The unspeakable nearness of God

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (B)

Poor Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land. But the wishy-washy, always famished, fickle, forgetful Israelites and foreigners traveling with him do. After all that Moses did to bring these people out of Egypt—including saving their butts from divine fury on multiple occasions—he is now too old and too close to death to continue.

Moses, devoted leader that he was, took the job God called him to do with some reluctance and made no bones about letting God know it. For forty years, he endured the peoples’ appalling lack of gratitude and awareness of the magnitude of what had been done for them, expressed by their hurtful claims of being better off in Egypt.

In one memorable rant, Moses seems close to submitting his resignation. He complains to God for saddling him with this burdensome bunch. He lashes out over his feelings of inadequacy and resentment over being made “a foster father” for the stubborn brood. “Was it I who conceived all this people?” he says. “Or was it I who gave them birth, that you tell me to carry them at my bosom, like a foster father carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers?” [Numbers 11:11-15]. In the same breath, Moses acknowledges God as Creator, Father, and Promise Keeper. Moses’ relationship with God was like this, he could speak his mind plainly because his awareness of God included trust in God’s Infinite love and fidelity. He knew God would not reject or abandon him.

Much later, on the eve of the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan, Moses gives a lengthy commencement speech in which he reminds the people that God’s love and faithfulness were present in all that they had experienced together—the exodus, the Sinai covenant, and the wilderness wanderings.

He presents a series of rhetorical questions to which there is only one answer. No, never before has anything this great happened, never have a people experienced the action of God on their behalf in such a way. Moses entreats the people to fix God in their hearts and to keep God’s statutes and commandments [Deut 4:32-34, 39-40]. Moses posed the rhetorical questions to the Israelites as if to say “Do you finally realize what this means?

Sometimes out of the blue, a rush of gratitude wells up in me for the simple gift of being, for life’s infinite possibilities, for beauty, for the sweetness of human tenderness, for variety and abundance, and for the self-awareness that permits me to recognize God’s exquisite nearness in all of these things. This is not unusual. I am putting into words the experience of countless others throughout time, inadequate as those words might be.

The writers of Sacred Scripture did their best, but the sense of the divine evades containment. Further, our minds rarely allow us to linger in that space long enough to try. And so, like the Israelites we cross the Jordan knowing there never will be a frame great enough to encompass this experience of God.

What is God’s nearness like? How does it feel, what colors, shapes, textures and images arise? To what relationships can it be compared?

Clear your mind of traditional artistic interpretation, distance yourself from Renaissance portraiture. Our God is not an old man in the sky. No image is adequate. The practice is like a parable in which we identify something that is “like” what we seek to understand, but at the same time that something is also not like it at all.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul names God Abba, a term of endearment meaning Daddy. As children of God we enjoy a closeness that surpasses anything previously imagined [Romans 8:14-17]. Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, found in the final verse of Matthew’s gospel, come with the comforting promise of life-long companionship: “And, behold, I am with you, always, until the end of the age” [Matthew 28:16-20].

Images of Divine Source, Creator, Promise Keeper, Abba, Friend are incomplete, but each nudges us closer to the truth. Our God is a God of incomprehensible proximity. When we take this awareness into the world, we can begin to see it expressed in various ways all around us. Suddenly we “see.”

Our awareness of God cannot be limited to sunny days and good times. Sometimes, when tragedy strikes, we feel abandoned. We cry out, “Where are you?” Others say, “How does your all-powerful, all-loving God permit this unbearable suffering?” Where the Hell is God?

The question of God and suffering is, to my mind, one of the primary causes of disbelief, and a topic for future discussion. But for now, I’d like to take a tentative step into this complicated and dangerous territory of faith to say: Our God is not a remote God. I don’t buy into the finite theology that says God “allows” bad things to happen because we are fragile beings and have free will to choose good over evil. It is true, we are fragile and we do have free will. But what kind of god would step back and actively allow the unspeakably profound human-driven evils and injustices currently happening in our world?

Assertions of God’s victorious nature and the promise of eternal rewards dismiss the ongoing reality that suffering and evil deeds, many fueled by a warped definition of God’s will, continues.

We cannot simply move from the end of one disaster or atrocity to the next. Victims cannot be expected to forget their history, or bear them alone. I recently overheard someone say of black Americans, “They should move on. Get over the slavery thing!” I have heard others say they avoid Holocaust museums because they don’t want to get depressed. Crimes against humanity must never be dis-remembered. To forget the suffering of the past is to forget the Cross. Shall we say “Oh, Jesus is resurrected, Alleluia”, and forget the crucifixion?

Where is God in all this? God is intimately, incomprehensibly present in our suffering and is the motivator of those who take up the cross to work for justice with a creative, abundant and life-giving response.

God is here, in the midst of it, unfathomably close. Do we realize what this means?

Today’s readings can be found here.

4 thoughts on “The unspeakable nearness of God

  1. I can’t help but feel sorry for Moses. The constant complaining from the Israelites. They were out of water and went to Moses to complain ( yet again!) Moses went to The Lord with His request and unfortunately he did not follow exactly as The Lord commanded ( Numbers 20:8-12 ) Moses was not allowed to enter the promise land, because he struck the rock twice instead of speaking to the rock to allow it to pour out it’s water.
    There is so much symbolism in these passages and many lessons. Just a few thoughts .. The Israelites were taken care of over and over again. When God provided for them, as He always had, they were singing His praises. Instead of trusting in Him and living in gratitude, they slowly forgot all He had done. Then when life got rough, they complained instead of remaining in gratitude and trusting in His provisions. Sounds familiar? We can learn a lot from the Israelites. Including a journey that should not have taken them so long.
    Poor Moses! Sometimes I think it’s harsh and maybe he was too old but the passage reads.. “Because you did not trust in me..”
    Trust is so important but so difficult especially when in the “desert”. We have so much we can learn from the Israelites and from Moses.
    As we journey in our faith, we can pray that each day, we place our trust in Him, and live in constant gratitude.

    Thank You, Susan for this reflection.
    Diane

    Liked by 1 person

    • Diane, I love your comment. Our lack of trust is everything isn’t it? We think we are ready, faith-filled, and well-fed, but when a crisis looms, we often forget not only where we are going but who is leading us. xo

      Like

  2. My personal take is that more is expected of someone like Moses; and if you’re serving God, and are aware of God as a friend, as Moses was, perhaps we’re judged even more harshly than someone who is clueless, like the Israelites in the desert.
    We’re not in such a dissimilar position. Christ has promised to return. So we wait. But we’re not there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true, Dave! Like the saying from Luke 12:48b: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” Thank you for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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