I was seated with a school of theology after some kind of celebratory meal when unexpectedly a member of the faculty who was not particularly fond of me or my Biblical interpretations decided to challenge me to a debate. The subject he announced was to be how a Christian conceived of Jesus, whether a physical/historical Jesus; at once fully human and fully God; or a spiritual, invisible, everywhere-but-nowhere-in- particular kind of God. And did it matter? And I was to choose one side or the other and argue its merit. I was still a little stunned when this gentleman announce that I could go first. In other words, I would not have the benefit of pondering what in the world I would say while he took the lead discourse. As the dream continued, I stood and began to speak, and this is more or less what I said:
Jesus is, without doubt, many things. While on earth he referred to himself in his discourses in many ways: Son of God, Son of man, rabbi or teacher, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, and so on. Whether or not we see him as the physical Jesus of the incarnation, or an invisible unknowable God being everywhere and nowhere, I believe it definitely matters. How we perceive God matters greatly. If we see God as an angry God ready to punish man for our glaring imperfections and bad behavior – in other words, the God most Jews in the Old Testament portrayed – we will hide from him and run away in fear as they did in Exodus when he showed up on Mount Sinai. If we see God as perfectly revealed in Jesus, a God who is love, a God who allows himself to be tortured and killed in the eternity-changing event of the cross, we run towards God and allow the Holy Spirit to change us. Uttering the ultimate words of forgiveness, Jesus invited the Godhead to forgive and redeem mankind once for all time – the Godhead of which he is part. This picture of God will make us lovers and participants in his redemptive plan.
Although Jesus is mostly unknowable, we all develop a sense of who he is. For me, it’s been a lifelong journey of discovering bit by bit. When I was a child in Italy, my very Catholic grandfather would tell me about Jesus. My idea of Jesus was incomplete and misshapen. I particularly remember Francesco telling me about the parable of the denari, the parable of the talents. To whom much is given much is expected. I can’t imagine what I really thought of that, but I knew God had given me much and like my grandfather, he would expect much from me. As it turned out, my grandfather had expected much of his own son and was disappointed. As the story continues, my uncle expected much from me and others, and was also disappointed. He came to America and worked his way through a doctorate and a chairmanship of a department at the University of Texas but was never able to please his father. My uncle tried to talk sense into me when I was a teenager, but it didn’t take. I never got the Ph.D. he wanted for me, and I was practically dead to him as he was to his own father.
How we see our fathers, or grandfathers, or uncles, matters greatly. And how we see God and Jesus matters even more. Some believe that those of us with bad fathers make it difficult to see Father God as good and loving. My own journey began by being abandoned by my earthly father on the day I was born, but somehow I never judged the one through the dirty lens of the other. My own concepts began with a kind of New Age God, then began to change when I studied the Bible. At the outset, my Christian understanding was largely shaped by pastors, professors, and other mainstream sources. But with time I began to read more widely, especially with the early fathers who were closer to the actual days Jesus walked the Earth. And the most valuable lessons have come in those precious moments of inspiration and miracles that spoke more eloquently and clearly about him than words ever could.
As I woke up from this dream debate, I slipped out of bed quietly so as not to awaken my wife or forget the dream, and sat down at the computer to write. It was definitely a God moment. I never took a clear position in this supposed debate, but it really doesn’t matter, because it was all a dream. But it was a great dream. And as I began to awaken, I continued to “speak” most eloquently. What is your version of God? Don’t think me presumptuous if I just say that if that vision does not see a God who is love!, then perhaps you should keep on searching.
Before signing off, I want to share just one episode in my journey that exemplifies the wonderful experiences of God that have modified how I view the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One wonderful Saturday in Montana, I was on the couch with a few books about God and a notebook, relishing this moment of peace and pondering Him. The phone rang and it was a neighbor inviting me over to bring my Labrador retriever and use the field in front of his house. He had a tiny little blind and a flock of goose decoys set up, and I could go and probably shoot a bird. I reluctantly left my books and prayers behind, more for Tessy my Labrador Retriever, than for me. She was a great couch dog, but also a very eager bird dog. It was a gorgeous clear blue sky of a day. A vivid cerulean blue with fluffy cotton-white clouds. I slid into this little tent and lay there with my shotgun on the ground next to me, pondering the big sky beauty of Montana, the mountains, and God seemed as close as he ever is.
I lay there for about an hour, feeling God more real than I ever could have those books I left behind. No geese were to be seen, and frankly, I was relieved. Tessy lay quietly behind me. Then I heard a voice as clear as ever I’ve heard. “Get ready, here they come!”… I gathered my wits, and lay there trying to comprehend the moment. I was ready, or thought I was. But I heard the voice again: “Don’t you need to pick up your gun?” I supposed I should, so I reached over and picked up my seldom used Benelli, and waited. Within no more than ten seconds, I heard it… “Honk, Honk…Honk”… and it got louder until they burst into my field of vision, laying in the little bivouac tent, and I sat up. Here they were, landing right in front of me! But wait, before you anti-gun people are too scandalized, I shot three times and missed. They were close enough for a double, but I didn’t even get feathers.
You may be wondering how this amazing day might have shaped my concept of who Jesus is. Did I conclude that God is pro-hunting? Does he enjoy a bit of sport from time to time? Some of the guys might be wondering if God likes a good game of football. But no, that’s not what I got out of it. I was struck by a God who wanted me to know just how much he cared about what I cared about. A God who would participate in even the most “un-spiritual” moment in my life. And what really made it perfect was that I didn’t have to deal with dead birds, feathers, and bird guts. Did he make me miss? Or did I manage that all on my own? That theological point would never be clear. How he stands on football is for you to find out.