There is a short story by Arthur C. Clarke about a group of Tibetan monks who hire an inventor to create a machine that will be able to list and print all the nine billion names of God in a special alphabet they have devised over the last 3 centuries. They believe that when they have managed to name all the names of God, then God’s purpose will be complete, the human race will have fulfilled all it was created to do, and the world can come to an end, although the engineers don’t find this out until the computer has almost finished listing the 9 billion names of God. As the computer has nears the end of cranking out the names, the two engineers, who have been staying at the monastery for three months to watch over their invention, decide to plan their escape in case the monks are mad at them for the world not ending, and, in the middle of the night, take two ponies and begin the long, arduous journey down the steep mountain path to where their plane is sitting in the valley. They breathe a sigh of relief as they catch a glimpse of their plane in the distance, excited to head for home, safe from the wrath of the monks, and laughing to themselves about the foolish men who think the world is about to end. The last lines of the story are, “Wonder if the computer’s finished its run. It was due about now.” Chuck didn’t reply, so George swung round in his saddle. He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval turned toward the sky.
“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven.
Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”
While this is a story of fiction, I do love the idea that there are about 9 billion names of God…. Although in the Bible itself it’s closer to 900 names and attributes given to God. I think, though, that the more names we have for God, the more chances we have of encountering God in every day life, the more likely we are to see God’s hand in our lives.
Moses struggles with this in todays scripture …. Who is God? How do I address God? Who do I call God? He has just encountered God as a burning bush, and God tells him, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac, he has received the command from God to bring the Israelites out of Egypt to a land of milk and honey. Moses tries to resist, but God continues to ask him until Moses agrees. But then his main concern is what to call God when the people ask him who has sent him. God replies in this beautiful riddle, “I am who I am.” Say to the Israelites, I AM sent me.” This is my name forever.”
Since this time, people have been trying to name who, exactly, God is. For if we can name something, it gives us power over it and helps us to understand it….
For a moment I want you to think back to the first image or memory you have of God. Was it something you were told, someone who embodied God, a feeling you had, an experience. Who was the God you first met in you life?
From this, what names do you give God? What images of God do you hold dear?
HAVE PEOPLE RESPOND>>>>>>>>>>>
Many of us have been taught that God is like a father figure, an old white haired, long bearded man who hangs out in the clouds. Or a stern God who punishes those he is upset with.
But God is always bigger than any box we try to fit God into! Maybe even bigger than the 9 billion names those Tibetan monks were printing out on their new computer! God is Father, Mother, Creator, The All Sufficient One, The Beginning and The End, The Buckler and Shield, the Eagle’s Wings, A Consuming Fire, The Fountain of the Living Waters…. The list goes on an on. And the very name “I am who I am” in Hebrew is Yahweh, a remarkable combination of both female and male grammatical endings. The first part of God’s name in Hebrew, “Yah,” is feminine, and the last part, “weh,” is masculine. So even in this simple I am who I am statement, God embodies more then we realize.
My earliest memory is a memory of God. When I was a baby, less than nine months old as we were still in the apartments where we lived when I was born, I was left outside in my pram to take a nap. We lived up on the second or third floor, and it was common for me to be put outside to nap, strapped in the pram and placed under a tree, the traffic going by on the road as a lullaby. When I woke up, I began to cry, but no one was there to hear me. My nappy was wet, I was hungry and I was asking for help, crying and crying, for I don’t know how long. Then I saw, up in the tree, the light filtering through and angels dancing in the light, and heard a voice saying to me, “it’s ok. I’ve got you.” And this voice began to sing to me, soothing me until I just lay there looking up at the angels dancing in the leaves until my mum finally came to get me.
So, if you ask me who God is I am likely to give a different answer to many of you. I am more likely to say God is Soother, Protector, Loving Mother, Light Dancer.
And I’m not alone in my ways of thinking of God. Many mystics throughout the ages have felt and seen God, and, in trying to describe these knowings of who God is through poetry and writing and art. And each manages to, at most, get just a few of those names of God, those ways of describing the Great I Am. And this goes for each of the three religions that are born from the Abrahamic tradition: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The poet Hafiz, who is a Sufi… the mystical branch of Islam, wrote,
Has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don'ts,
Not the God who ever does
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
"Come dance with Me."
When we grow up, we seem to forget this dance, these names of God that go beyond words and incorporate feelings and experiences, and fall back into our heads, using names like Father, Lord, God, Creator to name the unnamable. And this is fine. For we feel we must be able to call God something, either as a sign of reverence or as a claiming to know who God is. Moses, who was told “I am who I am,” maybe got the closest answer to the truth. I am who I am feels like it is a continuous, growth allowing name, one that can change with the circumstances, one that can adapt to the situation. If someone asks who you are, it probably depends on what you are doing and who you are with on what your answer is. If someone I meet casually asks me who I am, I will most likely say, “Alison,” but I have also been known as mom, aunty, pastor, daughter, child, teacher, Miss Hendley, Mother Earth, an Elder, a feeder, a nature lover…. The list does not have 9 billion names, but still, quite a few! And they change, depending on the circumstances. I am what I am in that moment. So this name God gives, I am who I am, is an on going, ever changing, never changing, adaptive, growth permitting, soul feeding name. One that can be used in any circumstance with any person. One that can include all of creation, all of the emotions that may be felt, all of the roles that ‘I am’ needs to play to us where we are, all of the love that can ever be imagined. It is like a continual dance that we are invited to join in with.
So this week I want to challenge you to think of a new way of naming God, of being with God. If you always call God Father, try Mother instead. If you see God as a distance deity in the sky, imagine God holding you or walking with you or doing dishes with you. If you think of God as a person, imagine seeing God in the flowers and trees, in the birds and foxes. Whatever you choose, try to expand on the image of God you hold most closely, for the great I Am longs to be with us in 9 billion different ways, each of them based in love, and this So come! Put on your dancing shoes. Remember that call from eons ago. Come, dance with God!