I return today to these words from the book of Exodus, which I reflected on before:
13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,] the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
I said in my last entry on Exodus that I wanted to say some words about that this name “I am who I am”, “I am”, or the Hebrew name Yhvh or Yahweh which gets translated “the Lord”, and what it speaks to me in this time of transition in which I and all of us find ourselves.
In the ancient world, of course, each culture acknowledged gods aplenty. Every force that guided our lives – reproduction, love, family togetherness, wind, rain, and storm, disease, warfare, death — were imagined as personal beings, with which we were in a relationship. They were the gods that we must work together with or get to work together with us for our lives to work.
Stepping back from our modern mindset, this makes a certain amount of sense. The forces that guide our lives, for good or bad, do take on a life of their own. Our relationships – with our children, our partners, our family – become a thing to themselves, like another person in our lives. We tend to speak of nature as having a mind. Evolution selects traits to send onto the next generation to make them more adapted. We talk about the unspoken processes that shape our personalities from childhood as if they are a thing outside of ourselves. There is a sense in which we still buy into some of this logic.
Just like the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews, we can feel like people blow about by unseen forces, tossed to and fro by life. We can think “if only” we had been born in a different family, “if only” disease or genetics had not struck us in this way or that, things would be differently. We can bemoan the unseen forces of prejudice, oppression, history, feeling powerless against them.
This is especially true as we face into times of transition or loss.
I know as I reflect on my experience of loss related to my late wife’s death, and even to seeing some beautiful things fall apart in upsurges of grief that followed, I sure at times can feel like disease, death, and loss are powers that wreaked havoc upon me, before which I had no power. Looking at the recent political moves in our country, which reflect movements toward nationalism and exclusivism in the wider world, I can also feel bereft. As if powers beyond my ability to understand have swept through the body politic, turning the world around me into one I do not completely understand.
Scary stuff, that.
Yet central to the name God gives to God’s self in God’s encounter with Moses is a central proclamation of the Abrahamic faiths, embodied so powerfully in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thought: these forces, though powerful, are not gods. God being the One who is, the one who lives, is reminiscent of the words of so many prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures who again and again, using colorful and graphic language, paint a clear images that these forces we claim to be gods, build images of, and worship are not gods at all. They are a part of God’s world, forces God created, guides, and governs. Fear of their power over us can lead us to make choices we would not otherwise make, accepting a kind of inevitability and powerlessness before our lives which flies in the face of the sort of life God is calling Moses – and us – to embrace.
Instead these powers are a part of life itself.
And so knowing God as “the One who is” calls us to recognize these forces that feel like they buffet us, that can leave us feeling so immobilized, stuck. These forces within our heart, our history, and our world that threaten to silence our voices – and the voices of others – are not the final word.
Instead, ultimately, these are just part of life itself, and the negative things they wreak shadow sides of that same life. For me this is how I understand the language of devils and angels in Scripture: not necessarily that unseen personalities are struggling for good and evil in our midst. But rather these are personifications of unseen forces at work in our lives, powers that be which we grapple with. Yet in the old mythology of angels and demons, all demons are really are fallen angels. They are the shadow sides to the powers and forces which bring life itself.
And so, God is the One who lives. The One who is. The One at work in our histories and those of our people. Those of all peoples. And these forces which in times of transition make us feel shaken about, uncertainty, unsteady in our step and halting in our voice, need not hold all the power.
Instead we can hear the proclamation of the psalms that these are not gods, but ones that must bow to the God of gods and King of kings. We can hear, as well, with the writer of Colossians the promise that, in the Christian understanding of this One who is, these powers are already conquered, led in triumphal procession as if captured prisoners of war, by the Christ presence that surrounds all of our lives. Their defeat? Jesus’ death at their hand as seeming victim, and the way in which death could not hold Jesus or the Christ presence Jesus embodied so that, through the miracle of Easter, we find He lives, He works, He is not done turning this world to rights.
This is the way the Christian story imagines the fact these powers that so leave us feeling threatened and uncertain in the midst of change ultimately are not the final word. No, rather, the One Who is, the One who is life itself, the fount of freedom, healing, guidance, and new beginning, is at work all around us. As we partner with this One, we can find footing to live our lives authentically in the face of whatever powers make us feel threatened: whether it is the pain of grief, the sorrow of disease, the crushing weight of prejudice and oppression (or their twin brothers privilege and complicity).
For the Christian story, the way ahead is embodied in the path of Jesus who, in his example and in his teachings (which Matthew so beautifully summarizes in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7) suggests a way that both stands against the most destructive of these shadow side forces that buffet us, but in ways that do not feed into the destructive cycles that strengthen them: responding to violence and aggression with non-cooperation and yet peacemaking, returning compassion for hate & violence, choosing to live simply and give generously rather than buying into the bottomless pit of the commercialistic machine.
Such practices are present outside this Christian faith I hold to, and in fact expressed beautifully in saints, prophets, avatars, and liberators of all faiths:
In Gandhi’s call to nonviolence, intentional community, which he embodied in his peace movement for justice.
In the Buddha’s 8-Fold Path and embrace of compassionate mindful living in the world.
In the Dali Lama’s choice to transform his suffering and that of his people into deep compassion toward the very people who oppressed him.
In Rumi’s mystical expression of Islam, which allowed him to transform the grief and trauma at the unexpected death of his soul-mate into deep and prophet poetry which inspires people of all faiths.
In the center of our lives, the center of this world, is a heart of lovingkindness and compassion, in which we can take the oppression, heartache, loss, fear, and uncertainty that shake us all, transforming it into the seedbed of new life, of compassion, and of deeds of lovingkindness that bring healing to this world.
I confess, in my own transitions, I am only beginning to grasp ahold of such a vision in many areas. However the fact that it is there, right in the midst of all I am doing, gives me great hope and inspiration.
May you find that silver thread wherever you can.
Your progressive redneck preacher,