The Names of God

photo of a vineyard early in the morning

by Michael Shapcott

I wonder…

I wonder why God has so many names and nick-names.

Today, we read God is:

  • a sheep and a lamb;
  • a silent one;
  • Yahweh;
  • the One;
  • El Shaddai;
  • love – oh yes, God is love.

And, for the viniculturists amongst us, we learned God is:

  • the true vine; and
  • the gardener.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are at least 18 formal names for God, including:

  • Eloah – God, mighty, strong and prominent;
  • Yahweh-Shalom – the Lord our peace; and,
  • El Roi – God of seeing.

There are hundreds of nick-names for God in the Bible, such as: 

  • bread of life and breath of life; 
  • bright morning star;
  • comforter;  
  • dayspring; 
  • gentle whisper; and
  • lily of the valley. 

I wonder…

I wonder is God so big that God cannot be contained within the words of human language?

I am in a theological course on Catholic social teaching. One of my fellow students is a Jesuit novitiate from Dallas. He talks about “Jesus in a box” – a crude attempt by some to define faith narrowly and personally, then use that narrow definition to exclude others.

Sadly, for many people, their relationship with the world starts with themselves, and goes no further. If I pull on this T-shirt that Anna so kindly gave me to celebrate my left-handedness, I also do a bit of a slam-dunk on all of you “righties” out there.

In more extreme cases, there is a vicious self-centredness combined with toxic masculinity that drives some to murderous extremes. Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote on Thursday:

From the Oklahoma bombing to the massacre in Norway it is always the same. In the immediate aftermath of mass murder, the initial hypothesis is that it must be a Muslim. And so it was on Monday that, within minutes of a van mowing down pedestrians in Toronto, a far-right lynching party was mobilised on social media looking for jihadis. Paul Joseph Watson, of conspiracy site Infowars, announced, “A jihadist has just killed nine people”; Katie Hopkins branded the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a “terrorist shill”. But there is a far safer assumption one can generally make. For while a relatively small proportion of mass killers in North America are Muslim, across the globe they are almost all men. There will be, though, no appeals for moderate men to denounce toxic masculinity, no extra surveillance where men congregate, no government-sponsored schemes to promote moderate manhood, or travel bans for men… Obviously not all men are killers. But the fact that virtually all mass killers are men should, at the very least, give pause for thought…

It’s not just in the ugliest acts of mass violence that we witness a radical self-centredness that is the very opposite of the outward-facing love that we are called to live.

Perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many names for God is that God doesn’t want us to limit our imagination, our minds, and especially not our hearts, when it comes to our relationship with the God that is love; and when it comes to living that love in the world.

I wonder…

I wonder what Jesus meant when he called himself the true vine. And what does viniculture have to do with the love that we read in First John: The love of God, and the love that is God, abides in us, and flows through our relationships with each other. To the whole world. A mighty river of love.

Susie Henderson wrote this in her Prayer for Toronto, which you can find on the home page of the Church of the Holy Trinity:

May we be living signs of witness to Divine love that draws us near and sends us out.

In the name of the God who is known as Love, may we walk this prayer out of the door and stand with others in our communities to repair the world and restore the streets to live in.

This morning, in our pre-worship forum, we heard the words of the poet Fred Moten speaking of essayist James Baldwin. Moten told us that Baldwin offers an insight into how we can look devotionally into the world with love.

None of us can set aside who we are, what we are, what have been the experiences of our lives, and the influences of our culture. I am left-handed, coeliac, and accordion-loving; father to Nicole and Malcolm; an aging white, straight, cis-gendered male in a loving partnership. But my identity, and your different identity, doesn’t mean we are doomed to exist in bubbles with no real contact and no real love shared with each other. Moten says of Baldwin:

He teaches us to look so closely, and with such devotion and such love, that we begin to see through what we thought that we had seen. The beauty of his writing, his prophecy, his seeing is that it troubles its readers, not only to look for themselves, and in a sense through themselves, often to the point of being beside themselves. To be beside oneself with such devotional looking is to practice in this regard a kind of selflessness. Every time he writes about looking at black people, he writes with the perspective of looking with black people. This might seem to be a small thing… one possible word that we could use for that capacity is empathy…

I wonder…

I wonder how many of those people listening to Jesus as he described himself as the “true vine” thought back to the fifth chapter of Isaiah. This wonderful poem begins: “Let me sing for my beloved, a song of my lover about his vineyard”. A tender tale of two lovers joined as one, their love sealed in the planting of a vineyard on a “fruitful hill”. Together, the lovers break the ground, build terraces and plant choice vines. Everything is good and beautiful:  Who cannot fail but be drawn into this romance?

