Category: God (Page 2 of 2)

advent: the waiting is over

The season of Advent is upon us. For most people it is a flurry of activity to prepare for the Christmas and New Year holidays: a time of decoration, a time of shopping, a time of baking, a time of lights and candles. For some, it is simply the most stressful time of the year. But historically, advent has been a time of inward preparation in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. It recalls the themes of a late-term pregnancy: waiting and suspense, hope and expectation. Advent literally means “arrival.”

During the season of Advent, the church celebrates Christ’s coming into the world and watches with expectant hope for his return. We are reminded that we live in a time between Arrival One and Arrival Two.

In the biblical story, especially in readings from Isaiah, Advent reflects a people waiting for a messiah—an anointed conquering king—who will save them from oppression and despair. Themes of darkness and light, of night and a new dawn, provide metaphors for a dramatic change to come. In Christian theology, Advent reflects the idea that God is coming into our midst, that a divine child is arriving who will restore creation and set things right—to make us better individuals, to heal our broken relationships, to transform our world with justice and peace. Those are the promises of Arrival One.

However, those promises have not been fulfilled. Things have not gotten better—injustice is the norm, wars persist, the poor continue to suffer, the planet is in crisis. The world is still mired in darkness and despair. Arrival One was insufficient. So we are told to wait for Arrival Two—when Jesus will return and finally set things right. Ultimately, we are told to look for the return of a supernatural messiah to save us from the toxic mess we  created. And so we are told to wait. And to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

But I think we have it all backwards. Instead of waiting for God to act to set things right, perhaps God has been waiting all along for us to act. The message of Jesus is that we are the ones who are called to make a better world. If you are looking for a messiah, wait no longer; simply look into the mirror. You and I will have to do it ourselves.

The readings for Arrival Two tell us that Christ will come again, and we are to prepare for the momentous day. But the return of Jesus is not found in the future. Instead, his return is found daily in those who follow him and embody his message and mission. Christian theology, beginning with the Apostle Paul, reminds us that we are the body of Christ. Jesus has returned in us and through us and among us. We are the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus. If the spirit of Jesus is to be manifested in the world today, we are the divine actors who will play the role. The truth is that Christ is always coming—through us.

The message of the Arrival Two lessons is one of preparedness. Prepare for the task ahead, and do so quickly. For soon the seasons of Advent and Christmas will be over and as Howard Thurman wrote, then “the work of Christmas begins.”

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

God is waiting. We have much work to do. What are we waiting for?

a creed of love

I believe in the hidden God of love:
the spirit of love and compassion
found at the breadth and depth
of every human life.

I believe in the vision of Jesus:
the reigning of God on earth,
found where people and societies
are governed by the rule of love.

I believe in the way of Jesus:
a love for God and neighbor,
a love for stranger and enemy,
a love for outcast and alien.

I believe in the abundant life of Jesus:
a life of acceptance, inclusion, and forgiveness,
a life of equality, generosity, and sharing,
a life of compassion, service, and nonviolence.

I believe that Jesus modeled the godly life:
healing the sick and serving the poor,
seeking dignity and equality for all people,
and calling for shared wealth and economic justice.

For this he was condemned and crucified
by those who serve the forces of domination
in every time and place.

I believe that though he died,
the spirit of Jesus lives on
among those who strive for peace and justice,
and who work to create a better world.

In the name of Jesus,
and in the name of love,
I commit myself to care for others,
to break down the barriers that separate us,
and to seek justice and peace in the world.

Amen.

 

 

© 2014 Kurt Struckmeyer

Elohim and Yahweh: the Gods of the Hebrew Bible

the gods of the Hebrew Bible

The God revealed in the Hebrew bible is an integration of several different cultural traditions in the ancient Middle East. As the tribes of Israel established themselves as a distinct culture among the peoples of Canaan, differing images of God were eventually integrated into the oral and written traditions that shaped the Old Testament.

