November 23, 2009

What Is God Like?

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has actually seen!

- From The Blind Men and The Elephant, by John Godfrey Saxe

It appears to me that the vast majority of people in the world do believe in God. They just don't all have the same view of who or what God is. For most of my life I have been wondering, what is God like? This is something of a universal question, and of those who take it up seriously, we do tend to come to some conclusions at some point. Trouble is, we don't all come to the same conclusions. Where two or more are gathered in the name of God, it is likely there are two or more opinions about what God is like.

Most of us who do have a notion that there is a God also have a notion that God is a good and loving being who wants all his adherents to be good and loving and kind people. Which is why it is so ironic that we, as John G. Saxe puts it, "war" and "dispute" and "ween" and "rail on" and "prate" about how our God, or my God, whom we have never actually seen, is more accurately imagined than your God. You know, like "my god can beat up your god." It's worse than that, actually. There are some who would even kill to be "right," or anyway kill to have the last word.

It's wearying, sometimes, to listen to all the speculation about what heaven will be like when we get there, or anyway if we do. The notion that there will be a mansion for every "man" and streets paved with gold does not comport with my picture of God as a modest, easygoing guy who isn't concerned about wealth and privilege, and who prefers the mountains to the city. Gee, that sounds a lot like me! I wonder how many of us project ourselves into our notion of God.

I know a few people who have a vision of God that ought to scare the hell out of me, and would, if I'd only buy in to it. Brusque and imposing and spoiling to punish any sin and every sinner. Their God is not a fun-loving guy because when your judgment day comes, and it will, you're going to be in deep trouble if you played cards, drank beer, or looked twice at any pretty girl (the list is much longer than this). I've done all that and worse. Gulp.

I know a lot of Muslim guys. Their view of God is similarly imposing, but you get a little wiggle room. In their view, God will forgive you for the bad stuff you do, but you have to earn it. You get so many points for fasting, so many points for saying your prayers five times a day -- or more, so many points for a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca etc. In the end, all the bad you've done is put on a scale against all the good, and that's how God judges you. I will hand it to them, they do seem to pray quite a bit more than the Christians I know.

I'm somewhat attracted to the Catholic view of God. Well, anyway, the one shared by most of the Catholic guys I know. In their view God doesn't like sin but it's o.k. to do bad stuff, because God's pretty quick to forgive. An occasional confession, a hail Mary if you can't face God directly and need a little intercession, and you're back in good stead. One Catholic client of mine used to joke that he needed to get into a little trouble each week because he needed something to confess on Sunday.

Then there's my atheist brother in law who believes that God simply doesn't exist. To him our God(s) is simply a made up crutch to emotionally bolster those of us who can't bear the thought that this life is all we have, and when it's over, it's over. Period. End of story. Alternatively, there's my agnostic brother, who doesn't admit or deny the existence of God -- he merely asserts it's impossible to know so therefore he is noncommital.

Well, it may really be impossible for us to know with certainty the totality of what God is like, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to know something of what he is like. It's less likely we'll know if we don't make any effort to know. So I am making an effort to know. And notwithstanding the tale of the blind men and the elephant, how else should we describe our view of God to each other than how we each have experienced God? So let me begin by telling you a true story of how I experienced God one time.

About 20 years ago I traveled from Fresno, California, to a small, three day conference of the Mennonite Camping Association held at a Mennonite camp near Lincoln City, Oregon. I'd gone to the conference, with my wife and a good friend of ours, John Bergey. We took two days to drive up to the conference, but decided to drive straight through on our way back.

On the way home we took turns driving, and I ended up driving the last stretch from Sacramento to Fresno -- about a three hour stretch. It was near 2 a.m. and we were about half way from Sacramento to Fresno when I suddenly started awake and realized I'd dozed off. I was driving, and both Sue and John were asleep. I started to look for a place to pull over so I could get out and get my blood flowing. Meanwhile, I was very drowsy, and I thought, in my head, "God, you have the power to make me not sleepy, and this is very dangerous, and so I am asking you to make me not sleepy." Nothing happened and I continued to look for a place to pull over, but I also continued to run that thought through my head. It was more like a whine than a real petition. About the third or fourth time I ran that thought through my head I had the sensation of a fingertip touching the top of my head and immediately I felt a current, like a low voltage of electricity run slowly down my body from the top of my head to my toes. As the current ran through me, I was energized and awake. Wide awake.

I was so excited I woke up Sue and John and told them about what had just happened. They really didn't know what to think. Most of the people I share this story with have a similar reaction. Unfortunately I have not developed a reputation in my life for complete and unadulterated veracity.

