The Many Faces of God

Back when I was finishing up seminary, almost 20 years ago now, I spent a semester in chaplaincy training at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis. The training, called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, is encouraged but not mandatory for chaplains, and it helps those of us hoping to serve others learn more about ourselves, the roots of our faith, and the way we carry our beliefs and wounds and past experiences into patient rooms with us, whether we’re aware of it or not. CPE shines a light of understanding on the unexplored areas of our lives.

I loved CPE and I learned many things that I am sure made me a better chaplain. I discovered how my experiences were different from others. For example, as we discussed the traditions around death in our families, I learned that most families had traditional ways to mourn. They gathered together, they had a wake or a visitation, a funeral and a dinner afterwards. That’s a familiar and comforting way of sharing family grief and remembering our loved ones. But in my family—and I’d never thought of this before CPE—I realized that for all I know my grandmas were just picked up by spaceships because they simply disappeared one day and there were no services or formal goodbyes, no remembrances and family get-togethers. I simply never saw them again. It’s hard to know what to do with your grief when you have a big blank spot like that and no traditions to help bridge the gap.

One of the fascinating things about CPE is that the experience is wildly different for every person. Some people love it; some hate it. Some think their supervisors are wise and good; others push back against their supervisor’s authority and challenge it the whole way through. Some folks, like me, are eager to open the door on the deeper places inside that haven’t gotten a lot of sunlight and fresh air; others would rather keep that all covered up and get on with more pleasant things on the surface of their lives.

One day when we were meeting as a group—we also each visited patients and served as on-call chaplains for the hospital—we were reviewing someone’s case study together. They had written up a recent interaction with a patient and presented it to the group. Then we all talked about it: Could we hear what need the patient was expressing? Did the chaplain pick up on that? Is there anything we would have done differently? As we all shared our thoughts, I suddenly had a glimpse of how important “the face of God” is to our ways of being in the world.

The situation had unfolded like this. The student chaplain had gone to visit a woman in her mid-30s. The woman was angry, not wanting to talk to a chaplain at all and mad that the doctors had kept her overnight. The student chaplain described what he’d tried to do in response but he came away from the interaction feeling he like he’d failed the woman and failed God, too. Previously he had been an evangelical pastor, and he felt that unless he’d had a conversation with the woman, urging her toward salvation, he was letting her—and God—down.

I realized I looked at that moment differently. I thought of Jesus, kneeling down and drawing with his finger in the dust when the woman was brought to him charged with adultery. He didn’t try to save her soul in that moment of pain; he didn’t tell her where she was wrong; he simply listened, and loved her, and maybe pointed her gently toward a path where she might make better choices for herself. His actions told me that once the connection with Spirit is made—maybe through gentleness, understanding, or compassion–we can trust God to do the inward leading that’s needed. That is my hope and practice, then and now—for the patients I meet and for myself.

It occurred to me that the face of God for my colleague who felt so painfully he had let God down was a God who was watching him and evaluating him, assessing and pointing out all the ways he was falling short in moments of ministry. It is a disappointed face of God. In contrast, the face of God for me—and I feel like adding a “Hallelujah!” here—is a kind face, an understanding face, the face of a supremely Loving Presence who understands everything and knows I mess up and loves me anyway. It is the trusted face of One who continues to help us learn, offering grace and encouragement along the way, shining the Light of love and wisdom into our hearts and helping us take steps we need to take to learn and grow and change.

Today is World Quaker Day, and all over the world Friends of God are worshipping in a sense of unity and celebration. The idea of God-with-us, shining the Light into our lives and leading us onward, is a beautiful concept at the center of our tradition and practice. We believe that as we follow the leading of Christ’s Light in our hearts, our lives become a living sacrament, and we’re able to share love and grace with those around us no matter what normal daily things we might be doing. At the gas pump, in the checkout aisle, at the doctor’s office, there’s the Light of God, shining in our hearts.

That central idea comes to us directly from the moment our tradition was born, when after two years of despairing, fruitless search, young George Fox was met on an English hillside by the spirit of Christ. He was filled an overwhelming sense of love and Light and heard the words, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.” Only Christ—who comes to be with each of us Himself—can address and heal and teach us about the needs in ourselves, our lives, and our world. As Friends, we learn to trust that and depend on it. The light of Christ within leads us to truth, step by step. And it unifies us—conservative and liberal, in all countries around the globe, whatever the form of our worship, approximately 400,000 of us now. We are people who welcome and trust the friendship of God, knowing that that friendship brings out the best us so we can help to bring out the better in our world.

