Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.

One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’

I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.

For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity).  We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”

But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican.  In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.

The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst.  In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.

It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.

I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like.  And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.

So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?

Of course not.  I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.

But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity.  Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.

Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void.  Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.

A theology of touch

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or, why Hug Cullompton hugs in the first place.

The Bible tells us that humankind is created in the image of God (Gen. 1.26-27) .  We are embodied, an immortal soul housed in a temporary shell (2 Cor.5.1-5).  Like Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 2, we are meant not to be alone, but to live in relationship with others; and living in relationship with others – whether we like it or not – necessarily includes physical touch.

The importance of touch

That Jesus’ way of revealing his messianic identity runs contrary to accepted cultural norms, should be no surprise to those who know their Bible.  He is renowned for dining with sinners and befriending the lost.  But the most revealing encounters of all, those which flesh out the identity of Jesus as the most unconventional of saviours, invariably include touch:

  • He demonstrates his priestly identity by laying his hands on and blessing children (Matthew 9.13-15 //);
  • He is anointed by a woman whose hair is hanging lose (a sign of disrepute), and who wipes the perfume away with mix of her hair and her tears (Mark 14.3-9, John 12.3-8 //); and
  • On the night of the Last Supper, when he institutes the sacramental practice of sharing bread and wine in remembrance of him, he first washes the feet of the disciples – an activity usually carried out only by the most lowly (John 13.3-14). The man, who is God made human, turns Kingship on its head in a supreme act of servanthood.

And when, following the meal,  Jesus is arrested, the ultimate betrayal is committed through the most intimate of touches – a kiss (Mark 14.43-46 //).

After the resurrection Mary Magdalene reaches for him in the garden (John 20.15-18), Thomas is invited to touch his hands and his side (John 20.26-29), Jesus is bodily present as he walks alongside a couple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35), conversing and sharing a meal with them, and soon afterwards he appears on the beach, cooking for, and sharing breakfast with, his disciples (John 21.4-14).

A whole host of scholars, including Ched Myers, NT Wright, James DG Dunn and Andrew Harvey, have explored at length the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry (see ‘Suggested Reading’ Below).  Bob Johnson, in his book When Heaven Invades Earth, suggests that the true greatness of Christ is revealed, not in messiahship as understood by his first century peers (they expected a revolutionary overthrower of the Imperial Roman Power), but in his solidarity with the poor, the disempowered, the lost and the alone. The most remarkable thing is Christ’s willingness to touch those considered untouchable – because, as sacred creations knitted together in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139), no-one is beyond God’s touch.

Healing through touch

A major part of Jesus’ ministry was healing – bringing wholeness to others.  He cured physical diseases, but also relieved mental infirmities and offered forgiveness to those who needed it. Despite a cultural hesitancy to allow physical contact with people who were considered ‘unclean’ (due to illness or lack of morality)  Jesus was never hesitant in touching anyone. Early in the book of Luke, Jesus “lays hands” on all those who come to him at sundown for healing.  To heal a deaf man with speech difficulties he puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and spits on his hands then touches his tongue. Later a man’s sight is restored after Jesus mingles mud with spittle and rubs it on his eyes.  When a woman who has been suffering from menstrual problems for 18 years touches his cloak, Jesus feels the power go out of him. Although he has not seen who she is, it is the sense of touch which is important. Her reaching for him, combined with her faith in his ability to perform miracles, results in her miraculous healing from a longterm illness which, according to the culture of the time, had made her unclean in the eyes of her peers.

There is something both intimate and earthy about these physical expressions of loving service.  Jesus isn’t afraid of getting stuck in; of allowing human beings to be physically touched by God.  Although Jesus’ healing power is not dependent on touch –  he is recorded as both raising men from the dead and healing two children close to death without needing to be alongside the bodies or even present – there is an expectation that, by the laying on of hands, Jesus heals.

In acknowledging the importance of laying hands on someone, Jesus is being recognised by his peers as having more than a coincidental healing talent. His actions are equated with anointing. They are holy acts – acts which bring physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness to the person on which they are laid.

This focus on wholeness has been explored at length by the members of Hug Cullompton.  The way we eat, pray, exercise, laugh, live and worship, both together and in our daily lives, are discussed regularly. Wellbeing Wednesdays is our opportunity to extend our theology of touch to anyone who is in need of help, whether they come for regular ‘sessions’ or just pop in on the off-chance. The member who started Wellbeing Wednesdays is herself a healer and life coach, practising a variety of disciplines in order to help people look beyond physical symptoms to the emotional or spiritual issues might be at the root of their discomfort.

We never suggest that people stop taking the advice, medication or treatment offered by their GP and other health professionals, and we will often give details of nutritionists, osteopaths or other professionally qualified practitioners who we think might be able to help. But while the NHS really only has only limited resources to address medical problems, at Hug Cullompton we can give the time needed for to a person to begin to explore finding wholeness.

