Imagining God

How great is your imagination? Let’s try something. In a minute, I want you to close your eyes and picture God. Don’t think on it too long. Choose the first image that comes into your head. But decide on an image. You can’t say I don’t know. Or this is too hard. And you can’t choose a word that describes God, like love instead of an image. It has to be something physical. Now, think. What do you see? Take another minute to write it down on your bulletin in the pew. This is just to keep you honest.

What did you imagine? How many of you imagined a person, some sort of humanoid as my Sci Fi friends would say? This could make sense I suppose, since Genesis 1 tells us that God made us in God’s image, that could mean legs, arms, hair and other parts, but maybe it means something else all together. Speaking of parts. If you imagined a person, how many pictured a man? A woman? Staying with those that saw a person, how many saw an old person? How many saw a person that looked like them? Anyone picture a child? What kind of expressions were on the face of the person? How many just simply pictured Jesus? And what did Jesus look like? Anyone picture Father or Holy Spirit or all three? How many pictured a non humanoid, like an animal? A cosmic blob? Other?

This last week, I had lunch with some pastor friends and one of them told a story of going to a funeral of the mother of one of his wife’s co workers for years. My friend had never had the occasion to meet her in all of that time, but he knew all about her from his wife’s stories. The funeral was in a black Baptist church downtown. He and his wife were the only white people in the pews. They sat down and he whispered to her, you never mentioned your coworker was black. She shrugged and said, it didn’t seem important. My friend said it was a strange moment, because he had imagined this woman physically, and she looked like his wife in age, build and skin color.

It floored him to think his imagination was so far off, but our imagination always has walls, a box that limits us. This is how our imagination of God works, too. Who we think God is, is boxed in by a number of things. A wall that is hard to break from is our own experience. Our imagination of God is certainly influenced by who we are, like my friend’s imagination of his wife’s co worker. I am not sure if Asians imagine an Asian God, but I know I never do.

Walls of our box are made from the contributions of thousands of artists over hundreds of centuries. Michelangelo’s God with the finger thing going on in that big dome in Europe somewhere, might be the most influential. Comics and others have drawn similar old, white bearded men for God for a while. Even though I personally dislike what that image says of who God is, I can’t help but have it crowd into my imagination. Because few people ever draw God as female or child, I tend not to close my eyes and see that, either.

Another wall of that box is what we are taught about God. In some Christian denominations, God comes across as a pretty angry “man” and their image of God might be stern even terrifying. In some denominations, God is all about love so their picture of God might be a kindly grandparent, who just can’t seem to hug us enough. In churches that talk often about a cosmic battle between God and Satan, God might be envisioned as a warrior.

And our own hopes for God inform our imagination while it limits it, too. For people enslaved either literally or economically, their image of God might be fearsome, a little bulked up, ready to fight. Royal courts in Europe in the Middle Ages, imagined God as the highest of kings, in the most splendid of robes. They believed God had chosen their kings to rule, so it made sense God was seen as a king, too. For those who are destitute, their image of God might have God more inviting and affirming. For many, maybe most, God seems distant and they cast little hope upon Him. Their image of God is distant, too, something they can’t bring into focus no matter how hard they try.

Sometimes our image of God is limited by revelation. Revelation is God setting a boundary on our imagination. This, God says, we have to take into account. The Trinity would fall into this category but not as I would guess. I have yet to run in to anyone that saw three of anything when they closed their eyes. Sometimes, people will see one of the three, usually the Father or the Son, but never all three sitting down to watch the NBA playoffs together.

What Trinity language does is help us picture God in light of Jesus. The experience of Jesus as God, threw a wrench in the imagination of the early church. They found themselves outside the box where they comfortably had God. They knew Jesus was the fullest expression of God, but there was still more to God than Jesus. Jesus is God, but God isn’t Jesus. They also knew God to be one, sole, alone, yet the experience of Jesus praying to God while here…and leaving behind an advocate, His Holy Spirit that comes to us from heaven…how is God one? Teachings on the Trinity are the result of the early church trying to physically imagine God after the clearest revelation of God ever, Jesus.

To understand the Trinity as the early church taught, we need to understand the cross. On the cross God the Son in Jesus, is crying out in pain and suffering as his physical body is dying and the world he loves is bent on not only hurting him but humiliating and abandoning him. On the cross God the Father, above, below, beyond is hearing the cries of the Son and His heart is breaking as His heart breaks for all of us when we are tortured, hurt, humiliated or abandoned. On the cross, God the Spirit is the emotional attachment between Father and Son that anyone who has ever loved or been loved knows. And into this threeway triangle, God invites us, to be surrounded by the love like hot energy between the Father and the Son. God is always in relationship, with in God and with us. So, whatever picture we conjure of God, our box must fit inside this love triangle, called Trinity.

Imagining God is a healthy way for us to “fuss” with our faith. It helps sharpen our thinking and challenges what we take for granted, pushing our images of God beyond the box we have placed Him safe and secure. Whether we get the picture right or wrong is not as important as learning from what we imagine. Learning about our assumptions about God from our own experience, teachings and our deepest needs for who we long for God to be. Learning really what box we need God to fit in and why.

Imagining in community will help us push past the walls of our box, too. From the Church, great scholars can teach us from what they have pondered, studied and questioned. And of course, each other. God has made each of us uniquely. Your vision of God, from your experience, might just enlighten and speak to me, adding richness, texture and contours to my own vision of God. Somehow, in all of this, there is revelation. God longs to be known, so close your eyes. What do you see? Amen

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