Gratitude 32: Out of hope, immaculate imperfection

“What gives you hope?” my minister Rob Hardies often gets asked. But since the election, he’s been getting it all the time (according to the Washington Post). “I’m confused,” people tell him. “I feel vulnerable, afraid for my future, my kids’ future. Everything is at stake.”

“Yet I’m afraid that the question is misleading,” Rob says. “Hope isn’t a gift, wrapped for us. We don’t hear something and suddenly find hope. Hope is a spiritual discipline, like love. It doesn’t cure like a vaccination against the world. Hope is a journey. A difficult path through our beautiful, broken world.”

Cultivators of hope aren’t paralyzed by what seems insurmountable. They don’t change the world, just the world within their reach, with the sweat of one day’s work. And they start over fresh the next day.

Cultivators of hope lift their heads out of their smart phones and newspapers and look upward and outward to give their lives perspective. Like the gospel song “Total Praise:” “Oh Lord I lift mine eyes to the hills, knowing my strength is coming from you.” The world has a lot of growing left, and we are going to need spiritual stamina to carry each other on this journey. There are many ways to gain perspective, and what’s common to all ways is that they add a little eternity to our relentless ephemeral lives.

These are Rob’s lessons. He doesn’t explain this, but Rob believes in an imperfect God who helps us carry Him through a broken world. In a sermon from 2011, he explains this:

moses-burning-bush-montage-artsy

So God says to Moses, a slave, “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out. I have come to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”

“But then god throws Moses a curve ball. He says, ‘I can’t liberate the people on my own. I am going to send you, Moses. You will organize them and bring them out.'”

“Moses isn’t buying it. He says, ‘God at least you’ve gotta give me a sign. At least give me your name.’ This is astounding. Back then, you didn’t just ask God his name.”

God answers him. “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Tell them Ehyeh has sent you.”

Now, the meaning of those three Hebrew words is one of the most contested mysteries in the Bible. In almost every authorized translation, those words read “I AM WHO I AM.”
Ehyeh is the first person singular of the verb to be.
Asher is relative pronoun that can mean “that”, “who” or “which.”

But in biblical Hebrew, the verbs that refer to actions that are already completed (perfect tense) also refer to actions that have not yet been completed (the imperfect tense). There’s no distinction. Elsewhere in the bible, Ahyeh is translated not as “I am” but “I will be.” I believe the most plausible name for God is “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.”

This upends what we were taught about God – That God was eternal and unchanging and the all-powerful cause. I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE suggests God is somehow not complete. Not fully formed. It suggests that God is still becoming, that God is a God of potential and possiblity.

God is saying to Moses, think of me as the ever present possibility of your liberation, even in your darkest hour.

[End of sermon excerpt]

This is the God that cultivates hope, and through us, liberates the world.

What if we were born and lived as if this was the only name for God?

The entire Gospel of Thomas (A book censored from the Bible by John’s community as “heretical”) emphasizes this name for God too. God dwells within us, among us, all around us. Spiritual poverty is not recognizing a God-filled, endless possibility-filled world.

This fills me with gratitude.

Follow up commentary

Upon reflection, I believe the name of God is both “I AM…” and “I WILL BE…” as one unified idea.

English is a popular language worldwide in part because it offers so many ways to inject nuance into sentences. Politicians love it because there are more ways to parse lies into truth in English than Eskimos have words for snow. When an African dictator wants to lie in a speech, he often switches to English, seemingly to add emphasis to a promise, but mostly because it frees him up to create layers of half truths on top of what would plainly be a lie in a less nuanced language.

There is an ancient collection called, 101 Zen stories. One of them goes:

A scholar came to a Zen master’s cottage in the mountains to learn his secrets of Zen philosophy.

“Sit. Let me pour you tea,” the old master said.

The ambitious scholar sat. He held up his cup to be filled by the old man. The man poured, and poured.
“Stop! It is already overfull!” the scholar complained. “Can’t you see? It cannot hold any more!”
“You are like this cup,” the master explained. “You come here seeking wisdom, but your mind is already too full to take in any more. Come back when you mind is empty,” he said, and showed him out.

So too are we like the scholar in this modern age. We refined our words and language until we could express precisely small distinctions, and then turned this against our understanding of God’s words until they we have whittled away the sharp edges of His message.

Do you think time has any meaning to God? Time is a real thing for us, but it is not a barrier to what we could do to this world, if we can imagine more, and bring that into our vision of what God’s will for this world was supposed to be.

Imagine growing up speaking a language that made no distinction between between “this is” and “this will be.” When I lived in Gambia I spoke Wolof. It amused me there was no word for “late.” You could say, “I was here before you,” but not “you were late.” The idea was foreign. Meetings began when the necessary people appeared, and not just because the clock reached a certain time.

Without the “late,” you can’t equivocate. There are only facts. “I was here. Then you were here.” And those facts won’t matter in that culture, or didn’t at the time.

Our language constructs our expectations of the world.

Now, returning to the Aramaic of Jesus and Moses, and the “I am who I am” and the “I will be who I will be” question. The name of God is both of these at once. The distinction shouldn’t matter, because God spoke of himself in a language that did not have a way to make that distinction. Modern translations have struggled here. They have to choose one or the other meaning from the original that meant both or either – its unclear to us non-native speakers. Maybe God intentionally chose to reveal himself at that time and in that language because He wanted to be clear in a way that modern English doesn’t allow. After all, what is time to God? If he is still in the process of becoming – and what we do has a role to play in that becoming – that’s an interesting way to re-read the Bible. Remember, it is only on our timeline that this transition happens. On God’s timeless timeline, it has either already happened, or is constantly happening, or its state is “undefined.” Who knows?

But if the being now and the becoming later are the same thing, we should focus on the rest of His message about what matters. Maybe His commandments have something to do with the becoming of God. I’d venture to guess that Rob’s version of God – the one that we carry with us as we build the Blessed Community, bending the long stiff moral arc towards justice – has a lot to gain from us having this more evolved view of Him.

I find it hard to describe this timeless, imperfect, interdependent God in English. Having more nuance in a language gives one the deceptive impression that one can be clearer. But if you study Eastern religions, you often encounter ways of thinking that combine ideas that would be polar opposites in Western language.

I find that we too often use the precision of English to hide the truth from ourselves. English offers elegant ways to speak half-truths and provide misdirection. We can add many layers between right and wrong. And it can a weapon against truth, against seeking higher purpose. God can’t reveal Himself to a people in a time when they have ideas of their own that block out His message, His intent.

We are the filled cup. We listen to words that change what goes into our cup. Something needs to come along and put cracks in that cup, so it can be filled again with a new drink.

There’s a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

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