The last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing something I never thought I would ever do — I’m teaching a Sunday school class. In more exact terms, Debi and I are co-facilitating an adult faith formation class on the 10 Commandments over Zoom. It’s had the unexpected effect of prompting me to think about God and the nature of God.
Not that I shouldn’t have expected that: We’re two weeks into the curriculum, and the first two commandments — or three, depending on who’s counting — are all about God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. With that in mind, I should have seen the rest of it coming. You shall not make for yourself an idol … [nor] make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. The God of Israel, as I should have remembered from long-ago Sunday school lessons, was exquisitely clear about idols, and what would happen if you worshiped them. Or if you took his name in vain:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Our curriculum is by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist pastor in Kansas City and author of his Words of Life: Jesus and the Promise of the Ten Commandments. In the book and the videos that go with it, he foregrounds the commandments in the culture of the day, perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 years before the common era, and brings them home to the 21st century. He’s very clear about idols we might worship today — money or status, for example, even tangible things like a beloved church building — and how we might go beyond them and represent the image of God by our good works. After all, Adam was created in God’s image.
“To say that humans are in the image of God is to recognize the special qualities of human nature which allow God to be made manifest in humans,” explains a glossary on the PBS website. “The moral implications of the doctrine of imago Dei,” it adds, using the Latin term, “are apparent in the fact that if humans are to love God, then humans must love other humans, as each is an expression of God.”
It’s an old, old idea, but Hamilton gives it a new formulation. Well, new to me at least. He says the way we live our lives represents God — our witness is the only sermon some people will hear, the only scripture some will read, and “the only image of God some will ever see.”
But before he gets to this idea of our representing the image of God, he brings the business of a God you can’t see into very sharp focus.
In the videos, partly shot on location in Egypt, Hamilton shows an array of pictures, bas-reliefs and statues — idols — of the Egyptian gods the Israelites knew there. (This picture, from an old textbook, shows a modern reconstruction of one of them, Anubis, god of the dead. It looks strange to us, even alien, but it gave the ancient Egyptians something — someone, however strange to us 30-odd centuries later — they could relate to.) “Idols, Hamilton says, “made the invisible gods visible and the intangible gods tangible.”
So Hamilton makes it clear what an innovation it was for the Israelites fleeing Egypt to have a monotheistic deity you couldn’t see and you couldn’t touch. And how difficult it must have been for them. Seeing, as Hamilton reminds us, is believing.
Now I’m not tempted to melt down my jewelry to make a golden calf, like Moses’ brother Aaron and the Israelites did when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments — but I have trouble, too, with a deity I can’t visualize. For me it comes in the context of prayer.
For several months now prayer has been on my to-do list. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? But I came back to the church late in life, and I’ve been stuck when comes to envisioning a personal relationship with God.
Partly I’m turned off by the “Jesus is my boyfriend” vibes I get from contemporary worship music and elsewhere in the popular culture. Not to mention all the smug, self-congratulatory prayers I heard at public meetings I covered as a newspaper reporter down South. But that stuff, I can work through with a little good will and Christian charity. The other part goes deeper, to my concept of the nature of God, and there I get stuck.
Fr. James Martin SJ, offers this definition: “Prayer is a conscious conversation with God.” (I’m quoting here from a review of his Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. I like the idea; I’ve ordered the book, and I’ve started reading it.) So, yes, I’d like to deepen my relationship with God. But a conversation? With the creator of the universe? Back in the day I read Paul Tillich, an existentialist theologian who was popular when I was in grad school, and I’m entirely comfortable with his idea of a creator God as the ground of my being. But I don’t really have a concept of a personal God whom I can sit down and chat with.
So that remains very much on my to-do list.
The closest I can come to it for now is to read — and reread — a footnote in William A. Barry’s Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God. Fr. Barry was one of Martin’s spiritual directors, and the footnote makes sense to me. (Besides, as an old grad student, I have a secret unrequited love for well-crafted footnotes.) This one is a quote from John Macmurray, a Scottish philosopher of the mid-20th century:
The highest, richest and rarest qualities in our experience of human personality, such as creative spontaneity, provide the most adequate basis for our characterization of God. Even these, of course, are inadequate, and we have to use them mythologically. God is beyond the personal, of course, but it is the personal in our experience which points in the direction of God, and provides the most adequate language we possess for references to God.
