by The Rev. Danae M. Ashley
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him? Isaiah 40:18
There is an old story about a small group of blind people encountering an elephant for the first time. Each person was led to a different part of the elephant’s body and described out loud what they were touching. The parts were so different that they could not believe that they were all feeling the same animal. After all, a tusk is quite unlike an ear, trunk, leg, or tail. Yet each thought they knew what an elephant was based off their limited experience and, of course, were vehement that their viewpoint was the correct one.
I remember encountering this story for the first time as an adolescent, and gaining new perspective that perhaps I was not the center of the world and my experience of life thus far was not the same as everyone’s. This realization also extended to my understanding of God. The deep way I knew and felt loved by God was challenged by difficult experiences and people who did not hold the same views. I had only touched one part of the elephant.
When I was in seminary in my late 20s, I attended a retreat where the leader asked each person to picture God in their mind. I was surprised by how differently people described the figure that came into their mind’s eye: an old man with a white beard and kind eyes, an energetic woman with full skirts of bright colors and bangles on her wrists, a cruel man with fists ready to fight, a bright and warm light, a grandmother with an ample lap, a voice, and everything in between. As I learned about each person’s story, I began to understand why God appeared to them in those distinctive ways. We were each encountering the elephant and bringing with us our spiritual baggage—bad and good alike. How could we believe that we each beheld a wholly complete vision of God? How do we truly know what God looks like?
A few things have helped me with these questions over time, although I definitely do not have all the answers. Genesis 1:27 tells us that “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (Common English Bible). Not only this, but in verse 31, God saw everything that was made and pronounced it good—this includes humanity. If we want to know what God looks like, we can begin by looking at each other. Our Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant transforms this into action by asking, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and we answer, “I will, with God’s help” (Book of Common Prayer, 305).
For those whose images of God are shaped by childhood shame or trauma inflicted upon them by their parents or other adults in positions of authority, I found Dennis, Matthew, and Sheila Linn’s book Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God to be very helpful. They assert that God is Love, and if our actions are not born out of love, we might want to question our motivations. God loves us without measure—even more than the person who loves us the most. We are good enough for God, right here and right now, and if that is not transforming, I do not know what is.
Reflecting on all this, I cannot help but wonder how my relationship with God will grow in this new year. Which part of the elephant, so-to-speak, will I experience and ponder as the days unfold? I pray that, with God’s help, we will all be transformed by the Love that sustains us as we follow Jesus, living together in this time of ambiguous loss, adaptation fatigue, and personal loss.
The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle,LLC. She has written for a number of publications, produced a play, and has been featured on several podcasts regarding fertility struggle and faith. Danae’s favorite past times include reading, traveling with her husband, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.