Posts Tagged ‘God’

Tear Open the Heavens

January 7, 2018

There are many interesting and helpful ways to read the Bible. I always find it fascinating when a word, or phrase, or image repeats across texts. Sea, mountain, shepherd, wilderness-  are all words the can clue us into the larger story of God.

So also, the words,”tear open” or “rend”. In Isaiah 64, we read, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” Then in Mark 1:10, the story of Jesus baptism we read, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And in Mark 15:38 (and also the other gospels) at the crucifixion, “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

It is helpful to remember as we contemplate the rending of the heavens that ancient people believed the sky was a dome. They inhabited a three storied universe. There were waters above and below, and a dome over the earth.

By Ralph V. Chamberlin (?) – Ralph V. Chamberlin. “The Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe”. The White and Blue. Vol XIII no. 11, Dec. 24 1909. pp. 84-88, Public Domain,

The understanding of the ancient world was that the heavens could actually be torn apart. This sort of cosmic disruption of nature imagery is fairly common in the Bible. Often God’s appearing is described as mountains quaking, stars falling from the sky, fire and smoke.  Ancient people expected the world to be dramatically changed when God came near. Mt Sinai is covered in smoke with thunder and lightning, and the mountain shakes as Moses goes up to receive Torah.

So God rends the heavens-

When Isaiah writes about God coming to God’s people, the heavens are torn open,and the mountains quake. When Jesus is baptized, Mark tells us the heavens are torn apart. And when Jesus dies, all the gospels tell us the curtain around the Holy of Holies is torn.

It is a powerful image, God tearing the roof off the world to come to us. God tearing open the division between the holiest place in the Temple and humankind. Every barrier between God and humanity is disrupted, Nothing stops God. Nothing will keep God from us.

And yet… God loves a paradox. So Jesus’ birth is a quiet event. His is born to poor parents in backwater Judea. The only people, in any telling of the nativity, who experience divine drama are a few shepherds who see the heavenly host, the heavenly army who come, paradoxically, singing of peace.

These are, of course, not the only times, nor the only ways “tear open” are used in the Bible.  Most often tearing and rending refer to the practice of tearing garments in grief or despair. Ultimately though, rending and tearing  are not the result of despair but the result of God coming to us, a theophany, the appearing of God. Tears changed to joy. Despair to hope.

O that you would rend the heavens and come down!


Talking about God

October 28, 2017

Language about God remains a problem for modern English speakers. We don’t have  pronouns when referring to God that don’t ascribe gender to God.

The Bible is clear, even if our popular usage is not; God is neither male nor female. The Bible uses lots of different images and metaphors to talk about God. God declines to be labeled by telling Moses, “I am who I am”.

But in common usage, God is often referred to as “he”, or “him”. And often called “Father”. Calling God “Father” is fine. It’s Biblical. Jesus calls God “Father”. But Father language is a problem when it is the only metaphor we use to talk about God.

How do we avoid using male language for God? Some of us try to use both male and female language. Referring to God as “she” and “her” can help remind us that God is not male. But these are still gendered terms. Because most of us hardly ever hear and use “she” it does remind us- by its unexpectedness- that God is not male.  Theologically the use of “she” is just as limiting and incorrect as “he”.

Some of us (and this is my practice) try not to use pronouns at all. We just call God, “God”. This can, admittedly, make for some awkward sentences. I have,with practice, learned to avoid sentence structure that use pronouns when I am speaking about God. When I pray, I don’t typically use “Father”. I simply call God, “God” or “Holy One”. This helps me remember that God is neither male nor female and most importantly to remind myself that God is not a more powerful version of a human. Images and metaphors can help us comprehend important things about God. But all our metaphors are inadequate. God is God.

Gender fluid people and gender nonconforming people have given us some new options. This is a gift of the LGBTQ community to the rest of us.You can learn a bit about these options here and here.  The pronoun I hear used most often is “they/their”. To be honest, it sounds a little odd the first time you hear it. And it feels awkward the first few times you say it. But that is simply a matter of practice and use.

Theologically “they/their” has some interesting possibilities. God is not identified by a gender. That is theologically and Biblically appropriate. “They/their” also helps remind Christians that God is triune. God is one and yet three.

Being attentive to the Trinity matters. Western Christians, if we are not careful, can end up equating “God” with “Father” and then treating “Son” and “Holy Spirit” as some sort of secondary gods. But God is all three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And all three are God. They/their language could help remind us of the complexity of God’s being.

When Moses asks God who they are, God’s response is untranslatable- I am who I am. I will be who I will be. I will be who I am. I am who I will be.

The current discussion about gender and humans may, I hope, help move us past ascribing gender ( intentionally or unintentionally) to God. Recognizing and allowing people to be more than only two distinct genders as humans, may help free us as we think about God. Perhaps, as we become less focused on whether a person is male or female and allow them to be who they understand themselves to be, perhaps we will also become less focused on categorizing God and allow ( so to speak!) God to be who God declares themself to be.




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