Friday, November 15, 2013

Mangoes and the nature of God



  
One of the best parts about living in our part of Africa is this: MANGOES.

All the fresh mangoes you can eat! 


Growing up in the United States, for me, mangoes were these exotic, luxury fruits that sat on special display in the local grocery store.  They were expensive - having journeyed a great distance to make it from the field to our produce section.


For Westerners, mangoes are special treats.


For our Mozambican friends, though, oftentimes mangoes are the only thing standing between them and severe hunger.  I know that may sound dramatic, but mangoes serve as a ‘stop gap,’ helping people make it to next year’s harvest.  So, while a stomach full of mangoes is not the most nutritious thing in the world, it does provide enough energy to keep going. 


For the past few weeks, the temperature has been steadily climbing and the mango tree in our backyard has sent larger and larger cascades of fruit crashing down on our tin roof.  Each afternoon, friends drop by asking if they can collect mangoes from our yard.  Most people here in Cabo Delgado have spent the last few weeks working in their farms and getting the soil ready for planting.  The harvest won’t begin coming in until a few months from now.  Everyone around here knows that we’ve officially entered the time of hunger. 


Aaron Roland, a former colleague of ours here in Montepuez, used to talk about how God’s character is evident in the mango tree.  He would say that God knows that November and December are tough months and has provided an abundance of food freely available to help get everyone through it.   



 Our God is like a mango tree in the way that he is generously providing for his children in their needs at their hardest times.   


Earlier this week, I was with a group of church leaders who posed this question:  “Is God a man or a woman?”


I responded by saying that sometimes in scripture God is portrayed using masculine metaphors and sometimes feminine metaphors.  God, for example, is called our Father (Matthew 6:9); our King (Psalm 47:7); and pictured as a shepherd who looks for his lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).  But on the other hand the Bible has beautiful feminine imagery portraying God as a mother who can’t forget the children she nursed (Isaiah 49:14-15); a woman in childbirth (Isaiah 42:14); a midwife (Psalm 71:6); a hen sheltering her baby chicks (Psalm 91:4); a mother eagle protecting her offspring (Deut. 32:11); a female bear protecting her cubs (Hosea 13:8); a woman working leaven into the dough (Luke 13:18-21); and a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).


So, the Bible is rich with masculine and feminine imagery for God.  But, it's important to remember that God is way beyond what we can imagine. 

God has no gender – God is God.


I then took a deep breath and gave them this example.


My daughters probably couldn’t give an abstract description of who I am.  It would be impossible for them to give one that is complete.  They see me leave the house before they go to school in the morning and then welcome me back home in the afternoon from spending time in a village.  They see me teaching and preaching in languages that they don’t understand.  They know that Rachel and I had a life before they came into existence, though it is hard for them to imagine (actually, it’s hard for me to imagine as well!)


But if you asked them to describe who I am in relation to them… well, that’s a different story.  Katie would have no trouble rattling off a list of books that she likes me to read to her before bedtime.  She would talk about how I pick her up when she’s scared of the dog and there’s a good chance she’ll mention me making her favorite pancakes for breakfast last week.


When the Israelites described God they didn’t use abstract words like omnipotent and omnipresent or impassable.  Instead, they told the stories of the way God worked with them in history.  They told of how God was the One who called and cared for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They testified to the way I-AM-WHO-I-AM dramatically rescued them from bondage in Egypt. Then in the New Testament, Paul refers to God by way of his powerful action in sending the Son - "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:6).


There is no way that we humans can understand the nature of God.  God is far beyond our understanding (we haven't even touched on the idea of the trinity!).  The only thing we can do is to describe the way that God has related to us.  That’s why the Bible is such a gift.  We get these beautiful and painful tales of a great God who goes to great lengths to save us. 


One of my favorite Biblical scholars, Ben Witherington, says this:

“In the New Testament, there are only three nouns used of God.  God is love.  God is life.  And God is light… the three ‘L’s.  Everything else is an adjective.  God is righteous (adjective).  God is holy (adjective).  God is sovereign (adjective)… I mean, we could keep going down that road.   But it’s got to be significant that when we are talking about God and using another noun… it’s love, life and light.”

The Bible uses a variety of titles and metaphors to describe God.  But, until the Lord is fully revealed to us, we humans will continue to fail to wrap our minds around the nature of God.  In the midst of our failings, though, those times that we come the closest to understanding our Creator are when we name the ways that God has been active in our world, loving us so fully and bringing us great and sustaining gifts such as life, light… and mangoes!  


Grace and Peace,

Alan

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