April 21, 2005

God is a monster with claws

The Conservative-leaning worship group of which I have been a part has been helpful to me during some tender times in my Quaker journey, just to have a small community of Friends who share an understanding of God's relation to why we do what we do--in worship, as we seek good order, etc.

The fellowship we have, with 3 kids under the age of 4, has likewise been very tender and enriching. Since my brothers have no kids and my brother-in-law's daughter lives in Florida, where my partner and I visit once a year, I've never had the Opportunity to be part of a kid's life in this way, to watch them go through teething, taking their first steps, babbling, saying their first words... It's rewarding and a small miracle when one or two of the children recognize me--me! a grown-up who is not their parent!--when I step into their home and they smile at me, or even ask me to play with them. Wow.

These kids are keeping me honest about my God-talk in a subtle, new way. For example, Emily who turns 4 in June talked about her experience on the playground while the adults were in worship. When the kids joined us later for open sharing and reflection, Emily declared most definitively that she was "chased by a monster with claws" (the "monster" was one of the adults who was providing childcare). Out of the blue, one Friend asked her: How do you know it wasn't God? and she answered, "Because it had claws and was a monster!"

Then another adult asked the same young Friend, "Is it possible that God could have claws and chase you?" She didn't know what to make of that, so I turned to the older Friend and asked him, "Have you experienced God chasing you with claws?" to which he replied he had, in fact.

The conversation was fun and light, but there was of course some ministry and spiritual fellowship going on, too. I loved it!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A very few seconds later, I recalled a phrase I first saw in a Thomas Kelly pamphlet. I asked the worship group, "Didn't Thomas Kelly write about something, "the hound of heaven"? The phrase was familiar to most of us in the group, and since then I've found Kelly's pamphlet Holy Obedience online. Among other quotes from this William Penn Lecture of 1939 is this one:

The Hound of Heaven is on our track, the God of Love is wooing us to His Holy Life.

Yes, I love that image of an all-compassionate God, using Pure Love to draw us into obedience, gently and unavoidably, as we are ready...

Also there is this longer quote:

The Hound of Heaven is ever near us, the voice of the Shepherd is calling us home. Too long have we lingered in double-minded obedience and dared not the certainties of His love. For Him do ye seek, all ye pearl merchants. He is "the food of grown men." Hasten unto Him who is the chief actor of the drama of time and Eternity. It is not too late to love Him utterly and obey Him implicitly and be baptized with the power of the apostolic life.
(For the poets out there, the phrase "hound of heaven" apparently comes from Francis Thompson's poem The Hound of Heaven.)

Yes, I do believe there are times when God feels like a monster with claws, hounding me. But God hounds me only when I am not being diligent, when I am being stubborn or simply dense, and I cannot hear the Call.

...There are times when just a whisper or a tickle is all that is needed to awaken me; and then there are times when I must be hounded and haunted, so that I may be returned to this, the Holy Life.



david said...

Wonderful reflection. I especially like the capital O on opportunity placing the relationship with the children on a level with worship and ministry.

Anonymous said...

I am so pleased that you think of yourself as something like an auntie to my kids. How great is that?

Elizabeth (Emily's mom)

Liz Opp said...

Kwakersaur, you refer to this phrase: I've never had the Opportunity to be part of a kid's life...

I sometimes choose to capitalize the word "opportunity" when I wish to refer to the Quaker historical meaning of the word [I don't know that it was capitalized back then]. As I understand it, an Opportunity is an impromptu meeting of the Spirit, when two or more are brought under the cover of the Living Presence, outside of an intended meeting for worship.

In that sense, then, for sure there is a holiness that connects such oOpportunities with mMinistry and wWorship. Thanks for noticing the difference!

And Elizabeth, I'm so pleased that the kids in worship group are easy with me playing among them. Given that I used to dread holding babies or interacting with them until they could conjugate verbs and use the subjunctive tense, I'd say I've come a long way, Baby!

Seriously, this is noteworthy: my comfort and play with the youngest Friends in our worship group points to those times when God had been tweaking my life in some seemingly insignificant way, and I can only see the fruit of that tweaking some years later.

How cool is that?


Robin Mohr said...

Probably you've already read these, but if not, I recommend them highly for a discussion with children and adults about what is God,"What is God's Name?" for 0-4 especially and "In God's Name", for 4 and up, two versions of the same theme by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. They offer an opening to different ways to think about God, and have been very interesting, in my experience, for me and children.

It makes me realize how we humans often see God in our image, that we choose the names that we need for God, but sometimes we know that all our names for God are good.

One of the things I have learned from children in Meeting is that even though we have chosen a very contemplative, formless form of worship, we have to find ways of making the concepts of communion and prayer etc. visible and tactile for our children. And in fact, the process of doing that forces us to confront our own concepts of the Divine. For example, it's too easy to think we all basically agree on these concepts if we never have to be explicit about them. It's easy to say we don't need wine or ritual prayers to experience God. I often hear Friends say they appreciate the fact that they didn't have to define God to be a Quaker, me among them. But how do we teach paths to this experience of the Presence to young people, to newcomers old and young? How do we make the Opportunities visible? How can we worship with scent, sight, taste, touch, and hearing? It is through trying to share my faith with children that I came back to these questions.

Robin Mohr said...

And here's another sense I recently learned about: proprioprietic. It may not be spelled correctly but it means your sense of the space you inhabit. In preschool, a poor proprioprietic sense means you are always running into things and bumping your friends and not using good judgement about how wide you can swing your shovel without hitting anyone. In our relationship with God, hmmmm, are we aware of the space we inhabit? How far can you swing a Book of Faith and Practice without hitting anyone?

Robin said...

Vaguely aware that I didn't have the right word, I checked today and the sense of the space we inhabit is called proprioception.

Liz Opp said...

Robin, thanks for the book references for intergenerational discussion about God. The monthly meeting has a fairly nice First Day School library, so I hope to remember to look through it for these titles.

You also write, How do we teach paths to this experience of the Presence to young people, to newcomers old and young? How do we make the Opportunities visible?

This is much the question I have been living with for the past 18 months or so. The concern I've had about the influx of young families and other newcomers since 9/11, coupled with the question, "What is missing from our Quakerism that young Friends seek a powerful mystical experience from elsewhere?" have led me to reflect on what lends itself to a Quaker identity—forming it and sustaining it.

My current thinking is that without having a Quaker community with a fair number of Friends born into Quaker families, and without having long lineage among Friends (3+ generations?), it may be important to make our beliefs and traditions more explicit... or at least use something akin to the Socratic method.

And your questions In our relationship with God, hmmmm, are we aware of the space we inhabit? How far can you swing a Book of Faith and Practice without hitting anyone? make me crack a large grin. Thanks!