But that doesn’t mean we have an easy way of it. Like the students who either loved or hated CPE, we have to be willing to let the Light do its perfect work in us. As Early Friends were so quick to tell each other—and anyone who would listen—the Light of God doesn’t lead us into a sense of false confidence, convincing us that because we are God’s Friends, we’ve got a corner on goodness and righteousness and blessing. Rather the Light of God does what the light in your kitchen does—and more, of course—but it illumines everything, the places where you got the counter super clean and the place where there’s a big drop of something left over from yesterday’s lunch. God’s Light in our hearts helps us understand both where we’re doing well in our life of faith and where we still have blind spots and sticking points and lots of work yet to do. The purpose isn’t to chastise us or shame us or make us feel bad about our progress, but to illumine in us whatever obstacles there may be to the flow of God’s love. Because God wants to remove those so we can feel and know and share it all.

That was a central point of the section we heard today from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. He wrote,

“Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God… For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

The face of Christ, now there’s an image to keep shining in our hearts. Kind and wise, understanding and honest, that face looks on us with a realization of all God made us to be; he is not fooled by the things of this world we think bind us. Paul’s letter sounds very Quakerly here, talking about God’s light shining out of the darkness and saying that it is God’s Spirit shining in each one of our hearts that teaches us to live with more love and gratitude and grace. We hear something similar—if a bit more biting—from Margaret Fell, when she writes about the agency of God’s Light and its power to reveal the truth about our stumbling blocks so that we can move beyond them:

“And if you love the light, then you come to the light to be proved, and tried whether your works be wrought in God. But that which hates the light, turns from the light, and that shall be condemned by the light forever. And though you may turn from the light, where the unity is, and you may turn from the eternal truth; but from the witness of God in your consciences, (which he hath placed in you, which beareth witness for the living God,) you can never fly; that shall pursue you wherever you go.”

God’s Light is with us, Margaret Fell says, and it is tenacious, leading and revealing, stirring and prompting for the good of our souls and the good of God’s world. In his book Holy Obedience, Quaker Thomas Kelly put it in more modern terms like this:

“But whatever the earthly history of this moment … (the) vision of an absolutely holy life is, I am convinced, the invading, urging, inviting, persuading work of the Eternal One. It is curious that modern psychology cannot account wholly for flashes of insight of any kind, sacred or secular. It is as if a fountain of creative Mind were welling up, bubbling to expression within prepared spirits. There is an infinite fountain of lifting power, pressing within us, luring us by dazzling visions, and we can only say, The creative God comes into our souls. An increment of infinity is about us. Holy is imagination, the gateway of Reality into our hearts. The Hound of Heaven is on our track, the God of Love is wooing us to His Holy Life.”

The hound of heaven is a powerful phrase. Kelly is saying here that the Light of God which comes into the world—which comes into our lives—is not simply a passive, trying-it-if-you-want-it kind of presence. This is an active, creative agent of God that cares about helping us grow and heal and live with more peace and joy and charity. When we are the prepared spirits, God can pour blessing through us however God likes—no doubt uplifting and encouraging others, dispelling darkness in ways we cannot see or even imagine. We leave that up to God. Our part is simply to make sure our hearts are willing—each day–to be touched and changed and led by God’s loving Light.

So what is the face of God for you? When you pray, when you sit in silence, when you go through your day, can you get an inward glimpse of a loving expression looking your way? Is it a look of pride or appreciation? Fondness or concern? If God’s expression in our mind’s eye is disappointed, or disapproving, or even worse—turned away—that imagining lets us know we have some inner work to do. We can start that inner work by making Psalm 23 our daily companion, a sweet practice with which we begin the day, and soon, bit by bit, the face of God we see in our hearts will become kinder, more present, more tenderly involved in little events of our day.

And God loves taking that journey with us. That in fact is the whole promise underlying Psalm 23: God guides us, teaches us, protects us, and helps us understand and rely on God’s sure presence no matter what we encounter in life. And then? Goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, for we are living—moment by moment—in this house of the Lord, here and now, as God’s beloved and eternal Friends.


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