Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fearing to be God with Skin On

Last May, at my seminary graduation, I got a copy of God with Skin On: Finding God's Love in Human Relationships by Anne Robertson, as part of an award from the Mass. Bible Society. Robertson is the executive director of the Mass. Bible Society. It's a slim volume, and my early skimming of the book indicated that she is an engaging writer. I packed it for reading on at least three trips during the past year, as well a number of times for my lunch time reading, but somehow never quite started to read it. After packing it for my recent retreat and bringing it home again unopened, I had to ask myself: what about this book am I avoiding?

In her acknowledgments, the author gives a clue:

There were some days when just writing the first page of a chapter brought up so much junk that I couldn't write for the rest of the day. (p. vii)

Exactly—who among us had not acted or suffered in a relationship that we knew was not God-like, on our part or the other's?

The title of the book comes from this story:

A little boy reached that terrifying time of day when his mother would turn out the lights in his room and leave him for the night. Afraid of the dark and of being by himself he cried out for his mother to stay. Being a woman of faith, she reassured her son that God would be with him through the night. "But, Mama" he cried, "I need God with skin on!" (p. ix)

Here is the premise of this book:

What I want to do is explore the ways that our various relationships might impact our own relationship to God and how our actions toward others can help or hinder their ability to find the God of Jesus Christ.

You may be the only Jesus some people ever meet. You are "God with skin on" in every relationship you have. That's a huge responsibility, but also an amazing gift with the power to help "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We may not get all the way there, but all of us can do a bit better tomorrow than we did today. When we do that, the God of grace will make up the difference. (p. 4)

Okay, it was clear to me why I had been avoiding this book. If I am in an uneasy place about any of my relationships with loved ones, friends, colleagues, members of my church, ex-loved ones, or even rude drivers on my commute, I don't want to confront the part of myself that is the face of God for those people and know that I am coming up short. When I am sarcastic, impatient, unkind, or angry, is that the face of God that people see? When I don't reach out to friends in trouble, when I don't find the time to call or write, does that mean that God's face is turned away from them? Yikes!

Yet over the past year I also have begun to have a relationship—of sorts—with Anne Robertson. She blogs and has a podcast and I have read those writings and listened to her reflections and she is a warm and compassionate human being. She's a "friend," well, an acquaintance, on Facebook, and even from her postings, she doesn't seem like the kind of person who would set me, or her other readers, up for a fall. So this past weekend I finally sat down and read her book.

Robertson spends a chapter each on various types of relationships: parents, siblings, covenant partners aka marriage, friends, peers/colleagues, authority, enemies, furry, virtual, and God. In each chapter she shares a story, gives some brief psychological insight or theories about the relationship type, opens up the Biblical witness about that kind of relationship, and then talks about being God with skin on—putting the psychology and Biblical witness into action in our lives. The book has discussion questions at the end of each chapter, although I can't quite imagine leading or participating in a one-time book group based on the book. I can imagine using the book chapters and the Biblical witness stories in particular as a springboard for a series of adult education classes and having discussions that way. Robertson opens up the Word with keen human insight, compassion and reason. I came away grateful, yet still challenged by the notion that I might be God with skin on.

While I do agree that I am called to love our neighbor as God loves us, and in that way I can be as God, the cautionary note that I would add to Robertson's book is that I am finite and God is not. I am not always successful at loving people. I hope that God is. I am not always successful at showing people whom I do love that I love them: I get tired or I forget to send a card or call or I get grumpy. God has more time and patience than I do. It's true that, like God, I don't always do what people want me to do, and that might be a useful reminder that God, with or without skin, is not ours to control.

Perhaps, I fear this idea because I know that I come up short, and I don't want people to think that God comes up short because they see God in me. Yet, I am also reminded of the old joke about the man caught in a flood:

It was flooding in [pick your location]. As the waters overflowed the banks, a man was standing on the stoop of his house by the river and another man in a row boat came by. The man in the row boat told the man on the stoop to get in and he'd save him. The man on the stoop said, no, he had faith in God and would wait for God to save him.

The flood waters kept rising and the man had to go to the second floor of his house. A man in a motor boat came by and told the man in the house to get in because he had come to rescue him. The man in the house said no, thank you, he had perfect faith in God and would wait for God to save him.

The flood waters kept rising. Pretty soon they were up to the man's roof and he climbed out on the roof. A helicopter then came by, lowered a rope and the pilot shouted down in the man in the house to climb up the rope because the helicopter had come to rescue him. The man on the roof wouldn't get in. He told the pilot that he had faith in God and would wait for God to rescue him.

The flood waters kept rising and the man in the house drowned. When he got to heaven, he asked God where he went wrong. He told God that he had perfect faith in God, but God had let him drown.

"What more do you want from me?" asked God. "I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

God with the skin on was there—sometimes we just don't see God right in front of our faces. We need to recognize God in our neighbor's face and that's why we are called to love our neighbor.

My morning Psalm reading captured it in this way:

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck
I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters, and the torrent washes over me.

O God, you know my foolishness, and my faults are not hidden from you.
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me, O God of Israel.
Psalm 69: 1-3, 6-7

Here's the key—our relationship with God is played out in every relationship we have. Oh, not on God's part, but on ours: how else do we learn to have relationships but through the ones we see and experience? Do we see a violent parent? Do we think God is a god of wrath? Do we trust in the love of our parents? Do we know the love of God? The more I act in a loving way, the more loved I am and the more secure in that love I feel: God's love and human love.

Thanks, Anne, for sharing ways to see and know God's love.

May we see and be God with the skin on for one another, yet recognize that we humans are finite and have limits and that we must continue to seek God when human relationships disappoint us, and still give humans a chance to grow in love.

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