The touch of the Holy Spirit

During his final evening with the disciples, Jesus promised them an advocate, the Holy Spirit (John 14.25-26, 15.26-27; Acts 1.6-8).  This is the aspect of God which came to the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and the person of the Trinity which remains present in the world to this day.  In the book of Acts the coming of the Holy Spirit is described as being like tongues of fire, touching each one on the believers (Acts 2.1-3).  Throughout history followers of Jesus have described a similar experience when they feel the power of the Holy Spirit. It may not be seen or heard, but it is certainly experienced as a tangible ‘thing’.

Bill Johnson’s theology of healing is a pneumatological one (meaning it is founded on an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the world). He argues that, in becoming fully human, Jesus emptied himself of his divinity (Phil 2.5-10), and became entirely dependent on the power of Holy Spirit to carry out his work in the world.  It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that Christ heals infirmities, feeds thousands, stills storms and walks on water. Johnson’s conclusion is that, by the power of the same Spirit, all humans can equal this – a rather far fetched assumption to say the least!  However, the presumption that human empowerment, in the name of Christ and fuelled by the Holy Spirit, can achieve immeasurably more than can initially be envisaged, is not (Eph 3.20-21). Miracles do happen, healing does take place. I have seen with my own eyes, and experienced for myself, the healing power of prayer.

The Body of Christ in reaching out

From very early on in their history, Christian communities described themselves as  the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12).  This understanding of corporate embodiment is a fundamental aspect of the common Christian life, both in the way individual members feel a tangible sense of attachment to each other, and how they reach out together to the world around them.

Hug Cullompton has certainly adopted an attitude of corporate embodiment. We committed, from day one, to be there for ourselves, each other and out town.  We have initiated projects which address personal wholeness and healing, but also others which embrace and promulgate a holistic vision for residents. We have made tea, given hugs, prayed with and ministered to a multitude of people in the past five years. In addition we have promoted talent, encouraged people to explore the Arts, raised money for the local swimming pool campaign and started an organisation providing friendship and purpose, specifically for men.

Our name – Hug Cullompton – is no coincidence. Both the title and ministry attached to it are based on a great deal of prayer, reflection and mutual love.  As a body we reach out to touch others – both individuals and organisations.  In committing to bring about wholeness to our town and its residents, we practice what Jesus both preached and demonstrated:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

Suggested Reading:

Dunn, James DG, 2011, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans)

Harvey, Andrew, 1999, Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ (New York, Putnam)

Johnson, Bill, 2003, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image)

Myers, Ched, 2008, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (New York, Orbis)

Wright, NT, 2012, How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (London, HarperOne)

 

 

 

 

living creatively with difference

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or, getting to the heart of what really matters

When I started training for ministry in 1999 I was introduced to a whole new range of terms – well, not introduced, actually.  I was expected to know them. They included the words conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, evangelical and open. I knew the first two – although I associated them with political voting preferences rather than types of theology – the others were new to me.

I realised very quickly that I was supposed to select one or two of these terms to describe ‘where I stood’ theologically. Whichever combination  I chose would also tell people what style of worship I preferred.  Invariably people would say, “Well, I don’t like boxes, but I suppose I would describe myself as…”, immediately putting themselves in whichever shaped box most suited.

My introduction to those terms also signalled the start of my education in how much the Church struggles with difference.  I have observed over two decades how using such labels creates divides within churches and denominations.  Even today there remains a legacy of suspicion, deflecting the church from its main task of demonstrating, and introducing people to, the joy of a faith in Christ.

One of my most inspiring theological discussion partners is a local Christian about my age.  There are fundamental differences between us.  She would probably describe herself as an ‘evangelical’, while I hail from the more ‘liberal’ end of the tradition. Embarking on a missiological journey alongside non-Christians has enabled us to set aside those differences which, in other circumstances, might have caused problems.  We can accept that only one of us believes in creationism (the idea that God made the world in six days), and we can agree to differ on whether the image of the future as depicted in the book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally or not. What might potentially divide us pales into insignificance when set alongside what really matters: following Jesus and enabling others to do the same.

Moving beyond such issues, in order to hear what God might be calling us to do and be, has been profoundly important for both of us.  Working alongside people, for whom these sets of labels have no meaning, has exposed how theological difference has impacted on the Church’s sense unity, and inspired in us a greater determination to follow the path that God has set for us – to be disciples of Christ in communion, each in our own way.

I am saddened when I hear of faithful Christians seemingly unable to move beyond the unhelpful divisions of the late twentieth century.  I am not saying that the issues on which churches differ don’t matter; but I wish they could work more creatively to resolve them, adopting an attitude of openness and listening rather than barely disguised hostility.

Perhaps then we could focus on reaching the 94% of people in Britain who don’t go to church, rather than tying ourselves up in knots over what divides the 6% who do.

For an article about reaching the 94% of British people who don’t go to church click  here.