The Hebrew texts often refer to God by the Canaanite term Elohim (el-o-HEEM). It is based on the ancient Semitic root ‘el’ (ale) meaning ‘strong one.’ This word was often used as a generic term for a god since the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia. It was also the proper name of the Canaanite high god El, the father of humanity and all creatures. He was the father of all the other gods (elohim) in the Canaanite pantheon and was the husband of Asherah, the mother goddess. In our English Bibles, both El and Elohim are translated as ‘God.’ (It is interesting to note that Jesus would have used the related Aramaic term alaha (ahl-ah-HAH) to speak of God. The Arabic Allah derives from the same Semitic root.)

As the cultures mixed in the land of Canaan, the Hebrew people overlaid the Sinai tradition of a tribal god named Yahweh onto the established tradition of El, forming a creative combination of a deity who was not only a god of deliverance from slavery but was also the creator of the universe. As the stories of the two cultures merged, the different terms for God became somewhat interchangeable and are found throughout the Hebrew Bible.

In Hebrew, the name Yahweh is spelled with consonants alone (reading from right to left) as יהוה (yod-hey-vav-hey). In English, it is rendered (from left to right) as YHWH. Because the name has only consonants in Hebrew and no vowels, the exact pronunciation is unsure. Today, it is commonly pronounced as Yahweh (YAH-way), although in prior centuries Jehovah was the more common usage because German scholars transliterated the Hebrew as JHVH. (In German, J sounds like Y and V sounds like W.) The origin and meaning of the name is disputed, but it may be associated with the Hebrew verb hayah, “to be.” Some scholars believe it is a shortened form of a word that means “he causes to be” or “he creates.”

During the Enlightenment, German scholars began to detect these two distinct traditions by separating the El/Elohim texts from the Yahweh texts in the Hebrew Bible. They referenced these traditions in shorthand as “E” (for Elohist) and “J” (for Jahwist or Yahwist). In these texts, the word El is used for God about 238 times while Elohim is used about 2,600 times. The personal name Yahweh is used far more extensively, about 6,800 times. A later writer, concerned with priestly duties and laws, was labeled “P.” He favored the term Elohim.

Most of us would not know any of this because in many English translations, the name Yahweh is eliminated and is often replaced with the term ‘the LORD’ and at other times simply with ‘God.’ This began when the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek about three centuries before Jesus. This translation, called the Septuagint (SEP-too-a-jint) was created by and for Hellenistic Jews who lived throughout the Greco-Roman world. In order to avoid taking God’s name in vain, the Greek word kyrios (KOO-ree-ohs), meaning ‘lord,’ was substituted for יהוה (yod-hey-vav-hey). Unfortunately, this practice has continued to this day in most English translations. It would seem that modern translators are a bit embarrassed by the fact that the God of the universe was once the local god of a few tribes who roamed the deserts south of modern Israel herding sheep and goats.

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praying to love

“I am God, says Love, for Love is God and God is Love.”
– Marguerite de Porete (1249–1310)

The way we pray is determined by our image of God. The most popular image in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that of a supernatural theistic God who dwells somewhere “up there” or “out there” and reigns with unlimited majesty and power. This is the image of a transcendent God—separate from and greater than all of creation, including humanity. The blended God(s) of the Canaanite and Hebrew traditions—Elohim and Yahweh—whom we encounter in the Hebrew Bible, were conceived of in anthropomorphic terms, nearly always with male gender. Ezekiel and Daniel viewed God as a human-like being seated on a heavenly throne (or a flying war chariot) surrounded by a royal court of lesser divine beings. I was taught in catechism classes that the biblical God is omnipresent (present everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful). Because of these characteristics, our prayers are directed to a God who is nearby, accessible, and listening, who already knows what is in our hearts and minds even before we speak, and can answer our prayers by powerful supernatural means when necessary.

For many Christians, a supernatural theistic God is a daily reality in their lives, but for many others, this kind of God is simply not there. They long to feel God’s presence and God’s love, but instead they experience emptiness and isolation. They worship God in church, but find that God is not present in the sanctuary. They pray fervently to God in private moments, but realize that their prayers often go unanswered. In the end, there is only silence. The biblical character of Job cried out to God in despair, “I cry to you God, but you do not answer. I stand before you, and you don’t even bother to look.” (Job 30:20)

Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) describes this emptiness in her book Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith, in which she relates her experiences at a small Episcopal church in rural Georgia.

