Psalm 67; Acts 17:22-29
The Rev. Tom Herbek
May 21, 2017
As Paul said to the people of Athens so many years ago, we are “the offspring of God.” When we use the term “offspring,” it has somewhat different connotations than when we say we are “children of God.” During the Children’s Time today, I told the story of the blind men and the elephant. It is a good metaphor for the fact that we each only see a small part of who God is, and then we sometimes believe that what we see of God is all there is.
I used to use the metaphor that God is like a disco ball, with hundreds of tiny facets of mirror, and we see one little facet, and someone else sees a different facet, and we both think we know all there is to know of God from our one tiny view of God. I no longer use the metaphor of a disco ball, because the children no longer have seen any disco balls, and their parents (at least some of them) only know disco from old stories.
I especially like the idea that we are children of God, or, as Paul put it, offspring of God. But it makes sense that, as we get older, we will change the metaphors that we use, the ways we describe our relationship to God, perhaps even the names we use for God.
Author Kent Nerburn, who will be coming to Canandaigua in October as one of the featured speakers for the Ewing lectures at FLCC, wrote a number of thoughtful books. One book he wrote is entitled, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, and is based on his reflections on Francis of Assisi’s wonderful prayer. Nerburn writes:
I was about ten and just beginning to come to an awareness of myself apart from the innocence of childhood. I awoke early on a warm summer morning and bounded downstairs to the living room where my father was reading the newspaper. Ever since I could remember, my father had awakened before anyone else, made himself a pot of coffee, and stretched out on the couch to read the morning news. From the time I was about eight I had shared this ritual with him.
He would finish reading a section and hand it to me. I would spread it out on the living room carpet and lie on my stomach with my hands propping up my chin, and we would read together in silence until it was time for him to get ready for work.
I loved this time together. It was the two men of the house sharing a moment of unspoken closeness. It made me feel proud, and it made me feel like a man.
But on this morning, something strange happened. I ran downstairs in my usual fashion. And, as usual, my father was reclining on the couch in the living room, reading the paper.
“Good morning, son,” he said, handing me the sports section. I started to respond as I always did. “Hi….,”I said.
But the next word did not come out. I had always called my father “Daddy,”’ but now the word stuck in my mouth. It seemed too embarrassing, too much the province of the child. All my life, up to that time, I had happily and comfortably addressed him as “Daddy.” Suddenly, in one moment of awareness, everything changed. There before me, smiling at me with a father’s love, was a man for whom I had no name.
If my father noticed, he did not say anything. I took the paper, and we read together until it was time for him to go to work. All seemed perfectly normal. But, inside, my heart was breaking.
The same thing happened the next morning, and the morning after. Each day I anguished over what to do. I cursed the decision made in my early youth that had led me to use this term of address. Why hadn’t I done like so many of my friends and begun calling my father “Dad” from a very early age? That was a name with some muscle in it, a name I would never outgrow. But, whether by my own choice or by someone else’s, I had grown up calling my father “Daddy,” and now, at age ten, I was trapped in a childhood I could not transcend.
I am sure I could have gone to my father and asked him what he wanted to be called, and I am sure that he would have answered, “Whatever you like.” I am sure I simply could have changed my manner of addressing him, and he would have smiled inwardly at my efforts to take a more adult role in relationship to him. But I did neither. Instead, I withdrew from any form of address and avoided ever having to call to him in a manner that required me to use a name for him.
To all outward appearances, nothing was different. We still did the same things together; we still talked in the same way. But, without knowing it, in that moment of awareness at age ten, something changed in our relationship. At that moment, in some fundamental way, I lost my father.
Over the years I found other ways to address him – the more formal “Father,” the more jocular “Pop”- but I never was able to reclaim the intimacy of the relationship that had been mine when he had been “Daddy.” Somewhere, in the name, in the nature of the address, there had been a truth that, once abandoned, was lost forever.
Nerburn then goes on to make some illuminating comments about how this is also true of our relationship to God as we grow and mature and as the names we have used in the past for God may also change:
Those of us who have become uncomfortable addressing God as “Lord” or “Father” face a similar dilemma. We wake up one day uncomfortable with the form of address that we were given. “God” itself seems too formal and distant. “Father” sticks in our throats, especially if we are uncomfortable with the idea of God as male, or as having any gender at all.
Gradually, like a ten-year-old boy uncomfortable with the name by which he was trained to address his father, we turn away from any form of direct address and try to continue our relationship without the delicious intimacy that comes from knowing how to address God by name.
This may not seem like much. But what we have lost is precious beyond all measure. For the further we move from the intimacy and closeness of a personal friendship, the more we reduce God to a philosophical principle. And in reducing God to a philosophical principle, in some indefinable way, we lose God.
If we have no name for God, no matter how paltry and distorting it may seem, we have no language by which to draw near to God as a caring and approachable Being.
There is no shame in admitting that when we name God we are framing our understanding of God by analogy and metaphor. Those are the only real tools we have to approach the unapproachable. This does not speak to a diminishing of the Divine Mystery, only to the humble means of understanding that we have at our command.
I agree with Nerburn that God is mystery, and that God is far bigger and broader than our attempts to describe God are. We truly are blind people touching one small part of God, and then using our limited understanding to make pronouncements about God.
It is only one small facet of God that we see, and we must be aware of our limited view, and the fact that the understanding of God held by others has both truth and possible distortion, just as our’s does.
I really like the way that Nerburn ends this chapter of the book:
When we give a name to God, we are saying that, though we may not be able to fit God into the human mind, it is possible to fit God into the human heart.
And if our God is a living, caring presence who knows our deepest secrets and hears each time a sparrow falls, then ours is a God that is known through the heart and not through the mind.
If we would know this God, and not merely understand this God, we must have a name for God that we carry in our heart. For it is in the quiet of our heart that God will call our name. And when that call comes, should we not have a name with which to answer?
In a world where so many use their religion as a weapon to force people to accept their view of who God is, whether it be an ISIS radical, or the street-corner preacher telling us that we are all going to hell unless we accept his view of Christianity, we desperately need a little more humility about religious beliefs. It is sad when an acceptance of diversity about religious beliefs is seen as weakness.
It is sad when someone believes that they can know all there is to know about God. But it is also sad when someone is told that, if they cannot call God “Daddy,” or Lord or Father, then they are no longer a child of God.
As offspring of God, we are able to grow in our understanding of God, not just in our minds, but especially in our hearts. We may see God in many ways, feel God’s presence in many ways, use names for God that differ over time, but the grandeur and mystery and compassionate care of God will always be with us.
Our calling and our blessing is that, throughout the changes of life, we are God’s offspring, a life-changing inheritance from God. As we change over time, perhaps our name for God will change, but, in our hearts, may we feel the love and acceptance and grace of God – every day – always.