Friday, May 06, 2005

Over, Around and Under: God's Arms

For about a year and a half now I've been working my way through a great book called Meditation: a Practical Guide to a Spiritual Discipline (McCormick and Fish, Intervarsity Press, 1983). It says on the cover "Quiet Times for Forty Days" but here I am, eighteen months in and still at it. The studies are so thoughtfully structured, and the questions they pose so insightful, that it often takes me two weeks, doing usually two sessions a week, to finish just one of the forty studies.

A recent meditation on the idea of "dwelling" highlighted Deuteronomy 33:27, and got me thinking about God's arms. I dove into a cupboard for the concordance. There are three ways the Bible talks about God's arms, each telling us something about a different aspect of God's nature and relation to us.

In the "arms" verses, the way God is most frequently described is as King and Commander, one of unmatched strength possessing complete authority over his people, other nations, and the universe. Here are just a few examples:

Say therefore to the people of Israel 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great acts of judgment...'… (Exodus 6:6, ESV)

For they are your people and your heritage, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm. (Deuteronomy 9:29; the phrase in boldface is used six times in this book.)

…...but you shall fear the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. (2 Kings 17:36)

So strong is God that in these repeated references it's always "arm"; not "arms". He need use only one to be in control of everything: "Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?" (Job 40:9) The Lord God Almighty can lick his enemies with one hand, as it were, tied behind his back.

This image speaks to me most affectingly when I too am strong in body and mind, when I feel secure, purposeful and ready to join the battle led by God, his arm stretched out over his soldiers in direction and command: "Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe. Forward into battle see his banners go..."

But God's arms aren't always stretched out in battle. In the Song of Solomon, the metaphor is God as Lover. His arms, both of them now, wrap around his Beloved in embrace:

His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me! (Song of Solomon 2:6 and 8:3; in the New International Version, these verses use the word "arm" instead of "hand".)

It's when I feel alive and passionate in spirit and imagination that this image feeds me most: relating to God as the one who embraces us, delights in us and rejoices over us in holy relationship.

But when I have no strength and am weak in body, mind or spirit - only two or three time an hour, I assure you - then God's arms become those described in Deuteronomy 33:27a:

The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms...…

These arms are not stretched over me as the Commander's arm, or wrapped around me as the Lover's. They are underneath. Whose arms need to be underneath? These must be the arms of one who catches the falling; one who carries the weary and broken; one who cradles the new, small and vulnerable.

And notice the reminding adjective in this verse, so kindly included for the insecure hearts of those who fall into those arms: everlasting.

My Meditation book ends each chapter with a section called Further Study. I haven't done any of those yet - any more probing questions and I'll be in this book until doomsday! Still, the Further Study I would append to my own writing here would be Isaiah 40:10-11:

Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.

In these two verses we have, laid out wonderfully together, our three images of God: the Strong, the Passionate and the Nurturing; God over, God around, God under. Give them a little meditation.


At 10:56 am, May 09, 2005, Blogger Paula said...

You've reminded me of St. Patrick's words:
Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within.
Christ below me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right hand,
Christ on my left.

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