On my worst nights I lay in bed feeling like a single parent, unable to sleep because I knew I did not have enough love in me to go around. God was the boundless lover, but for many people God was the parent who had left. They still read about him in the Bible and sang about him in hymns. They still believed in his reality, which made it even harder to accept his apparent lack of interest in them. They waited for messages from him that did not arrive. They prepared their hearts for meetings that never happened. They listened to other Christians speak as if God showed up every night for supper, leaving them to wonder what they had done wrong to make God go off and start another family.

Mother Teresa (1910–1997), who ministered to the needs of the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in India for over 50 years, felt a similar absence and silence in her life. It began soon after she set up her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in the late 1940s and continued until her death in 1997. She interpreted it as a loss of faith.

If there be a God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

The image of a transcendent all-powerful, interventionist God is still the most prevalent one in America today. But for some people, it has ceased to be a reasonable working hypothesis. Continue reading

fear not

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!” (Lamentations 3:57)

Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)

My six-year-old grandson was recently given an assignment by his first grade teacher to write a list of things he was worried about. They had just read a book called Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes about a little mouse who worried about everything—things both great and small. Wyatt’s list was heartbreaking: “Tornadoes come. I die. My baby sister gets hurt. Mom dies.” For me, it was a great insight into the mind of a small child. Many of us think that young children are worry free. Quite the contrary, they are consumed by existential fears.

I remember as a child going into the dark and dank basement of my house, an aging two-story two-family flat. A light switch on the second floor dimly lit the winding stairs to the basement, but at the bottom, the basement itself was engulfed in darkness and held hidden terror. Several feet from the foot of the stairs was a single light bulb with a string attached to a chain pull. One had to step out into the fearful gloom and reach out in the murky darkness to find the string and turn on the light. Until the light came on, the experience was gut-wrenchingly frightening. Even then, with the sole bulb lit, evil seemed to lurk in the surrounding shadows. I remember a sense of dread and panic overtake me each time I had to descend alone into the darkness.

But children are not the only ones with fears of terror and misfortune. Adults worry too—about things great and small. Currently—at least if you listen to the 24/7 cable news channels—Americans are consumed with fear about the Ebola virus in Africa and Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq, dangers that are far away and unlikely to affect us here. Strangely, they seem to ignore the much more significant threat of gun violence by their armed neighbors at home. Mostly, however, they worry about the practical things of life—jobs, financial security, college costs, medical coverage, retirement, illness, and death. We are all plagued by anxiety about what the future holds. But the Bible says repeatedly, “fear not!”

The expression ‘fear not,’ or ‘have no fear’ or ‘do not be afraid’ is found approximately 115 times in the Bible, spoken again and again in the Hebrew Bible by Yahweh and the prophets, and in the gospels by Jesus and angelic messengers. It is also found in the Hebrew Psalms and in the letters of various authors in the New Testament. Altogether, it is one of the most commonly found phrases in the Bible. In the larger sense, the biblical message seems to be that although things may appear bleak right now and that evil seems to be winning, there is hope that God will act to transform the future.

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acceptable worship

In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Saint Paul suggested that an ethical life of compassion, service, peace, and justice is the single form of worship that God desires. According to Paul, it is the only form of worship that God deems good, acceptable and perfect.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Here is how Eugene Patterson paraphrases these two verses:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

In an unpublished essay, Dr. Lesly Massey, a Disciple of Christ pastor in Dallas, Texas, quoted Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), an eminent Lutheran theologian who was a part of the Confessing Church in Germany during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Käsemann, who after World War II spurred a renewed quest to understand the historical Jesus, saw in Romans 12:1 an unequivocal summary of Paul’s view of worship as a follower of Christ.

Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere, as something constantly demanded. This takes place in daily life, whereby every Christian is simultaneously sacrifice and priest.

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