A lot there to chew on, and I’m not rushing the process. But I think the quote from Macmurray is going to lead me somewhere.
In a little collection of essays on prayer titled In All Seasons for All Reasons, Fr. Martin suggests that some believers “picture Jesus in front of them, say, sitting in a chair,” and “pour out what they want to say.” I can imagine myself doing that, but I’m not quite there yet. I don’t want to rush that process, either.
But — quite unexpectedly — Adam Hamilton’s discussion of the first three commandments is helping me focus.
Here’s how. Since we’re using a Methodist author for a bible study in a Lutheran parish church, I feel obligated to bring in Martin Luther’s exposition of the commandments in the Small Catechism. It’s kind of like a word from our sponsor. But it’s turning out to be a lot more than that, and what Luther says about those first two commandments (according to his way of numbering them) has a direct bearing on my struggles with prayer.
The first commandment in the Small Catechism is short and sweet: You shall have no other gods. As always, he asks, “What does this mean?” And answers: We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things. (Notice how Luther shifts from you language to we language there? It’s a small point, but I think it’s important.)
Luther skips over the part about idols and goes on to what Methodists, along with most English and American Protestants, consider the third commandment: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. “What does this mean?” Luther answers:
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.
Two things stand out here. First, practicing magic must have been more of a problem in 1529 in Luther’s Wittenberg than it is today in downstate Illinois. At least I’ve never encountered it in Springfield. And, secondly, Luther’s talking about prayer. Definitely something to think about, and something more to put on the to-do list.
Luther doesn’t expound on the nature of God in that passage, but later on in the Small Catechism he does have a very important discussion of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, the one that reads, I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. “What does this mean?” Luther asks and answers:
I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.
If there’s a better formulation of what a personal God is like, I haven’t found it. This is the kind of God, as far as I’m concerned, who could walk with Adam in the cool of the day; bargain with Lot over the number of righteous persons in Sodom and Gomorrah; and bring his people, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt.
And reading Hamilton’s discussion of how we represent God in the third (or second) commandment, I am reminded of the bright yellow T-shirts that Evangelical Lutheran Church in America parishes sometimes order for community service project volunteers. They proclaim “God’s Work. Our Hands.” I’ve blogged about the T-shirts and ELCA’s “God’s Work Our Hands Sunday” HERE and HERE, in connection with the Jewish concept of tzedakah, or obligatory acts of charity and an off-hand Latin pun that Martin Luther worked into a 1537 letter to his pastor Johannes Bugenhagen, for whom he was subbing that year in the town’s parish church at Wittenberg.
Luther wrote, Christi summus in nominativo et genitivo (literally, we are of Christ in the nominative and genitive [cases]), and it was a clever play on words in the post-medieval Latin of his day. In the Condordia edition of Luther’s works. Jaroslav Pelikan translated it as “we are Christs — with and without the apostrophe.” In other words, we belong to Christ, and we do Christ’s work.
I don’t think Luther’s pun quite answers all my questions about prayer — and I’m still willing to take my time resolving them — but it sounds to me exactly like what Adam Hamilton says about the ways we represent the image of God. “As God’s people, we bear the name of God. And we can speak about God not only through our words but through the way we live our lives.” With and without the apostrophe.
I think it’s brilliant, with or without a T-shirt.
Adam Hamilton, Words of Life: Jesus and the Promise of the Ten Commandments (New York: Convergent-Random House, 2020), 40-44, 65-72.
“Imago Dei,” glossary in Faith and Reason, Margaret Wertheim, Public Broadcasting System, 1998 https://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/theogloss/imago-body.html.
John Macmurray, quoted in William A. Barry, SJ, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God: A theological Inquiry (Rev. ed., Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), 19n13.
James Martin, SJ, In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), 24.
L. Roger Owens, “James Martin offers a primer for prayer,” review of Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone by James Martin, SJ, Christian Century, June 7, 2021 https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/james-martin-offers-primer-prayer?reload=1644534939973.
Also a post on this blog, which I headlined “Was Luther a mystic? Hard to say. But an offhand Latin pun and a Lutheran T-shirt offer a new way of thinking about it.” It’s dated June 11, 2020, and it’s available at https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2020/06/11/luther-grammar/.
[Published Feb. 14, 2022]