This event happened to me, though. And some of the implications of it have become clear to me over time.

1. There is a God.
2. God can hear our thoughts.
3. God, or his agents, do answer our prayers.
4. God, or his agents, do intervene in our lives.
5. God is not bound by the laws of physics and science as we know them.
6. God, or his agents, cared enough about me (and or my wife and/or our friend, John Bergey) to directly answer my prayer and performed a miracle to do it.

November 18, 2009

Cross-Examination of Mr. Christian

Background: A trial is being held to determine, by jury vote, what one must do to have eternal life after death. You are a member of the jury panel, and will be called on at the end of the trial to vote on the question. Mr. Christian has just given his testimony that all of those, but only those, who believe in Jesus, and who confess, while living, that Jesus is the Savior of the World and the Forgiver of Our Sins, and who ask Jesus for forgiveness of their sins, will be granted eternal life in heaven with God. Mr. Skeptic is now going to cross-examine Christian.

Question, by Mr. Skeptic: Mr. Christian, you say that Jesus is God. Is that correct?

Answer: Correct.

Queston: And you say that God has many names. Is that correct?

Answer: That is correct. In the Old Testament alone God is called “I Am,” “Yahweh,” “Lord” or “The Lord,” “Adonai,” “Adonai Elohim,” “Jehovah,” “El,” which was a common word for “God,” and a number of variations of “El” such as “El Shaddai,” which means God Almighty, “El Elyon,” which means “God Most High,” “El ‘Olam,” which means “Everlasting God.” There are other names.

Question: If Jesus is God, and God has many names, could it be true that Jesus would answer to other names than Jesus?

Answer: Of course. Jesus also has a number of names and titles in the New Testament books. One author has cited 100 names and titles of Jesus from the Old and New Testaments.

Question: Is it possible that Jesus would answer to the name of Allah?

Answer: No, I don’t think so. That name is not in the Bible.

Question: Well, you believe that God is the one true God, isn’t that right?

Answer: Yes.

Question: And do you find it offensive that the Bible is translated into many languages, such that the name of God may be translated into other languages?

Answer: No, not at all. If a Spanish speaking person reads a Spanish language Bible and recognizes the name of God as "Dios," that would be commendable.

Question: But not commendable if an Arabic speaking person recognizes the name of God as “Allah?”

Answer: No.

Question: Did you know that the literal translation of “Allah” from Arabic to English is “the God?”

Answer: Yes, I know that. But the God which Muslims refer to as “Allah” is not the same God which Jews and Christians refer to as God.

Question: Really? Do you know that Muslims believe in most of the Old Testament teachings given to Moses by the God of Abraham?

Answer: Yes, I know that.

Question: And do you know that Muslims believe that God is the one true God, which, in their belief system is the God of Abraham?

Answer: Yes, I know that. Perhaps I should amend my previous responses. I think that “Allah” as the Arabic name for God is fine, provided the Arabic person speaking the name “Allah” has the correct understanding of God. And I’ll agree with you that Muslims do purport to believe in the God of Abraham, but their understanding of scripture is wrong, and in particular they have the wrong understanding of Jesus and what it means to be saved.

Question: What is your understanding of what it means to be saved -- and by that term I mean, to have eternal life after death?

Answer: This is what I just testified about. My belief is that, in order to have eternal life after death, one has to believe that Jesus is God and that he has the power to forgive sins. Then, understanding that only Jesus can forgive, one merely has to ask Jesus to forgive them for their sins. It’s that simple. If you do this you will be saved.  You will have eternal life.

Question: So, if Jesus is God, and he might answer by other names, wouldn’t it be possible for him, answering to the name “Allah,” to forgive the sins of Muslims who call on him by the name of “Allah” and who, believing that God, the God of Abraham, can forgive sins, asked for forgiveness of their sins?

Answer: That’s really blasphemous. Muslims who pray to Allah are not praying to Jesus. They think of Jesus only as a prophet, not as God.

Question: So you think that Muslims have a misunderstanding of Jesus?

Answer: Yes. Yes. They do not understand who Jesus was and is.

Question: But wasn’t that also true of the disciples of Jesus, who actually lived with Jesus – that they really didn’t understand who he was?

Answer: Well, yes. They didn’t understand in the beginning. Their understanding was an evolving thing. But at some point, they did come to a more complete understanding.

Question: Is the understanding of all modern Christians about Jesus complete?

Answer: No. Sadly no. Most Christians are either neophytes or blissfully uninformed.  Many Christians are baptized at birth and never really had any understanding of who Jesus is, so it really can't be said that they made an informed decision about him and a knowing petition to him for salvation.

Question: Do you believe you have a complete understanding of who and what God is?