But then, disaster! Instead of fresh, sweet grapes, there is sour fruit. Bitterness in the vineyard; the lovers fall apart. One tells the other: I hope the clouds dry up, and the vineyard turns into desert. The listeners are devastated. Such sweet love lost.

Isaiah, who is never subtle, turns to his audience – rulers, priests and people of Israel (God’s chosen people, as they often remind themselves). He tells them the lovers are God and themselves. The people have betrayed their loving relationship with God through injustices against one another.

Isaiah’s poem of rebuke ends with a Hebrew word-play:

And [God] hoped for justice. But behold, injustice;

For equity. But behold, iniquity!

The English translation falls short of the wittiness of the Hebrew, but here’s the point: The way we act towards each other, not just when we are happy and agree, but when we are hurt and disagree – that is the real measure of the love we are expected to manifest. God weeps when we betray that standard.

Speaking of word-play in Hebrew, let me mention my own name, Michael. It translates from Hebrew as “who is like God?”. Crucially, there is a question mark. So, who is like God? The answer: no one is like God, except for God. Certainly not me, nor any other human. So, thanks to my Mom and Dad for a name that contains a daily theological reminder. God has many names and many nick-names. But remember, none of us are God, so let’s not act like we are…

And so, I wonder.

I wonder if the people listening to Jesus reflected on their experience of grape-growing. The cultivation of grapes was common in Jesus’s time. For thousands of years, grapes had been harvested in Palestine. Perhaps some – listening to Jesus talk about branches, vines and fruit – started to rub backs tired from the labour required to tend vines so they can bear bountiful and sweet fruit.

Even before the first stalk is planted, there’s labour to prepare the soil and the structures. Vineyards are often on hills, which require terraces. A watchtower is needed to look for thieves. Once stalks are planted, then pruning begins. No fruit is allowed on the vine for years. The vine, the branches, the soil, the water, the nutrients – it’s all important, and it is all hard work.

The measure of our success is not in boasts about how much sweat we have tasted. The true measure of success in living and loving in the world, and with each other, is in the quality and quantity of the sweet fruit harvested.

So, finally, I still wonder…

I wonder what it means to have God’s love abide in us, and for us to abide in God’s love.

Abide is a beautiful and ancient word, with roots through Old English, Old Saxon and Old High German – stretching back to Old Norse. Its meaning is in the words “wait” and “stay”.

When I think of abiding while also tending grapevines, I imagine a cool dusk. The sunshine is still hot on the ground; the air is cooled by a breeze. A hard day’s work is complete. There is just time for wine, and cheese, a crusty gluten-free bread and a good companion. I relax into a hammock at the edge of the vineyard, into the comfort of the soft evening light. There is the gentle murmur of the accordion.

This is the romantic version of breathing in and breathing out love. In the real world that you and I navigate every day – the real world where we are called to bring love and live love even as we are snubbed, bruised and hurt in a thousand little and not-so-little ways by those around us – in this real world it is hard to live a Godly life, a loving life.

And that’s when we abide in God the Day Spring, God the Lily of the Valley, God the Gentle Whisper, and God the Breath of Life.

Love is truly all around us, and in us, and flows through us – if only we are open to it. If you need to deeply connect with this mighty love, you can find it in the grace that flows through this wonderful, though wounded, world.

Perhaps the strongest theological expression that “love is all around” comes from the 1960s pop group the Joystrings. Captain Joy Webb led this remarkable group of Salvation Army musicians in London.

Listen to this: