NOTE TO OUR READERS: We include this article--on a United Church of Christ minister's personal concept of God--to stimulate conversations between interfaith partners on their beliefs, doubts, and thoughts about God as a part of more fully understanding each other.
When it comes to God, no one has a corner except, maybe, Moses. Who doesn't envy Moses' relationship with God? It was anything but ordinary. He hemmed and hawed before God. He argued and made excuses for why he couldn't give God a hand in delivering the Israelites. Sometimes he even got cheeky and talked back to God. Yet God used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. There is no question: They were up close and personal like no other duo in the Scriptures.
If Jews were like Christians, we might expect them to look to Moses as Christians look to Jesus. For Trinitarian Christians, Jesus is The Way, the only way, to God. Following The Way involves developing and nurturing the deep personal connection to God through Jesus, who called God, "Abba," which in Aramaic means "Father." It is through Jesus' intimate relationship with God that Christians then have access to the Father, too.
But Jews are not Christians. For Jews, deep connection with God comes not through a particular figure or person, but through both prayer and the study of (and adherence to) the Torah and Jewish law. Study itself can be a form of worship. Traditional Jewish law and practice is called in Hebrew "halacha," literally, a path or way. For Jews the Lord is one. This is true for Christians, too. Jesus is not another God; Jesus forms an aspect of God, along with the presence of God's Holy Spirit.
For many this three-fold configuration of God, articulated by the early Church fathers as a way to explain the "manyness" of God, is not helpful. Why a trinity? Why not a quaternity? Does not religiously holding fast to this formula as the only way to understand God place the Lord, the "I AM WHO I AM," into a box? How, then, does a Christian of this ilk relate to God? Is God any less personal?
Like my Jewish brothers and sisters are wont to do, I would like to tell you a story of one journey--mine--in answer to that question.
"Mom, people from church are coming up the walk," I said, as I let the curtains fall gently back into place. "Oh, dear, not again. Thank goodness Dad isn't home. I'll talk to them, honey," she called from the kitchen.
The church people dropped by periodically to see if they could bring Jeesussss into my care-less-about-religion, lapsed-Catholic father's heart. They were well intentioned but caused more harm than good. It always led to a family raucous. I cried terribly when they left because, at eight or nine, I truly believed that if my father didn't take Jesus as his "personal savior," he was bound for hell. The thought of eternal separation was more than my little heart could bear. How Jesus, who was supposed to be God's love brought to earth, could let this happen plagued my tender spiritual sensibilities. What about people in China and Siberia who had never heard of Jesus? Were they going to hell, too? Maybe then, hell didn't have so many bad people after all. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my quest to find the "inclusive" God of love had begun.
Though the brush strokes of my spiritual journey were becoming broader and closer to the edge of my canvass, the fatherly personal connection I felt to God remained solid and trustworthy. It was as if this very connection allowed me the latitude to question and explore. That is, until I ventured too far.
It was my first semester at divinity school, and in my fervor I lost my bearings. The wall-of-Jericho boundaries that my Baptist church experience had so firmly erected began to tumble down and crumble around me. I felt myself sinking into the deepest, darkest recesses of my soul. I was hopelessly falling into a terrifying inner abyss from which I feared I would never return. I cried out to God all day long, every day. I lost weeks of school. My soul ached, and I felt abandoned by Father God.
Where was he? Why didn't he hear me? It was as if when I dialed the telephone number to God, the Father, I got a recording which said that the number I had dialed had been disconnected. When I tried "information" and found that there was no "new listing," I literally wanted to die. It was in the midst of my death wish that I had a dream that forever changed my life.
I found myself wrestling with an awesome and powerful force. While I could not make out a face, I saw a distinct presence, a definite Being. There was light, but it was not overwhelming. It was more like a countenance. I was not afraid, for despite its force it seemed caring and tender. Then, as this mysterious presence faced me, I felt it take my upper arms in hand and hold on with incredible, yet gentle strength. I'm not sure why, but I struggled and struggled to get away. Unbelievably, this force held firm and would not let me go.
When I awoke in the morning I was stunned. I looked around my room, which was in shambles, with sheets, blankets and pillows everywhere. It was then that I became filled with terror. What had happened to me? I wondered if perhaps I hadn't been dreaming. But then, what did it mean?
I immediately thought of the story of Jacob wrestling in the night with God as a bolt of electricity shot through my body. I became even more terrified. Could it be that I had been wrestling with God? For several months I walked around in a daze, filled with awe, knowing that something extraordinary had happened to me, but what?
Then, in class I was assigned Paul Tillich's book, The Courage To Be. In those pages he described the experience of coming right up to the edge of all you have ever known, peering into the abyss of the unknown, looking it in the face, and staring it down. He called this "the courage to be." He then described the experience of being "grasped" by the God beyond God. A shivering wave of electricity shot through by body as before. That's what had happened. I had been "grasped" by God. I was shocked, amazed, and yet felt comforted and reassured. I had encountered the God beyond God the Father that I had always known--and I had survived. I knew that I would never sink to that level of despair ever again, for in my free fall the ground had come up to meet me. I was, and would always be, standing on solid ground, held by God.
Over time I have come to know that the Oneness of God is like the most exquisitely and intricately cut diamond with the fullness of its beauty revealed in all its facets. When the Divine Diamond in my heart has been held to the light, I have walked, as Moses did, in the brilliant shadow of God the Friend, the Mentor, the Guide. Like one of Jesus' motley crew, I have stumbled and bumbled along the road of insight and truth, straining to believe that I've gotten the sacred message. I have prayed in soothing, contemplative gardens with Sophia, the hokmah, or Wisdom literature, of Proverbs 8. My body and soul have melted into the Song of God's Song. And I have only begun. I need more lifetimes. Maybe that is the divine secret of eternity with God.