How do we imagine God, and where do we get our images? These were some of the questions the Rite 13 youth group, their leaders and I explored together last weekend at Rehoboth in between beach trips, mini golf games and vegetable-less meals. We talked about our images for God and what it might mean that God is beyond all of them.
Some think God is like water: necessary for life, nourishing and cleansing, capable of existing in many forms while remaining itself the whole time.
Or perhaps God is more specifically like the ocean – inviting and daunting, awe-inspiring, a reality that has to be experienced in order to be understood in any meaningful way. Of course, the ocean isn’t always a benign image; it carries real risk as well as the promise of adventure. We can get carried away by the tide if we’re not careful, especially when we think we can voyage alone.
Or maybe God isn’t just like water; maybe, as writer Brian McLaren points out in a video we watched as well, God is also the wind that lifts our sails, both the source and the end of our journey – as well as our means of getting there.
Several songs and poems came to mind as we weighed the merits of these images, as we considered whether or not there is a far shore – and if there is, how we’ll know it when we arrive. I shared with them Peter Mayer’s song “God is a River,” the chorus of which goes like this:
God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is the river, swimmer
So let go
As you might imagine, this wasn’t an altogether comforting thought. Some of us like the thought of staying on shore, of contemplating the beauty and danger from a polite distance, or of merely dipping our feet and letting others experience directly all that uncontrollable immensity.
In such moments, when we’re tempted to play it safe at all costs, it’s helpful to remember the prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake (which I also shared with our teens). It begins: “Disturb us, Lord, when we are too pleased with ourselves. When our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore.”
It was inspiring to watch our young people making their way into the ocean, daring the cold, gently testing their strength, knowing better than to go it alone. Over time, they’ll venture farther. They’ll find seaworthy vessels, we hope, and trustworthy sailing partners. Sometimes they’ll find their limits only once they’ve crossed them. But they’ll also find ways to beckon us to leave the shore and join them in the adventure. May we have the grace to listen and follow.