The Faces of God

We without God cannot, and God without us will not. (St. Augustine)

God, as revealed to us by Jesus Christ, often uses fallible human beings to carry out “His” work in this world. Of course these human vessels in no way limit Who God is. But when they fail in their witness and service to us, we tend to blame God.

We must be partners with God in “His” work. That is clearly how God wills it. God chose to work in Jesus, and now “He” chooses to continue the mission Jesus started in the ongoing efforts of Christians around the globe. There are times when I forget that both sides of St. Augustine’s equation are equally necessary – and there are times when I leave trust in God out of the equation altogether. Then, once again, God manages to show me that where “His” will is, there is always a way.

When I first came through the doors at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Phoenix, I was almost at the end of my rope. I had left my former congregation in disgust because of the struggle over LGBT issues there. I still have many friends at that church, and I know they are still committed to full inclusion and working to change the situation for the better. But the turmoil polluting that religious body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, had penetrated into their congregation. I was in dire needed of fresh air.

But I could no longer really bring myself to believe that anything would change. My spirits have never been lower than they were when I departed from the church I’d really come to think would be my spiritual home for life, the church in which I had buried both of my parents. I joined First Congregational UCC hoping for a new beginning, but I was scarcely able to visualize that. Despite the warmth of my new congregation’s welcome, and the obvious happiness of those who were already members, my heart was dragging on the ground.

Would God surprise me yet again? It wasn’t long before I found out.

Almost right away I noticed a difference, part of which seems due to the fact that the United Church of Christ is in general more welcoming and inclusive to LGBT people. The denomination’s benevolence goes a long way toward making individual congregations relax and, not feeling threatened, able to truly minister to us. But there is also a certain intangible something beyond that. Some churches have it, and, sadly, most don’t. I was glad to find that this congregation has it in abundance.

That certain something is the Spirit of Christ. It benefits those to whom it is given as much as it does those with whom they share it. It enables God to shine forth from them as they radiate “His” love to others. It makes their own, human faces – as was Christ’s – the very faces of God.

Our countenances do not glow the way Moses’ did, when he came down from the mountaintop. We need not veil ourselves to keep from freaking everybody out. God’s face, as it shows forth in those who bear “His” love to others is very warm, very human, totally approachable. And like a breath of pure, fresh air, it radiates God’s love into every nook and cranny of our lives.

Sometimes, God does seem to come to me without human intervention. Though I’ve never yet encountered a burning bush, I’ve come to realize that this does happen. It’s always a surprise. Yet it’s happened often enough that it shouldn’t surprise me.

As I have come to enjoy a richer church life, my prayer life has improved. More and more I have begun to recognize that prayer is really a two-way conversation with God. Every once in a while a thought will come to me – clear, strong and out of the blue – that I know comes from God. I could never prove it scientifically, to those who insist on disbelieving it, yet I know in my heart, as much as I know anything, that it is true. It doesn’t come in any booming, Drano-commercial voice from out of the sky, but I know it doesn’t simply come from me.

Of course God has been there for me in the past, and more times than I seem capable of recalling. Although, again, I could never prove it, with scientific rigor and precision, for those who are skeptical, my prayers have been answered probably dozens of times, in ways too creative and quirky to be dismissed as more coincidences. There have even been incidences when God has worked in my life in ways in which “He” clearly took the initiative. Perhaps there have been more of those than anything else, as I frequently seem to be too dense to know what I ought to pray for.

One of the most memorable of these came a few years before, when I first realized I was an alcoholic. It wasn’t the last time I stopped drinking, but it was the first – and it led to my eventual sustained sobriety. I had been up late on another of my lone, home drunks, collapsing – as always – without the slightest intention of ever stopping drinking, much less of admitting I was an alcoholic. The next morning, September 1st, I got up with something I always boasted I never got: a roaring hangover. Sick as a dog, I dragged myself into work as always, but I knew there was just something different about this time.

