John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It had been a long time since I had remembered it, but every once in a great while a certain forgotten memory comes crashing back into the present. The story is that, growing up, I had been given a nickname at my high school—which on the surface didn’t seem that awful! There was this group of guys that apparently thought I was an odd sort—and would make a habit of embarrassing me in class. One of the guys would yell under his breath “nice” and the other would echo “Brice.” Well, as you can suspect—being considered “Nice Brice” should have been a compliment. But only if you were my grandmother. But in the context of a “Christian” school and in the company of some very unchristian behavior—it singled me out as a teacher’s pet or goody two shoes if you will. “Nice Brice” was a name I was called that eventually created my reputation as being abnormal—when normal was considered rebellious and renegade.
I also had other names though—especially when my mother was angry and then it was my first and middle name said loudly and fast. You can imagine my fear when hearing those two put together—Brice Arnold.
When you hear your own name spoken, what thoughts and ideas does it conjure in your mind? No doubt there is some baggage from the past, maybe some ideas about your past self that you are trying to shed, as well as hopes for the future based on wants and desires. These thoughts are just ideas. However; you tend to personalize them and make them mean something about yourself and life.
When you hear the name “God” spoken, what thoughts and ideas does that conjure in your mind? Another of my favorite authors, Eckhart Tolle, says that God is unnamable. God is not an entity that exists in some particular place. Rather God is the underlying essence of all things. This essence is beyond language. Tolle points to the danger of getting stuck on any particular names for God. These ideas about God tend to be the same as the mental ideas of self you get stuck on. In other words, if you have an idea that God is a personal being, you tend to believe that your ego is personal. If the ego is personal, then when someone criticizes a role you play it feels like a thoroughly personal attack on who you are. So much suffering in the world comes as a result of guarding your “self” against outside attack. So many wars begin because religions guard their names for God against outside attack.
One of the Hebrew names for God is Y-H-V-H. It is impossible to pronounce. In Hebrew, it comes from the root word “to be.” God was introduced to Moses in Exodus 3 as Y-H-V-H, often translated as “I am what I am and always will be.” Y-H-V-H seems to be a combination of the past, present and future tense of the verb “to be”. So it might be more accurate to think of Y-H-V-H as eternal of “never-ending becoming,” manifesting as infinite possibilities in every moment.
Here’s a fun fact about another name for God. We also have the name for God, Jehovah. Jehovah was created as a way to say the name for God by integrating the transliteration of Y-H-V-H, which is J-H-V-H, and another name for God, Adonai, both from the OT. The vowels from Adonai were integrated into the consonants of YHVH to give us, Jehovah. A name for God that we can pronounce. So when we sing about Jehovah, we are basically singing about the God who was, who is, and who will ever be. A God who evolves continually, co-creates with us consistently and is becoming eternally.
That is a very different understanding about God many of us were taught growing up. We were told that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But that’s not exactly what the scripture says. Hebrew 13:8 says that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. It was specifically an attempt to maintain a consistency of the teachings of Jesus and to encourage the followers of Jesus to resist the temptation to return to a faith dominated by obeying rules and regulations. It’s about the character and message of Jesus, not about our understanding of God. Throughout scripture, God is a god that is eternally becoming.
The New Testament picks up the same notion of eternal becoming. In John’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as identifying himself with a series of “I am” statements. Each one says something about a temporary role. For example “I am the shepherd” indicated his role as a rabbi…a pastor and teacher. But then, at other times Jesus was an indignant activist, like when he cleared the temple of financiers. Jesus manifested in whatever role seemed most appropriate at the time…healer, provider, intercessor, and ultimately sacrifice or Savior. However the “I am” refers back to the unnamable essence of eternal becoming. “I am” is Jesus’ awareness of a consciousness beyond his roles and ideas. In this sense, Jesus realized his divinity because he experienced himself both in particular time bound roles, but also in his connection with the very flow and essence of life.
Do you remember the famous line from the cartoon character, Popeye? When people tried to pigeonhole the spinach munching marvel with insults, he replied nonchalantly, "No matter what ya calls me, I am what I am an' tha's ALL that I yam!"
I love reading the words of our gospel text—especially the message from God directly to Jesus. The Message translation of the Bible says is this way. “The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God's Spirit - it looked like a dove - descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: "This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life."
Wow! Can you imagine hearing those wonderful words? We all enjoy being bragged on once in a while. My mother is probably my biggest fan and supporter of everything I’ve done in life. In fact, sometimes she really embarrasses me when I introduce her to a group of my friends or people in my congregation. “That’s my son!” I’ve heard her exclaim. “I powdered his behind when he was just a baby!” That’s the comment that usually gets the loudest laugh and turns my face the reddest shade you’d think I was a Maine Lobster.
Ah yes, mothers do that sometimes. But I think that’s all of our responsibility in this life. Don’t you? I mean how else are we to express our praise and pride for the people we love but by bragging on them just a bit? Those moments make me think of how I believe God thinks of us. God is like the parent or guardian who is essentially proud of us. The same God that called Jesus, “Beloved” also calls us “Beloved.”
How do you respond when people aren’t so loving…and call you names or criticize you? The next time someone accuses you of being naïve or irrational or whatever insult it is, try responding the same way Jesus did when he was asked if he was the Messiah…the new king of Israel at his trial. Simply respond, “So you say.” Or maybe try out the wonderful line, “Thanks for noticing.” Maybe you could just say this in your own mind, to remind yourself that no matter what anyone says you are more than your roles, you are more than your successes or mistakes, you are more than your personality. You are “I am."
Take your roles and personas seriously. They are important. That’s how you get things done. Practice noticing the various roles you take on in a day, and some roles that are put on you by other people. With this increased awareness, you will begin to hold them only loosely as changing functions, but not your essence. You are so much more than your roles and personality. It is a liberating experience when you begin to understand that you don’t live life…life lives you. There is much power when you stop taking your life so personally.
Anais Nin, a Cuban-French author who published her personal journals about her life experiences spanning 60 years said, “You don’t see things as they are. You see things as you are.” I suspect this holds true for your portrait of God also. Humans tend not to see God as God is. We tend to see God as we are. Now relate this notion to your portrait of others around you. Do you see them as their roles or personas, or do you occasionally glimpse beyond their outer shell to the beauty of their eternal becoming? Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers a wonderful spiritual practice. He says that when Y-H-V-H is written vertically in Hebrew, it looks like a stick-figure drawing of a human being. Rami suggests that you “visualize the Name of God as the physical body of any person you meet: the Yod is the head, the Hey is the shoulders and arms, the Vav is the torso, and the final Hey is the pelvis and legs.”
We’ve been studying the book “God the What?” in our small groups the past few weeks. Part of this study is to engage metaphors for God that better reflect how we experience God. And while we’ve affirmed some of those biblical metaphors for God that we’ve learned in the past, it’s also an opportunity to expand these metaphors in order to pursue deeper connections with God and each other. For when you engage with each other, you are engaging with none other than Y-H-V-H in the flesh. Your partner, child, friend, colleague, enemy is eternally becoming just as you are eternally becoming. And when you identify those relationships and actions in your own life that reflect your pride and joy for living and being, then the experience of the “I AM” around you deepens and broadens beyond that which we are easily able to love. And that goes for you too. You are the “I AM” of God. The perfect creation of God, the spark of the divine. Appreciate these roles but don’t get stuck on them as unchanging and personal. Remember, they are there not to reflect who you are…but to teach you who you are becoming. Amen! (Excerpts from Ian Lawton’s presentation, “Lesson Two: Where Do You See God” - www.christ-community.net ).