There is nothing like exams to put me in a state of productivity.
Go, eat, check this, check that, pack, say goodbye, study study, done. Turn in your exam, get a grade, graduate. It seems like our academic lives are driven by the end results: what do you know? what can you produce? We “prove” ourselves as students through exams, papers, accomplishments.
Then we walk across the stage, and we are finished. We move on, move home, find a new task or degree to earn. Our humanity is recognized by our ability to “know” and “progress” by the pace we determine.
Only if spirituality worked that way.
Driving home, the first billboard that caught my attention was, “HAVE YOU LOST GOD? KNOW HIM BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.”
First of all, I don’t mind most billboards. I’ve become desensitized (for the most part) to advertisements. Haven’t we all, after seeing thousands of ads a day?
But this one message struck a chord with me that jarred me awake. It has stayed in my mind for days, like an itch that won’t resolve itself, and only recently have I understood why it bothers me.
One, it assumes that God is a “Him,” reinforcing a culture-specific language and image of the divine. Our patriarchal culture likes to assign gender to God so we feel more comfortable in labeling That Beyond Words. I have come to realize how pervasive and limiting this labeling can be if it is never challenged.
Two, the billboard claims we can “know” God, or “know” Jesus like a quick fix solution. For most Christians, this is an acceptable statement and a common phrase. “Does he know the Lord?” I hear often repeated in order to determine if someone is of a shared faith. In our social media-frenzied society, this makes it seem like we can add Jesus as a Facebook friend and spend time talking every day. Send a prayer like a tweet to Jesus, read the Bible, consume “knowledge” in a few bites. Progress towards “knowing Him” more and more, before it is “too late” (assuming a cut-off date to how God meets us). This billboard makes faith about an identity label, an in/out distinction, rather than a way of life.
While I share the billboard’s desire for others to experience an intimate relationship with God, I am troubled by the thought we can truly know God by calling an advertisement’s number. As God is beyond words and language, we can never claim to fully own complete knowledge of God. We need to preserve Mystery in our tradition. We need to grapple with the mystery of the resurrection, the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, the radical command to love our enemies. We need to grapple with the mystery of Jesus as a person – he is both human and divine, judge and savior, bringer of peace and division. Jesus cannot be known like Chemistry or the state of someone’s birthday. The richness of faith is realizing that it is not about knowing as it is about opening.
To me, knowing God is both walking with scripture and trusting in the inexplicable. We know God in the moment we are led to the edge of a cliff and have nowhere to turn, when suddenly our eyes are opened to the path before us. Or on the night before an exam when I feel woefully unprepared, I feel a whisper of enthusiasm giving me inexplicable strength. Or on the street, we have a twenty minute conversation with a stranger that feels remarkably well timed. This is God at work in our lives, continually moving, transforming, creating in a way beyond our understanding.
While God can be described as a personality, God is also a verb, a continually life-giving force at work in every one of us. God is in the child sleeping, the worm inching, the musician creating. To know God means to willingly participate in the process of faith. Jesus tells us that to know God, we must follow him. Jesus is not interested in our piety or claims to faith as much as he is interested in our works: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). And rather than a prescribed moral coding, Jesus tells us a new commandment: “I’m giving you a new commandment to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). In all commands, he turns the disciples away from themselves, and towards one another.
“Love,” like “God,” has also been made into a noun – “find love before it is too late,” many Singles.com advertisements read. This makes love look like a candygram wrapped in a red package, ready for consumption. But Jesus presents a different vision of love – a force that works so selflessly, patiently, and willingly as to give itself away. Jesus gives a new commandment that is not the Golden Rule (love others like yourself), but love in the way of the Passion. Love so deeply, without knowing what will come next, that your life is opened to the will of God. Love like this is a process, a verb.
As I reflect on these past weeks of exam madness, I see God unfolding love within me, even when I did not hold an awareness of it happening. I felt closest to God when I took risks to go on adventures with friends, write heartfelt letters, and express vulnerable truths in my essays. Bust mostly, God showed Godself in my friends – one friend showed me such patience and selflessness that I felt challenged to receive his caring help without a way to reciprocate. At this edge of my comfort zone, I experienced a glimpse of the Creator at work. These images of God took my mind off of labels and showed me the process of worship in all that I do – from brushing my teeth to calling a friend, keeping God’s love on my mind. If God is a verb, then so is prayer, and so is our lives.
In our drive-through world, we want faith right here, right now. We want to know God in an instant – like lightning strike conversions. But truly, the fruits of the faith come with time, and patience, and trust. Even through the moments we feel restless and alone, God is at work. We learn to surrender over a stream of awakenings. After this year, I am left with more questions than answers, and more excitement for God’s work in a new season.
I leave you all with the prayer I have kept in my heart since a friend, Corinne, shared it with me. May it bless you with a trust in God the verb, working always, in all ways.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin