Saturday, February 19, 2011

The face of God

"What do you think God looks like?" my therapist asked me many years ago.

I responded with immediate enthusiasm, "Light!"

No, he told me, what he wanted me to do was describe what I thought God looked like in human terms. This I had to ponder a bit. And then I told him that, if I had to choose a human image for God, I would choose a an older African American man I had passed in a shopping center some weeks or months before. He had a beautiful dark face, framed with a snow-white beard and closely cropped white hair. Why him, my therapist wanted to know; was it because he was old? No, I replied, it was because his face was just so gentle, so beautiful...

At that time of this discussion, I was a young adult, plagued with all sorts of excessive guilts. Undoubtedly my therapist was anticipating drawing out an image of a stern or punishing God. But that was not what came forth. To this day, I smile when I remember that old man's face and its God-likeness. My image was of a kind God - and yet I was still afraid of breaking any of the rules.  I suspect that there was a much more judgmental "god" inside of me, one that said I must do everything right, one that anticipated punishment when I failed to meet that standard. What others might view as minor misdeeds were to me catastrophic and I could not see it otherwise at the time.

I was reflecting on this memory since it seems so often that people come to me in their suffering with a fear or a belief that they are being punished. "What did I do?" they ask. "What did I do wrong to deserve this suffering?" Others might protest to me that they did not deserve this punishment, while others may maintain that they did. The "punishment" might be any painful circumstances in life - illness, chronic pain, job loss, death of a loved one, depression.

If we examine the evidence in the world around us, we can see that there is no rhyme or reason (that we can see) to who suffers and when and why. People who have apparently led exemplary lives sometimes suffer horrible tragedy. Even worse, the obviously innocent - babies and small children, have bad things happen to them with surprising frequency. We also observe people who are known to have behaved rather badly in life seeming to cruise along without any major bumps in their roads. Yet, in our efforts to make sense of our suffering, we try to figure out a reason for it. In our efforts to come to terms with our real or perceived misdeeds, we weave theories that we must be getting what we deserve. The stories of love and healing and the forgiveness of sin get lost.

Recently I heard read aloud the familiar words to the Beatitudes (Mathew 5:1-12). I think perhaps my favorite of them is this: "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God." As a child growing up in Catholic schools, I probably assumed early in life that to be "pure of heart" was to not have bad thoughts or the "stain" of sin on my soul. This certainly created a dilemma for me because I didn't seem ever able to control my thoughts or my actions well enough. I could not make my heart pure and keep it that way. And yet I wanted to see God. To see God is still my life's greatest longing. However, as I have walked my life's path and joined others on theirs, I have seen a whole different dimension to these words that Jesus left us about purity of heart

The reality is I cannot do it. I cannot make my heart pure. I am always going to mess it up somehow, with some nasty thought, impatient word or selfish deed.

And my belief now is that I do not have to. To be pure of heart does not mean that I make myself perfect. To be pure of heart means that I allow God to do that within me. I simply need to be willing - and even finding that willingness may take me a lifetime - but I have a God who is not in a hurry.

"Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow." (Psalm 51:9)

Snow is something we are quite familiar with in northeast Ohio. Although many of us tend to dread its arrival, it provides a powerful image of how a loving God might cleanse me, of how my heart might become pure in his care. And so I pray - I ask... cleanse me, wash me, purify me... not because I deserve it or have earned it ... but because I long for it. I long to see your Face...

As this process begins and progresses, I find that indeed I do start seeing God. Not because God appears to me in visions but because I begin to see him where he has been all along. I see him in the snow... in the sunrise ... in a tiny sparrow shivering by a frozen Lake Erie ... in a frolicsome squirrel outside my window. I seem him in the faces of the strangers I pass as well as in the faces of those I know intimately. I see him in your face. I see him everywhere, for he is now opening the eyes that have been shut so long because of fear or guilt or anger. My heart has been blessed. And the process has just begun...

(You are welcome to join me in viewing some of what I have seen this winter. Click on the image below and you will leave this site to view my public photo album. To watch it as a slide show, click on the slide show button that will appear in the upper left corner; hit the escape button on your keyboard to stop the slide show. You are always welcome to download and save/print any of my photos for personal or nonprofit use.)
Winter blessings