Naming God — Risky Business

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) and one of the great Church Fathers, was walking along the seashore one day, puzzling over the concept of the Blessed Trinity. Deep in thought he saw a little boy going back and forth to the sea with a small bucket, pouring sea-water into the hole he had dug on the beach. St. Augustine asked the boy what he was doing: “Putting the sea into my hole,” he replied.  The intelligent saint laughed, “You can’t do that; it won’t fit,” he said. No sooner had he spoken or an angel whispered, “Neither can you put the mystery of the Trinity into your mind; it won’t fit.” Thus one of the greatest minds in Christian history was enlightened by a small boy. Like the sea which does not fit into any human-made hole, God as Father-Son-Spirit surpasses all understanding and does not fit into any human-designed categories of reasoning.

All who, throughout the history of Christianity, have attempted to name all of God, have come up short in much the same way. Yet it is a human propensity to name things, encoded right into our very beginnings when God invited Adam to name everything (Genesis 2:20). Naming our surroundings,  experiences and relationships both liberates and grounds our existence. Ever since humanity’s spiritual awakening, we have been consumed with attempting to name the Mystery which gives us life and towards which our spirits are forever oriented.

It is risky business for the finite – which we humans are – to capture the Infinite in words, lest we believe that we are capable of a total grasp. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD) was acutely aware of this danger. He rendered a great service by articulating three guidelines, ground rules for the journey, when engaging the task of naming God.

The first and most basic rule is that the reality of God is and will always be a mystery beyond all comprehension, even despite the revelation of Jesus Christ as God’s Son. The infinitely creating, redeeming and sustaining God is so far beyond the created order as well as so deeply embedded in the very fabric of creation that every naming is by definition inadequate and incomprehensible. Every name for God, therefore, will fall short.

The second ground rule flows from the first one, i.e. that no name for God can be taken literally. While Jesus called God Abba/Daddy, we ourselves do not come close to fully understanding that name in the same way as Jesus himself did. At best our language for God is like a finger pointing to the moon, not to be confused with the moon itself. The closest we get to grasping the divine mystery is by way of inference – because we experience goodness in our lives, we can know something about God’s goodness. And because we can know Jesus we can know God more intimately. But to equate our limited knowing with the totality of God is a grave error, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. To claim that we are capable of fully comprehending the Mystery animating creation and our own very being must be the greatest arrogance. Fostering a good dose of humility will go a long ways in leaving empty space in our minds and hearts for ever greater insight.

And so St. Thomas’ third and final rule is no surprise: because of ground rules one and two, it is imperative to give God many names. Both the Old and the New Testaments offer a virtual kaleidoscope of names for God drawn from nature, human relationships and occupations: father and mother, liberator and consoler, vinedresser and midwife, rock and fire, cloud and gentle breeze, shepherd and potter, king and friend, son and judge, baker-woman and physician.

Trinity2As the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday soon, it behooves us to reflect on how we employ names for God. Each person in the Blessed Trinity reveals qualities found in both women and men.  Or better, as women and men created in God’s image and likeness, each reveals divine qualities. God is the strong and loving, reliable and caring Father as well as the compassionate, faithful and merciful Mother, in whose womb we are formed, and who always looks out for the weak and suffering.  In fact, in September 1999 Pope John Paul II himself affirmed this dual reflection in the divine when speaking of the parable of the Prodigal son (Luke 15):  “The father who embraces his lost son is the definitive icon of God…. The merciful father of the parable has in himself …. all of the characteristics of fatherhood and motherhood. In embracing the son he shows the profile of a mother.” Thus God is all of that and none of that, both incorporating and transcending all human qualities.

Jesus, born in a male body, nevertheless revealed a strong feminine spirit, and is even referred to as the Wisdom of God – a designation considered female in Scripture. In the beginning, John’s Gospel tells us, Wisdom/Spirit was with Logos, the Word. Wisdom and Logos encompass both masculine and feminine attributes of God. To the question in Job (38:29) “From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” we answer Holy Wisdom, Mother of the universe. Henceforth, every living creature is knit together in, and comes forth from, a woman’s womb – divine image, likeness and activity. We have only to think of Julian of Norwich’s famous words: “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.”

In his book on the Trinity, First Comes Love, Scott Hahn points out that the HolyTrinity4 Spirit/Wisdom has a “motherly role as comforter and consoler. What a mother does in the natural order, the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the supernatural order. What earthly mothers do finitely and inchoately, the Spirit accomplishes infinitely and perfectly.” (p. 130) Hahn searched the Scriptures’ own definition on the Holy Spirit, a feminine noun in both Hebrew and Greek, and concludes: “As our mothers gave us birth, so the Spirit gives us rebirth. As a mother feeds her children, so the Spirit feeds the children of God with spiritual milk. As a mother groans in labour, so the Spirit groans to give us life.” (p. 131) Curiously, some Protestant sisters and brothers have remarked that Catholics seem to attribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary the very characteristics which Scripture attributes to the Holy Spirit.

Today’s church seems intent on constricting language about God, in particular inclusive and feminine language. In light of the evidence from Scripture and the three ground rules formulated by Thomas Aquinas, this ought to raise some warning flags. What happens to the spiritual health of God’s people when male designations for God dominate both theology and liturgy? Does Jesus’ reference to God as Abba/Father mean that other names for God are somehow inferior or unacceptable? If this were so, then why would St. Thomas bother to develop ground rules?  Or, have we become guilty of the very things St. Thomas cautioned about? Do not both women and men suffer spiritually by limiting God’s name, a name which will always exceed our grasp?

Trinity3God made us all into the divine image and likeness; unfortunately we have returned the favour ever since. Women and men are equal yet different. The “equal yet different” is in fact the strongest argument for encouraging a wide range of names for God, especially God as both Father and Mother. Mixing male and female pronouns and metaphors for God may well be the best choice, even if this will feel jarring, and indeed it should. Only a jarring mix of names can provide a prudent protection from our own worst tendencies to put God in boxes of our own making. Maybe then our ecclesial and sacred conversations, as well as our liturgical practices, will approximate God’s nature more adequately. And I venture to imagine that Saints Augustine and Thomas would be most pleased.

This blog post is also published in the Liturgy & Life Column of the Prairie Messenger, May  20, 2015

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Seeds, seeds and more seeds!

It’s time I write about the “seedy” characters and aspects in my life. I had a good laugh when I looked up the meaning of the term “seedy” in the dictionary:
* abounding in seed;  * containing many seeds;  * gone to seed, bearing seeds;  * poorly kept; run-down, shabby;  * shabbily dressed; unkempt: a seedy old tramp,  * physically run-down, under the weather; * somewhat disreputable, degraded: a seedy hotel.

So, just to put you all at ease, my use of the term only refer to the first THREE definitions, although some folks would characterize my husband`s grey ponytail, recycled clothes and coveralls as belonging in the fourth category some days. You see, my husband Jim is THE seed man par excellence, having grown organic garden seeds on a small commercial scale for nearly 30 years (see Prairie Garden Seeds). And now, our daughter Rachelle has not only joined him in this venture; she`s in the process of taking over her father`s life work. Needless to say, this is a source of immense joy and pride to us.

While Jim and Rachelle happily work in the garden and play with seeds, I preach about the same stuff they work with. We have a ball cap with the caption `Gone to Seed.`I wore it one summer Sunday when preaching in a Lutheran Church on Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23. I wore the cap because I think I`ve earned it. I`ve spent the last 35 years living with a seed grower (and now I`m the mother of a seed grower too :)). And even though I always say, I`m only married to the gardener, I`m NOT the gardener (except at harvest time), I cannot help but having learnt a few things about seeds. That is why I`m wearing the cap.

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells the parable of the sower going out to seed, focusing on the conditions in which the seeds germinate (or not) and grow (or not). I too have learnt about that by sharing my life with Jim. I have learnt that an awful lot depends on those external conditions. In much the same way, we sow love and trust and forgiveness in our families and surroundings, but if the conditions of the heart are not healthy, those seeds will have difficulty growing into full bloom.

But living with Jim the Seed Man has also taught me that there are conditions in the seeds as well that matter. When I first moved to the land, I though you just sow seeds in the ground and they will grow. All you need is rain and sunshine at the right times. But Jim knew more than I did: some seeds get started as bedding plants indoors before they are planted outside. Some seeds get seeded in a flat with dirt all right, but then, to my great surprise, end up in a plastic bag in my fridge. He leaves those seeds in wet soil wrapped in plastic in the fridge for several months; it`s called cold stratification.

Then there are other tidbits of trivia about seeds. Some seeds take more than one season to sprout. Jim looked at some flats he seeded this spring, only to discover that what was coming up looked like what he had planted in that same soil the year before! Some seeds will take the first few seasons growing deep root systems before they show any sign of life above ground. This happens frequently with wildflowers, for example. Most seeds keep their germinating power best by storing them in the freezer. Some seeds are only good for one year, like parsnip seed. Other seeds, such as tomatoes, will still germinate well even at 10 years old. We also know that seeds from certain trees will only germinate after a forest fire, or after passing through the digestive tract of an animal.