Answer: Well, no. That would be impossible.

Question: And do you believe you have a complete understanding of who and what Jesus is?

Answer: Well, my answer would be the same, inasmuch as Jesus is God.

Question: Do you believe that God sent Jesus to the world – in other words, that God, himself, came to the world -- to accomplish the salvation of all peoples in the world?

Answer: Yes, that’s Biblical.

Question: Do you hope that all peoples in the world will be redeemed, and receive salvation?

Answer: Yes. That is the hope of all Christians. That is the mission of the Christian church.

Question: Would it offend you if God chose to redeem the world in a way that was different than what you understood?

Answer: No. Who am I to tell God what to do?

Question: If you could petition God, and Jesus, to forgive and redeem all those who don’t share your understanding of God and Jesus, would you do so?

Answer: Yes. I would. I do.

Skeptic: O.K. I don’t have any further questions for you at this time, Mr. Christian. I would like to call you back to cross-examine you on some other parts of your testimony at a later date.

Mr. Christian: Fine. I look forward to it.

[Admonishment to the jury members.  Ordinarily you would be asked not to talk about the testimony you have heard, or to begin deliberations until the trial is complete.  However, in this case, I am instructing you to begin your deliberations now and to continue with them until a decision is reached.]

November 16, 2009

What’s In A Name?

There was a story or editorial in the Fresno Bee last year or so in which the writer suggested that parents give their baby girls gender neutral names. 21 years ago I had the same idea, naming our first daughter Jessica (Jessie or Jess), and 18 months later naming our other daughter Valerie (Val). The author of the newspaper piece had a rather narrow rational for the suggestion: namely that if you buy an airline ticket for your son and need to change your plans, you could then have your daughter use the ticket in your son's name without paying a transfer fee. Whatever. I had nobler visions of enabling my daughters to better compete in a world where the playing field is not yet level between genders. While much has changed in the past 21 years, this is still, in many respects, a man’s world.

While a girl might want to neuter her name to level the playing field, there really aren’t a lot of good reasons for a boy -- or at least a normal boy -- to want a girl’s name. In 1974 Johnny Cash recorded a song called “A Boy Named Sue.” The lyrics started out like this:

"My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me Sue."

In Cash's song Sue was a tough name for the boy to live with, but it gave him “gravel in his gut and spit in his eye.” My wife's parents named her Sue and they pretty much got the same result. If you were ever a student in her fourth or fifth grade classes – or, for that matter, late for dinner or neglected to call, you’d know what I mean. Cash ends by singing “and if I ever have a son, I think I’ll name him ….. Bill or George, anything but Sue.”

Now George is a name I like and it just so happens to be my given name. My Christian name. When I was a kid my father -- known variously as James, Jim and J.R. – short for James Richard -- would take me to the Reedley Municipal Airport where he and my mother had a number of airplanes. George Kevorkian ran a crop dusting service from that airport, and I remember he had a sign in the office that said “Let George do it!” I believe that phrase came from a 1940 British comedy film of the same name featuring George Formby. I was named after George the cat. My mother liked that cat. Well, I think she liked the cat, or anyway I hope she did.

Sue’s late uncle was named George Russell Wing. For some reason he did not go by George. I knew him as Russell, though sometimes he would sign off letters as G. Russell. I’ve always liked the name George. In elementary school the kids would sing “Georgie Porgie … kissed the girls and made them cry.” Somewhere along the way I learned to say “for more.” Adults would kid around by saying “by George, I think you’ve got it!” To this day I sign off my correspondence and writings as “by George!”

A former tenant in one of the houses I manage had the name “Hipolito,” which is pronounced “ee-poe-lee-toe.” I have learned enough Spanish now to know that “ee-poe” means “hiccup” and “lee-to” means little. When Hipolito came into the office I used to call him “little hiccup.” He really didn’t think that was funny. Most people like their names and don’t want you messing with them. I think Hipolito actually means "little horse."

One thing I have observed is that a person will be perceived differently by different people, and also will be called different names by different people. I’ve experienced this. I am variously called “George” “honey” “dear” “dad” “father” “Señor George” “Mr. George” “Jorge” (pronounced “hore-hey”) “padrone” “el dueño” and a number of names too off color to print. My father, a colorful man, used to opine that “it’s better to be known as a son of a bitch than to not be known at all.” I guess I am not at risk of not being known at all but I'd just as soon not be called bad names. However, I answer to a lot of different names.

