Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Years ago I read a book for young adults that was about the song of a humpback whale. These whales make a very musical sounding series of notes that are repeated again and again though each repetition may go on and on. The theory is that it is how whales identify themselves to other whales, and their songs can carry for many miles through the water. The story imagined a translation of one of these songs. It was the life story of the whale with lots of details about its parents, it first years and encounters with other sea creatures and humans. The whole story is the way it identifies itself. So, in a strange way, this life story is also the whale’s name.
I called my father, “Dad” even though that wasn’t his legal name. His name was Donald Newswanger, though most of his friends called him Don. To people who knew him well, there were all sorts of things of his past that were still part of his identity. For instance, even when he was in his eighties, he was still a Boy Scout at heart. He had been an Eagle Scout, and he was an assistant scoutmaster when I was in Scouts. He had served in the Army and gone to college and been active at his church, but mostly he was a Boy Scout.
If you got to know Dad real well, you would see his tendency towards being a little obsessive-compulsive. But he tried to hide it, and was embarrassed when people noticed things like that, but I loved him for his strengths and faults. In Dad’s case, the obsessive-compulsive stuff helped him to be good at his job as an electrical engineer. He quietly prided himself on the neatness of his work.
If you knew Dad even better, you would see his artistic side and his love of puzzles. You would also know that his mother often kidded him about his absent-mindedness. Bring out a photo album and you would find out that Dad adored the dog he had in his last years of high school. And when Dad did talk about his wartime experience in the South Pacific, it was usually about plants he found in New Guinea and the Philippines or his quiet year as one of the occupying troops in Tokyo after the surrender.
My point to all this is that I called this complicated man by a one-syllable word, “Dad.” It is a word that millions of people use for father-figures in their life. For me, the word brings back some complications. He was unpredictably affectionate and distant. I couldn’t always tell when he was angry or happy. I could figure out some of his expectations, but not all of them. I couldn’t always tell if he was feeling pride or disappointment. Sometimes, he seemed to be a hero and other times a martyr. In other words, he was a regular complicated human being and so was I.
Just as “Dad” is an insufficient word to really describe my father, the word “God” is very insufficient for our heavenly father. It might take eighty pages to decently described what I knew of my father, but there are not enough pages in the world to describe our limited knowledge of God. Of course, the Bible has many names for God. God identifies himself as “the God of Jacob and Isaac” but says his name is “I am” (Yah-weh in Hebrew that is sometimes mis-written as “Jehovah).” If you want to see how many times the name “I am” actually appears in the Old Testament, you should know that the Jews believe the name is too holy to be taken lightly, so even Christian Bibles will replace the name with “The LORD” in capital letters. That is to let you know that, the holy name has been found in the original text. For example, the 23rd Psalm does not begin, “The Lord is my shepherd,” it begins, “The LORD is my shepherd.” The Old Testament contains less personal names for God, too. There is even a short form of God’s names like “Yah,” “Jah” or “El” as in Beth-El “house of God” or Hallelu-Jah “Praise the Lord.”
But you might say that the whole Old Testament is a better description of who God is.
In the New Testament, Jesus told us to call God by the name “Father,” but Jesus is quoted as calling God, “Abba” which is more like saying “Daddy” or “Papa.”
So, Jesus gives a name for God that is much more personal that “I am,” but something that needs more explaining.
In the twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks the name that most Christians treat as God’s name:
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
And so, as Christians, we tend to think of God’s name as “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Being formal, we speak of the Trinity or the Triune God, but it is a complicated name because it includes the fact that this is the name of the one and only God.
But if you want to know God’s identity, you better read all of the New Testament as well. And if you want to know more, look at the world God created and the people God loves (that is everyone). If you want to understand God even more, start looking at the plants and animals, and the stars in the sky. If you want to know God better, you better spend time reading and hearing personal experiences of other seekers and believers and even non-believers. If you want to know God better, read poetry and children’s rhymes, and ponder all the smells, tastes, feelings, colors and sights you might have.
If you want to know God better, be merciful, be compassionate, be creative, be loving, be patient, and do good for strangers. If you want to know God better, love everyone and everything. If you want to know God better, let your heart break and break again.
Our ultimate authority on God are the words of the Bible that point us to Jesus Christ, but you can also find out things about God in science, history, art, math, music, and child’s play.
When I say the word “God,” it may draw some people in and drive some people away, but meanwhile I know that “God” is not a sufficient name for someone so permanent, complicated, powerful and beautiful.
It takes more than a lifetime to know God, but that’s the way it should be.