally, the mother could stand it no more. “Sweetheart, why do you open your prayers with ‘Dear Howard’?” she finally asked.
“Because,” the boy answered, “that’s God’s name.”
“It is?” the mother was really perplexed now.
“Yes,” the boy replied. “You know, ‘our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name!'”
Then there’s the story of the kindergarten teacher who watched her classroom of children while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s work. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was.
The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”
Without missing a beat or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
So often, we’re like these children, sure that we know God’s name and what God looks like. I thought God’s name was Jack and he looked just like my dad. From all the conclusions I drew about God from associating my father with God, we can see just how dangerous it is when we think we’ve got our image of God and cling to it as the only image of God.
I’m willing to bet that my father would like today’s reading from Exodus 33 because it shows an unpredictable and playful God – a God that can’t be named or pictured. In this passage, Moses is frustrated and his prayer to God is bold and challenging. He and the Israelites have been wandering in the desert for some time – the people have already fashioned a golden calf to worship while Moses was on the mountain receiving the 10 commandments. God tells Moses he’s found favor in his sight, and Moses, a bit distraught, begs God for guidance. “If you love me so much, guide me,” he says to God. How many times have we each said that to God – “I hear about your great love for me, that you know my name – now, where are you? Guide me! Show me your glory!” God promises to guide Moses and to show him his glory – but then what does God do? Since no one can see God face to face and live, God shields Moses’ view as he passes. What does Moses see? He gets a full view of God’s rear end. The Hebrew word used here, achowr, literally means “the back side, the rear.” When asked to reveal God’s glory, God moons Moses!
As Shelley Douglass writes in Sojourner’s Magazine:
What kind of wild, glorious, funny God would think of sidling by with only (his) hindquarters exposed, so that Moses could see (his) glory and not die?
How could we possibly hope to understand such a being, to capture God’s image, to confine God in rules? What could we possibly do except to laugh, to rejoice, to adore this totally foreign and amazingly intimate lover of humankind?
Our world is constantly obsessed with images. Entertainment magazines are filled with glossy photos of the latest stars. As a teen, I’m sure you were all like me, with posters of stars we loved plastered on our bedroom walls. We love the images – we want to look like the stars – witness all those horrible Jennifer Anniston haircuts! I know I wanted to look like the huge poster of Kristy McNichol I had in my room. I wanted to be a rock star like the Who. I wanted to woo all the girls like Bruce Springsteen. It was all about the image.
We’re so hungry for images that some people even make their living by chasing famous people around, taking their pictures and selling their images. We’re so image obsessed that we’ll go to doctors and alter our own images to emulate those we admire – a nose job, a chin job, a … chest job. Anything we can do to improve how we look to others. It’s too bad that the Bible doesn’t tell us details of God’s backside. We’ll never know if the almighty has buns of steel – or perhaps has cheek implants.
Governments, too, are obsessed with images. We put famous faces on our coins and our paper money. Even in Jesus’ time, money bore the image of leaders. Image is everything if you’re going to maintain power over the people. Governments of all political stripes will spin the facts, shade the truth and try to portray themselves in the best possible light. No one wants their image tarnished. No one wants to expose their back sides to anyone – that would be shameful.
We don’t have to look around long though to see there are a lot of images of God out there as well. As Thomas Merton wrote: “So much depends on our idea of God! Yet no idea of Him, however pure and perfect, is adequate to express Him as he really is. Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pg. 15)
As we look around at the images of God in the world, isn’t that the truth? Our ideas of God seem to reflect not God, but ourselves. Some people see God as a being that sends hurricanes to punish people. Some people see God as a hit man – ready to off those that we find offensive to our morality. Some people see God as a vending machine – prayer goes in, things we want come out. Some people see God as forgiving, loving and caring for every one, no matter what offense may have been committed. We see it all the time! We do it all the time! Vengeful people worship a vengeful God. Patriotic people worship a patriotic God. People who hate gays and lesbians worship a God who hates gays and lesbians. People who love peace worship a peaceful God. Loving people worship a loving God. Happy people worship a happy God. Angry people worship an angry God.
The Bible presents us with many and varied images of God: a rock, salvation, a fortress, a still small voice, strength, a shield, a refuge, a stronghold, a mother hen, steadfast love, a righteous judge, a shepherd and a lover of justice, a divine back side, just to name a few. All of them are images of God that reflect the people who experienced God over time.
Images of God are as numerous as people, but none of them will ever entirely capture God. Are we wrong to think that God is loving, peaceful, vengeful, angry or hateful toward certain groups? Not at all. It’s when we cling to one or two images and value those images above all else that we make our error. When we make our image of God an idol to be worshiped and defended against those who disagree, then we no longer worship God, but an image of God. We see through a mirror darkly on this side of eternity. One day we shall see face to face, but for today all we have are our thoughts, our images of God, and none of them, no matter how detailed, will capture the whole essence of God.
God is all of the things we’ve described – and God is none of them. That’s the paradox that Moses encountered and we still encounter today as we’re faced with a mysterious, wonderful and playful God. Behold the butt of God! God is not concerned about images. God’s power does not lie in images. God is not vain. We don’t worship God’s image. God isn’t concerned with images – if God were why would God have created the platypus? Such a funny looking animal proves to me that image isn’t high on God’s agenda. 1 Samuel 16:7 tells us that God doesn’t regard our outside image. Instead, God looks on our hearts, which is good news for the platypus, but certainly excellent news for us.
My image of God has changed a lot just over the past couple of years. Since childhood I’ve seen God as this super human being – like us but bigger, stronger and smarter than we are. I credit my mother with planting this view of God in my head. I remember years ago when I was a poor journalist, just starting out in my career and struggling to make ends meet. It would seem that just when I’d get a little bit ahead financially, something would go wrong – the car would break down, I’d need some new house gadget, something would break and I’d need extra cash. I always had it and my mother would say, “Well, God knew you’d need the extra money so God provided.” I suppose so, but it got to the point where I would dread getting extra money. I knew something would break! It became a self-fulfilling prophecy after awhile – more money meant something was going to come and take it from me. How do you get ahead with a God like that? If God is almighty, why didn’t he just prevent my car from breaking down? If God can create humans from dust, God can certainly keep a ’72 Cutlass running in top condition, right?
I’m thankful to say I no longer see God in this kind of light. My images have changed, and for the better, I think. That doesn’t mean the stripping away of the old images of God was not a painful process. It was. I struggled for a long time with how to relate in new ways to a God that is unknowable. In the midst of my struggles, I believe I caught a glimpse of God’s backside – and not in a good way. It almost seemed that God was taunting me – mooning me as if to say, “Nyah, Nyah! I’m a mystery and you’ll never understand me, so quit trying!” It certainly wasn’t the glory revealing backside of God that Moses got to see.
What are your images of God? How do you view our Creator and Sustainer? How’s that image working for you? Have you picked one image of God and made that one the only one that matters to you? I invite you to examine your images of God today – look at them closely, think about where they came from. Were they given to you by your parents, your childhood pastor, your Sunday school teacher? Or, did these images come to you through a great struggle with your faith? Did you arrive at how you think about God through some external influence or was it through direct experience with God in your life?
Often our images of God are like our images of people. Those who hate GLBT people have an image of us – from the media, from church, from organizations like Focus on the Family – but what happens when those images are challenged?
My partner Wanda and I volunteered to man the South Carolina Equality Coalition booth at the South Carolina state fair recently to tell people about the state constitutional amendment on the 2006 ballot to ban same-gender marriage. It was an eye-opening experience, not just for us but for those who got their image of GLBT people changed. Wanda met a man who said he grew up hating gay people. If a gay person was in a room, he would leave the room! But, he met a gay male couple a few years ago and now counts them among his beloved friends. His image of gays changed. Why? Because his experience of gay people changed the image of gay people he had been given as a child. This experience means that even though he still believes homosexuality is wrong based on his view of the Bible, he’ll be voting against the discrimination amendment come November 2006. This is how it is with God – our experiences of God can change our long-held images of God.
I’m not saying that any images of God that you hold are wrong – I simply challenge you to examine those images and discard the ones that no longer bring you into a closer relationship with God. Abandon the images that separate you from God. Imagine if my images of God had never been challenged. I would still be an angry atheist, certain that God is a fraud. How many people in our community are stuck in that place because they think it’s wrong to challenge that angry, condemning image of God they’ve been given by those who hate our community? Changing our minds about God and how God works in the world is a sign of growth, not a sign of a loss of faith. Never be afraid to challenge how you think about God, because by showing us his butt, God constantly challenges us to think differently about how God works in the world! That can be a painful process, but if your image of God is separating you from God or causing you sadness or pain, it’s time to shed that image.
This is a challenge to the church too – every church. Instead of becoming stuck teaching and preaching about one or two images of God, churches need to behold the butt of God more often and be challenged to grow in their thinking about God. This presents a challenge to us as our church moves forward in the new year. What image of God will we project to the community? How can we challenge those unhelpful images of God that have held our community back from a relationship with God? How will we, as a church, behold the butt of God and continue to grow in our faith and our knowledge of God’s presence in our lives and in our community?
As we face that challenge though, we must be ever vigilant and remember that no image, no idea, no sermon, no Sunday School lesson, no book, not even the Bible, will completely capture God’s essence and we must be careful not to allow any of our images of God to become idols to us and take the true place of that ever confounding God that we love and worship.
So, who is God to me now? If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned this: I can never say more about God than “God is” because anything I put after that will become an idol – even if I say, “God is love” or “God is peace.” Now, I simply prefer to say, “God is” and that’s enough for me. I can’t cling to words about God anymore, instead I cling to my experience of God – and that experience has been one of love, comfort, peace, joy and security, even in the face of trying times.
God is not some external big parent in the sky, ready to swoop down and rescue us from trouble. Instead, God is inside – that still, small voice, that intuition and depth within each of us that speaks words of love and comfort – even as troubles swirl around us. We have learned that the God of many names resides within each of us, urging us to use our talents and our gifts to reconcile the world to God – to live authentic lives of integrity, grace and joy and spread those qualities to every single person we meet and bring those qualities to every single situation we find ourselves in.
14 century mystic and Catholic theologian Meister Eckhart asked us so long ago:
“How long will grown men and women in this world keep drawing in their coloring books an image of God that makes them sad? It is a lie – any talk of God that does not comfort you.”
Brothers and sisters, the butt of God is there as a comfort to us, but it is also there to disrupt our tendency to get stuck on one image of God. God’s backside reminds us that the God we worship is mysterious and wondrous – a God that cannot be named or drawn. But, part of that paradox of grace is to understand that even in mystery, God is our source of comfort, of mercy and love. No images will suffice, but let us dedicate ourselves this day to never draw images of God in our coloring books that make us sad – but instead to dwell on thoughts and images of God that comfort us and bring us joy. I pray that we all may see God’s glory and, like Moses, behold the butt of God.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.