I have engaged in the Jewish practice of saying the Mourners’ Kaddish every day for a year, following the death of a loved one. I did it for the year after my father died, then after my brother died, and now am in the midst of this year after my mother died. The prayer doesn’t mention grief or dying, but it does bless God.
Let God’s name be made great and holy in the world that was created as God willed. May God complete the holy realm in your own lifetime, in your days, and in the days of all the house of Israel, quickly and soon. And say: Amen.
May God’s great name be blessed, forever and as long as worlds endure.
May it be blessed, and praised, and glorified, and held in honor, viewed with awe, embellished, and revered; and may the blessed name of holiness be hailed, though it be higher than all the blessings, songs, praises, and consolations that we utter in this world. And say: Amen.
May Heaven grant a universal peace, and life for us, and for all Israel. And say: Amen.
May the one who creates harmony above, make peace for us and for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. And say: Amen.
It’s not a prayer that’s in my “native tongue,” that is, this is not the language of prayer I usually use. It’s meant to be used in the context of a congregation, but I read it each night before I go to bed. As the year passes, I find that my grief has evolved and I am tethered and rooted in this God who, as the prayer says, created the world as God willed. “Let God’s name be made great and holy in the world that was created as God willed.”
I do find it strange, though, to be blessing God’s name when I know that in Jewish tradition, the true name of God is not to be uttered or written. So I am all ears when Moses says to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The god of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’…This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.’”
“I am who I am.” “I will be who I will be.” J-H-W-H are the letters in the Torah–just consonants, the vowels for pronunciation left out–combined with the verb to be –”hayah.” “Jahweh,” we read it, for convenience really, as a space holder, for that which can’t be contained. Islam knows the name of God is holy and uncontainable, so they talk about the 99 names of God. We in the Christian tradition seem to have wanted to pin it down, capitalized the G and laid claim to that name. “Of course our God and Allah are not the same,” we hear, but of course, “Allah” is simply the name for God in Arabic. That is what Arabic Christians call God.
“If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The god of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’
“I have observed the misery of my people,” God says to Moses. “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering…and I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians…” Here is a god who responds. “Some gods are apathetic and insentient,” as Bruce Epperly writes. “Others are complete and are unable to embrace new data…The God that Moses encounters is personal, dynamic, changing, and demanding…. intimate, not aloof, lively and dialogical, not unchanging and impassive.” [Adventurous Lectionary, 9/3/17]
God needs Moses. “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Moses, even in the awesome, terrifying presence of God, talks back– “Me?! I don’t even speak well.” “God has power,” as Epperly writes, “the power to sustain the universe and guide the overall historical process, but at the micro-level of cells, souls, and communities, God is dependent on human agency–[on us, on our openness and responsiveness]… Jewish mysticism affirms [that we are] called to be God’s partners in healing the world.” [Ibid.]
“I am who I am.” “I will be who I will be.” “Let God’s name be made great and holy…” The feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote in her ground-breaking book, Beyond God the Father, back in the 1970’s, that God is not a noun but a verb. “I am who I am.” Being. This burning within the bush that did not consume the bush. “I have observed….I have heard….I will deliver…” All forms of verbs. Thinking of God as a verb rather than a noun is helpful in preventing us from making graven images of God, as the second commandment warns us, keeps us from making God too small, too controllable, too limited by the images and names we can come up with. What shift happens for you when, instead of all those nouns and names we have for God–Father, Mother, Creator, Love, Light, Wisdom–, we think of God as “fathering,” “mothering,” “creating,” “loving,” “radiating,” “knowing,” …?
Jesus, we know, used the Aramaic name abba, or abwun, for addressing God. That gets translated as Father, or Daddy, but we know that the Aramaic is multi-layered, so abwum also means “source of the radiance,” “creative breath.” “Who shall I say sent me?” Tell them, “I am” sent you. I am the bread of life. I am the vine. I am the way, the truth, the life.
It’s not neat and tidy. The name of God doesn’t fit into a box on a form that asks for “Name.” If you know someone’s name, you have a certain power over them–their head turns when you call out their name on the street. The name can sound sweet or toxic on your lips. But God is a fire that burns but doesn’t consume; God’s name is I am, I will be who I will be, God is utterly free to be whoever God chooses to be. God is still speaking.