My business partner, Ahmed, is a devout Muslim who refers to God by the name “Allah.” It can be literally translated as “The God.” The first pillar of Islam is that “there is no God but God.” Jews and Christians believe this also, and interestingly all three religions claim that the one true God is the God of Abraham (Ibrahim in the Arabic to English translation). Jews and Christians refer to God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 3:15) though Muslims properly assert that God is the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob. See Genesis 16: 11-12.

Until European settlers were kind enough to bottle them up on reservations and send them missionaries, Native Americans did not have the benefit of the Old and New Testament teaching, nor prophets such as Moses, to help them give a name to God. They did alright, though, referring to God as “Great Grandfather” and “Great Spirit” and other appropriately respectful names. Being part Native American myself (Blackfoot or Blackfeet, if you prefer), I want to give “them heathens” the benefit of the doubt. We may ponder whether, by different names and with different perceptions, ancient Jews, medieval Muslims, 18th century Native Americans, and modern day Christians have each been praying to the same God.

Sometimes it’s awkward to ask someone for their name. Especially when you’ve been in some kind of relationship for a while but never got around to asking for a name. For the past four years I have kidded around with the mailman who delivers mail to our office. The other day Valerie (Val) asked me what his name is. I hadn’t a foggy clue. I’d never asked, and neither had he. Well, really, he doesn’t need to ask, since he delivers my mail every day.

Sometimes it’s scary to ask for a name. God spoke to Moses and Moses had the temerity to ask God his name. In response God simply stated “I am who I am.” Moses wanted to be able to tell the Israelites who it was that gave them the law, and God told Moses to tell the Israelites that “I AM has sent me to you.” Exodus 3:14. See also

In Old Testament times “Jesus” was apparently a fairly common name given by Jewish families to their sons. These days the name “Jesus” (pronounced “hey-soos”) is popular in Mexico and not so popular among practicing Jews. The reasons may seem obvious but I ponder them nonetheless. It was God, himself, who instructed Joseph to name Mary’s son Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebraic name Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:18-25

There is power in some names. It is written that simply by the name of Jesus we can be healed (Acts 4:10) and also that by the name of Jesus our sins can be forgiven (Acts 2:38) and that by believing in the name of Jesus we may have life (John 20:31) and even eternal life (John 6:40). See generally "the name of Jesus" and "eternal life" at

Not everyone who calls on the names of God believes in the power of Jesus’ name. I do. And I believe that all who call on the name of Jesus will be saved. This is a basic tenet of the Christian faith, and I am a Christian.

But there are a significant number of Christians who believe that only by calling on the name of Jesus can one be saved, and then, only by calling on the name of Jesus in your lifetime on this Earth, however short that may be, will you be granted the gift of eternal life. I have searched the scriptures and I am not sure that I can agree with this assertion. I am comfortable in believing in the promise of God that, by calling on the name of Jesus I will be saved. Yet I am also comfortable with the possibility that God really did come to save us all, and that, by whatever name He may be called, the great I AM may have a plan for redemption of those who call on Him, but who for whatever reason do not, in this lifetime, come to believe in or call on Him by the name of Jesus.

I would be interested to know what you think of this idea. Leave a comment for public consideration, or email me with your thoughts.

November 14, 2009


When my wife was diagnosed with cancer last May she started blogging to inform her friends and family about her treatments, her prognoses, and her needs. She suggested that I blog about my perspectives regarding her cancer experience. So I did, under the blog title "The My Wife Has Cancer Blog."

Sue seemed to be getting better (she died in March 2010) and (for a time) there wasn't much to write about on that blog. I got hooked on blogging, though, so I started a new blog, and here it is.

I love to fish, hence the moniker "the fisher." Fishing gives me time to think. I write for my own enjoyment, and because writing forces me to organize my thoughts. I hope you are entertained, or at least provoked by what you read here. If so, leave a comment. Bloggers love comments. Your comments give me something to think about while I fish. This blog is set up to accept comments from members and non members. Non members can comment by selecting the anonymous option under "comment as."

Sam Clemens was a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi river before he became a renowned writer. He abandoned his riverboat career because he did not want to die for the confederate cause in the American civil war. He moved out west, to Nevada, and later to California, and began writing under the pen name Mark Twain. To "mark twain" is a term riverboat pilots used for measuring the depth of the river.

My writing won't be as clever or as deep as that of Mark Twain. But a fisher's line can also find the bottom of the river -- though it's purpose isn't necessarily to do so. Nor is it the purpose of a fisher to know the depth of the river -- though the good ones usually do. Fishers who fish with line are generally not commercial fishers, and only a handful are professionals. Most of us fish principally for our own entertainment, and secondarily to share a little fresh fish with our guests. But every fisher hopes, and certainly I hope, that every once in a while I just might reel in a keeper on The Fisher's Line.