Years ago I asked a group of teenagers preparing for confirmation to describe God. “What is God like? What does God do?” I wondered. Not much happened, so we got out paper and pencils, and I asked them to make a list of God’s attributes, sketch a description, or draw a picture. Maybe because we were sitting in a Sunday School classroom, they told me, “God has long hair and a beard, wears sandals, and throws lightning bolts.” So I asked them what power this image of God had for them, and they looked at me with quizzical faces and silence. Then I took a different tack. “Write down the questions you have about life,” I suggested, “questions that bother you and don’t seem to have any easy answers, things you would ask God if you could sit him down in front of you.”
Slowly the juices began to flow. “Why does God take away people that you love,” they asked me. “What happens after you die? Why is there evil in the world? Does God have a religion? Why do bad things happen to people who haven’t done anything wrong?” We scribbled it all down on the blackboard, and there was more silence. “What are you thinking?” I asked, after a while. They talked about the pressure they were under from parents and teachers. They talked about fairness and a disciplinary action at school. They talked about being asked to leave a store at the mall and if the manager there was racist. They talked about how sports were fun back in middle school before adults started speaking to them about their resume. They talked about a classmate with cancer.
“Your image of God has to do something for you,” I said again. “It has to have power if it is going to make any difference. The changes and chances of life pose for us incredibly difficult questions…” Why did my sister die? Why does my brother suffer from mental illness? Do I have a purpose here? Is this all there is? “So an image of God worth holding onto will have currency. Figure out what has value—and why—and throw away the rest.”
What about for you? Try these images of God on for size: the Way, the Truth, the Door… Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer… Justice, Truth, Peace… Shepherd, Healer, King… Mother, Father, Neighbor, Stranger, Friend… What do you think? What works? How do you use it?
Each one is a story we tell about God, of something which is beyond our conceiving; by definition, none of them is complete. But how we talk about God is much more than an intellectual exercise. The image we construct or intuit gives us what we need to confront the darkness that life hands us. The image we have of God helps us make sense of our strengths and vulnerabilities and figure out how to use all of it for good. The image we have of God gives us a mission, not only solace, and people with a mission can navigate through life’s storms and swirling losses toward a better place.
What are you working on right now, inside you or at home, in Baltimore or beyond? Chances are it’s hard. The way of the living God—truth telling, listening, reconciling, healing—is often dark and deep and down. So thank you for your courage and commitment. Thanks for working for the good of the whole. Thanks for hanging in there. And here are a few images that make a difference for me: Love conquers all, Light is not overwhelmed by darkness, and Life follows every death.