And so all this trivia about seeds applies to Jesus`speech about seeds as well. The human heart, without exception, is full with thorns and thistles, with rocks and infertile soil, with desert drought and with `birds of prey.`From time to time our lives need some good plowing or roto-tilling. Each one of us requires certain kinds of seeds and certain conditions in which divine seeds of faith, hope and love can sprout and will thrive.

For good prairie farmers like us there’s plenty in Jesus’ parable that sounds familiar. We know all about a sower going out to seed, and then be at the mercy of the elements of nature, the soil conditions, the weeds and the thorns. Some years it’s a miracle there is even a crop worth harvesting. That’s simply the way it has always worked, back in Jesus’ time and still today.

Life happens in much the same way, with a lot of our efforts often wasted, exposed as they are to the elements of disaster and crisis, violence and abuse, abandonment and betrayal. We try hard to live our faith, to reach out in love, only to pull back a bleeding stump because someone’s anger, bitterness or revenge bit us. We know what it`s like to try and try to care and to make a difference yet not get anywhere, not even a word of appreciation or thanks.

So why bother? Why bother broadcasting our love and care wide on all kinds of soil that does not nurture its flourishing? Is it all still worthwhile in this 21st century to be faithful to Christ in this world of death, amidst the thorns and thistles of ISIS, of exploitation and injustice? Should we still go around proclaiming Good News when so much seems to fall on deaf ears?

If the main message were about human results, or about the soils, the health of human hearts, the type of seeds and what they require to sprout and grow and bloom, or about the difficulties of planting and the dangers involved, and all that seed wasted, then … it may indeed not be worth it. If the parable Jesus tells is only about what is humanly possible, then it doesn’t have much new or interesting to say to us.

But there is one piece in Jesus’ story that is really shocking. It was shocking to the first hearers and it’s still shocking today. That shocking piece was the yield, the harvest. In a good year seven or eight fold was hoped for. Ten fold was phenomenal, and anything above that was simply unheard of. And Jesus said: yielding thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundredfold. To promise this sort of result was more than optimistic — it was to live in whole different order of creation; it was to operate from a entirely different vision.

My two favourite “seedy characters”…

To sow that that sort of hope and vision was a totally new thing. To sow in this way is to sow God’s own field, God’s reign, to live “in the Spirit” as St. Paul calls it. When you live and love “in the Spirit” we don’t care about the rocks and the birds of prey or the thin soil of whatever else gets in the way. The one who sows — God himself along with those called into the holy sowing — does not need to worry. We are simply called to scatter broadly and liberally our generous acts of love and service and forgiveness and trust. The rest will be taken care of. Not because of our efforts but because of God’s power.

This hope and confidence is the real gift of this parable. We love and serve in broadcast fashion, knowing full well much won’t amount to much. Bad things happen all the time and everywhere, even to good and well-meaning people. Nevertheless, we trust through Jesus in the remarkable abundance of the harvest. Much will be wasted, at least as we see it. Maybe even our favourite seed, our best, our most self-sacrificing good deed, our greatest insight, will end up on rocky ground, or inside some fat bird. But that’s not ours to control; it’s not ours to fix nor is it ours to worry about.

God has placed all of us in fields with divine seed to sow. In the assurance of God’s unbelievable harvest we can lighten our step and even extend our reach. Wave at the birds this summer and smile at the weeds. Know that God’s Word delivers its promise. Think about this news story from several years back:

It has five leaves, stands 14″ high and is nicknamed Methusalah. It looks like an ordinary date palm seedling, but it is a miraculous piece of history brought back to life. Planted about six months ago, the seedling is growing in a big black pot on a kibbutz in Israel’s Arava desert. The seed is 2,000 old — more than twice as old as the 900-year biblical figure Methusalah who lent his name to the young tree. It is the oldest seed ever know to produce a viable young tree. The seed that produced Methusalah was discovered during archeaological excavations at King Herod’s palace on Mount Masada, near the Dead Sea. Its age has been confirmed by carbon dating. Scientists hope that the unique seedling will eventually yield vital clues to the medicinal properties of this Judean date tree, a date tree which was long thought to be extinct.

By the grace of God every seed sprouts eventually. By the grace of God, the harvest will be great beyond measure, great beyond belief, great beyond imagining. What God makes of our efforts is more that we can ask or imagine. The seeds of love and mercy we plant in God’s name will sprout and grow into GoneToSeedGod’s reign. And that seed, that word, God promises, will not return to God empty — but it shall accomplish that which God intends it for; and it will prosper in the thing for which it is sent, no matter how long it takes.

Gone to seed …

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