On one of my many bathroom breaks that day, as I sat there in that stall feeling sick and sorry for myself, it all of a sudden came to me. I was an alcoholic (duh!), just as my father and several other relatives were, and I could not drink anymore. At all. I can’t begin to describe what a surprise this “sudden” revelation was to me. The “duh!” part of my realization came only as an afterthought.

I prayed for God to help me keep the new, bold, strange resolution “He” had obviously led me to make. And from that time on, for long thereafter, every time I happened to be near booze, a funny, inexplicable, sick feeling would come over me. I’ve been told no drunk remembers the hangovers, but for some reason that last, dramatic one seemed indelibly etched in my gut. Odd as it may seem to call it a gift, I know that that’s exactly what it was.

A couple of years after that, my dad happened to mention the date of his own A.A. “birthday.” He had never told me before just when it had been. Nor would it have done anything for me, had he done so, except – in the contrary frame of mind I had toward him then – to steel me against wanting to mark it, myself, in any way. But when he did tell me, I nearly fell out of my chair. He had first gotten sober one September 1st.

Now I know better than to dismiss God’s little quirks. One day very recently, as I sat in prayer, feeling that perhaps nobody else understood me, one of these very clear thoughts came to me. All of a sudden, I thought, “God understands.” It came to me, again, not in any audible voice, but the thought was all at once there: “My child, I understand.” And I knew that it was true.

I have taken, more and more, to letting these thoughts come to me – to welcoming them in. They usually (although not always) come during prayer-time, they are very clear, and they are consciousness-changing. Sometimes they are as simple as “I love you, I am with you, and I will always be with you.” I don’t need a scientific experiment to prove to me that they are from God, and that these thoughts – like God – are very real.

Every Wednesday night, my church has a Scripture meditation group. It has actually become, over time, more of a therapy group. We are thinking of changing the name of it to the “Let Go and Let God” Group. I have made some of the most wonderful and nurturing friends I’ve ever had in this little group alone.

God continues to walk with me so powerfully in this congregation that it defies belief. My heart doesn’t drag on the ground anymore. When I almost stopped being able to believe, God picked me up and carried me forward.

There is, truly, something special about the church to which God has led me. Not too many years ago, it was a dying, inner-city congregation made up mostly of old folks from its past. Then they decided to call an openly gay pastor, Dr. Stephen Wayles. A few years after that, they elected to become an Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks, as well as members of other groups long spurned in “respectable” Christian circles. Since that time, their membership has nearly quadrupled.

“The Spirit of God is in this place,” a friend of mine said recently after I brought her on a visit. And indeed, if that Spirit is contagious, I seem to have “caught it” much more powerfully since I joined.

Again, with my bitter departure from my previous church, my faith had faltered. Forgetting how many times before God had been with me, working powerfully in my life, I allowed myself, once again, to wallow in self-pity and despair. And once again, God had to remind me that “He” will never leave me.

The dark days are, in many ways, still upon me. Right at the beginning of our current economic implosion, I lost my job. It’s tough to get a job, now, and thus far I have been unsuccessful. But God keeps holding me in “His” arms. “He” simply refuses to let me go, and this time, “He” has given me the added grace of helping me to remember that.

I was led to this church exactly at the right time. I am now surrounded by more love and support than I have known for years. Perhaps ever. Just when I thought I’d nearly lost my family, with the death of both my parents and all relatives living so far away, God has given me a brand new family. I can say with certainty and gratitude that whenever I have needed God the most, God has always – always – been there.

The human face of God is far from perfect. I’ve had to learn patience with those who all too often fail me. I can’t say for certain why God has chosen to use us to bring “His” love to one another; I suppose it might be easier if “He” simply eliminated the middleman and did it all singlehandedly every time. But as Jesus’ command to us makes clear, we are to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength – and we are to love each other as we love ourselves. The two-part nature of that command tells us how true St. Augustine’s maxim really is.

Many people have ministered to me over the years. Sometimes God has even reached me, more or less, directly. I continue to learn, as time goes by, that I must be open to every creative way God chooses to reach me. And in the ongoing adventure that is this life on earth, I don’t want to miss a single one.