And so our understanding of who God is continues to evolve. The great 20th c. theologian Paul Tillich called God “the ground of being.” As the fields of quantum physics and mechanics have given us new understandings of the universe, we are given new images and metaphors for God–a web of light, “the field of compassion,” as author Judy Cannato wrote, the “divine matrix,” as the best-seller by Gregg Braden calls it. In the Hopi creation story, Spider Grandmother spins the great web of life that connects all things. “Energy with personality.” “I am who I am.”
In the gospel lesson from Matthew, which we didn’t read today, Peter objects to Jesus’ telling the disciples that the Messiah will undergo great suffering and be arrested and killed; and Jesus rebukes him, with those awful words, “Get behind me Satan!.. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” If God is “the divine matrix,” connecting everything, everywhere, then God must be in our suffering and in our deaths as well. Peter–and we perhaps–wanted God to somehow be outside of all that. “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Bill Aulenbach is a writer and blogger who calls himself an “A-Theist.” Not an atheist, but an A-theist. He goes to church every week. He writes:
Some folks might find it strange that an A-Theist even bothers to go to church where there is a great deal of talk about an UpThere God who isn’t UpThere—as far as he’s concerned. Wouldn’t it be easier just to stay home and do something more interesting? It seems so hypocritical to waste time hearing about God, Jesus, the Trinity, and all that other dogma and doctrine when you don’t believe any of it.
As many of you know, I call myself an A-Theist, but I still go to church every Sunday. There are myriad reasons why I go, but first let me clarify what I mean by hyphenating this word. In my mind, A-Theist has a very different meaning than the word atheist. I am not against the idea of there being a Higher Power, or as Paul Tillich—one of the great theologians in the twentieth century—defines it, “the ground of all being.” I call that force Creation primarily because Creation
* has no gender
* occurs all over the universe
* is happening 24/7
* includes every living thing
That’s the furthest I’ll go in defining the idea of God. The rest is all conjecture. In my own wishful thinking, I’d love for Creation to be about love, especially the agape kind, but no one could ever prove God is love. [I’m sure the rising, raging waters of Hurricane Harvey did not feel like love.]
For me, the A in A-Theist means against because I am adamantly opposed to or against the idea, any idea, that the world is a flat three- or four-tiered place ruled over by some old man with a white beard, white skin, and white flowing garments who “lives” UpThere—a Master Puppeteer who makes everything happen. Even though the UpThere God was rendered dead eons ago, I am amazed so many folks still buy into that concept.
My finding, as a believer in science, space exploration, and reality, is that heaven and hell are figments of people’s imaginations. There is not one iota of proof for a place above the sky where a god and his son live, nor is there a place way down below where the bad guys go.
[Bill Aulenbach, 8/25/17, Progressive Christianity.org]
That’s how Bill describes himself, as an “a-theist,” against the far-off, up there, triple decker universe, Sistine Chapel image of the old white man with the white beard. How about you? “I am who I am.” “Let God’s name be made great and holy in the world which was created as God willed.” “Tell them I am sent you.”
When Moses comes near the place where the bush is burning but not burning up, the Voice from the midst of the fire says, “Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.” I had always thought that meant that we were not to put profane, dirty shoes on holy ground, but then I read that it was customary to invite travelers who entered your home to take off their sandals, as a gesture of hospitality. I mentioned at the beginning that saying the mourners’ kaddish prayer nightly over the course of a year has made me feel rooted and tethered in this God whose name I was blessing.
Perhaps that is God’s intention here–that we are to find our identity and indeed make our home in this God who is burning and not consuming, who is the holy ground of our being, who hears and responds and knows our suffering, who is not only “up there” but also “right here,” “everywhere, within me and around me,” who is the divine matrix that connects everything everywhere, even through death, who sets a table before us. Take off your shoes. “Take and eat,” God says, “this is my body. And take and drink, this is my blood, flowing through you and all beings.” “I am who I am, and I will be who I will be.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark