Globally, God's name has become associated with violence; nationally, it litters our conversation without love. The name which is above every other name deserves better.
The slide in Bible knowledge among Britons has been happening for some time. While Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher read the scriptures and was surprised to find a book in the Old Testament where God was never mentioned. She quizzed her highly educated Cabinet and no-one knew which one.
The Book of Esther is atypical. God is industrious in people-placement, chance encounters and darkly comic timing but not once name-checked. The Israelites didn’t need this; they believed he was working through circumstances to save his people. There are other instances where God goes to ground. The story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent disposal of Uriah, her husband, is told in full before the terse observation is made: ‘But the thing David had done displeased the Lord’.
The Hebrew understanding of G-d’s name being so holy that it should not be spoken contrasts with the encouragement that the risen Jesus afforded his followers to see him as a friend. The incarnation revolutionised the way many devout Jews related to God.
There is a curious bi-polarity in how God is spoken of in twenty-first century Britain. Oh my God has ceased to be a prayer of lament and become a casual blasphemy; a predictive three letter text: OMG. God’s name is used, but incidentally, without reverence and for exaggerating effect.
The Church can find itself pulled in two directions, like nails to a magnetic pole. It is good to honour God and to find reverent familiarity in our conversation with him and about him, for this is the essence of how Jesus taught his followers to pray. Yet in some places, God is referenced every few sentences like the congenital name dropper reminding you how networked they are. God has revealed himself to the human race and those who follow him should expect to hear from him; this is unlikely to be with the regularity of a compulsive tweeter, however.
There should be discernment and humility in how we interpret God speaking to us and we should allow others both to shape and to challenge this voice. Without this discipline, the chances are that our ego and its desires become conflated with God’s will and his purposes for us. We have all seen this happen; and others may have seen it in us.
The other pole to which we are pulled in a secular age is a reversion to Esther’s narrative, where God is never named. Too often churches operate this way. It is somehow made to feel childish to speak of God that much, as if the grown-up way of being a Christian is hardly to mention him at all. In this way we conform to a culture which has lost its way with God. There may be some merit in this if we are already sure that God is forging a path for us, as the exiles sensed in ancient Persia. In practice, however, churches can embrace a functional atheism where we carry on our life together as if God is not a part of it, like a distant cousin in Canada we haven’t corresponded with for decades.
The danger of this functional atheism is that other names and other wills come to bear on issues where God should have precedence. Churches where agendas have little to do with mission can be guilty of this. The priorities of prayer, scripture and critical reflection on how God may be at work in our community are relegated quite easily when God is not named. It is surprising how quickly this dynamic can overtake us.
Globally, God’s name has become associated with violence; nationally it litters our conversation for effect and without care. The name which is above every other name deserves better than this.
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