This was the second week of the Sunday School class I am teaching on Anne Lamott‘s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. This week we finished discussing the “Help” chapter, and things got really interesting. Lamott writes about her past experiences of prayer, even as far back as her childhood, and in class we talked about our own prayer histories. One thing I love about the author is her honesty; she doesn’t sugar-coat the hard stuff. She admits that it is sometimes very difficult to connect in prayer with a God who is so mysterious, whom we can’t see or touch and whose descriptions in the Bible can be both comforting and troubling. That’s why, she says, God gave us imagination. It can sometimes lead us astray, but it can bring us closer to God, too, and she writes about how we can know the difference:
“Imagining God can be so different from wishful thinking, if your spiritual experiences change your behavior over time. Have you become more generous, which is the ultimate healing? Or more patient, which is a close second? Did your world become bigger and juicier and more tender? Have you become ever so slightly kinder to yourself? This is how you tell.” (p. 21)
As we talked about how imagination factors into our prayer lives, one member of the class mentioned that she was reading George R. R. Martin‘s A Game of Thrones and its sequels, known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire. She was intrigued by one of the religious systems in the fantasy books, the Faith of the Seven. The characters who practice this religion pray at altars dedicated to the Mother, the Father, the Maiden, the Warrior, the Crone, the Smith, and the Stranger. This class-member thought it might be comforting at times to have these different deities to pray to depending on your situation and needs in that moment. I had the same thought as I was reading the series. Part of our problem, I said in class, is that we in the West have excluded imagination from religion, and have ended up with a very limited and limiting idea of God. He is the stern old man with a white beard we’ve seen in paintings, and even though we know intellectually that God doesn’t really look like that, it’s the image imprinted on our collective subconscious. And that can make it really hard to pray, especially for help. That old man doesn’t look like he wants to help anybody, though he may do some smiting before the day is over.
Lamott encourages us to expand our imaginations, and thankfully so does the Bible. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, God appears or is referred to in myriad ways. Moses heard God from a burning bush (Exodus 3), and Elijah experienced God not in the rock-crushing wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the still, small voice (or in some translations, “the sound of sheer silence”) that followed (1 Kings 19). The psalmists write about God as King (Ps. 10, 24, 93, and others), Shepherd (Ps. 23, 80), as Deliverer (Ps. 18), Redeemer (Ps. 19), Light (Ps. 27), as Rock (Ps. 18, 28, 31, and others), Hiding Place (Ps 32), Helper (Ps 54), Father to the fatherless (Ps 68), as Fortress (Ps 91), the One who knows us and knits us together in the womb (Ps 139), Refuge (Ps 142), and more. The writer of Deuteronomy 32 describes God as a nesting Eagle and as a Mother giving birth. The prophet Hosea compares God to a faithful Husband (2:16) and to a Bear protecting her cubs (13:8). Isaiah says that God shapes us as a Potter (64:8) and comforts us as a Mother (66:13). In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to or refers to himself as Keystone (Matt. 21:42), Carpenter (Mark 6:3), great Physician (Luke 4:23), eternal Word (John 1), Lamb of God (John 1:29), Rabbi (John 1:38), Bread of life (John 6:35), Door (John 10:9), Son of God (Romans 1:4), Author of our faith (Hebrews 12: 2), and our Advocate (1 John 2:1). God is said to be both Love (1 John 4) and consuming Fire (Hebrews 12:29). And this is far from an exhaustive list!
Do any of these images of God help me pray? Absolutely. There are certainly times when I have experienced God as Light (even in some moments when I wanted to stay in darkness), times when I have needed the reshaping influence of the Potter, other times when I have craved the comfort of a Mother. Could God be all these things? No more or less than God is the stern old man in the medieval paintings. The truth is that God is far more than any one idea — or even all of our ideas — can contain, and so we have the gift of imagination, to keep trying on different ideas until one fits where we are and how God chooses to be known at that moment.
My friend Matthew, who has read farther than I have in A Song of Ice and Fire, told me something I didn’t know about the Faith of the Seven. In one of the more recent books, he says, a septon (the fictional religion’s equivalent of a priest) tells one of the other characters that they do not worship seven gods. The Seven, he says, are aspects of the one and only God, to whom all their prayers are directed. God does indeed work in mysterious ways and sometimes chooses the most unexpected means of revelation. I never imagined that A Game of Thrones would come up in our Sunday School class, but I think Anne Lamott would approve. The fictional religion born of one man’s imagination gave us a new opportunity for thinking about our own.