I have struggled with something for quite a while, and today in my reading, I stumbled upon an idea that had been silently germinating in my mind for quite some time. In our culture, we have this incredible tendency to objectify things. We easily draw lines between groups and races and people of different cultures and even the genders by objectifying them. We see them as either objects of competition, objects of our pursuits, objects to be exploited for our own personal gain or objects that are simply disposable and can be discarded when their usefulness has expired.
Several years ago, as I began my doctoral studies, the consort of which I was a part lived in the same dormitory, ate meals together and studied together for more than three weeks. One of the members of the group referred to the relationships that we would establish as “Bic relationships.” Like Bic products (think anything from ballpoint pens to cigarette lighters), we would greatly enjoy the relationships we established, but they would not be long-lasting and would be discarded once we were no longer together. Ultimately, he was right. We had objectified the relationships to the point that, by graduation, we no longer were really in touch with each other and, after graduation, have completely lost contact.
The relationships were objects … not subjects! Had we chosen to develop subjective relationships with each other, we would have invested ourselves in nurturing those relationships. It would have been less about me and more about the other! But in our educational pursuits, we collectively … I personally … placed ourselves (myself) as the subject (the one at the center) and the other as the object (serving only to support that which was at the center).
I have been reading a book given to me following the death of our son-in-law. A loving soul shared Harold Kushner’s recent book Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. One of the key things he has learned is that God is not a man who lives in the sky. He makes specific reference to Da Vinci’s epic work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and specifically on the part of that work known as the Creation of Adam. In that work, God is depicted as an old, bearded man surrounded by cherubim. While works like this help make God more real for us, they also create serious theological issues and ultimately limit God to the sum total of our own imaginations.
Kushner then makes an incredible case for the second commandment to create no graven images of God, and he talks about this in such a way that I began to think again about the distinction between subject and object. Who is the subject and who is the object in Da Vinci’s famous work? How do we objectify God by making an effort to cast God in an image limited by human imagination? Is it possible that the second commandment really means that we should avoid objectifying God?
In grammar, the subject of the sentence (usually coming early in the sentence) is acting upon the object of the sentence (usually coming in the second part of the sentence). “Dad is taking Susan to school,” in this analysis, means that Dad is the subject who takes Susan who is the object. The problem is not with labeling people or God as subject or object in grammar. “The congregation worships God” is a good sentence with a great meaning, so this is less about grammar and more about a larger picture.
The larger picture was captured well for me in a work by Dr. Robert Webber, who for years served on faculty at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. His work is titled, The Divine Embrace, and I remembered reading an excerpt of that book in Christianity Today many years ago. The title of the article was God is Not the Object of Our Worship. In that article, he highlights that we think of God as the object of our worship, while we maintain ourselves as the subject of our worship. In other words, the way we worship is so often about us and less about God. It is about how we feel, how we are fed, how we are nourished and how we flourish in our worship. It is about us holding ourselves at the center of our own universe and asking God to serve us and make us whole.
The difference may seem subtle and a bit semantic, but I think it is vitally important. This is where the theme of my life and ministry comes back into play. It is not about us … it is about God. To let go and let God is to see ourselves as the objects of a God who is capable of transforming us and recreating us into God’s own image through our worship. We are the ones acted upon by this one who is the subject of our worship … not the object of our worship. When God is the subject of our worship, we are fulfilled and fed, but in a very different, surprising way than we might ever imagine.
As our family has continued working through a very trying time in our lives, I have been thinking a great deal about the difference between subject and object. In grief and caring ministries at Wellspring, we utilize a diagram that comes from the work of Susan Silk, a psychologist, and Barry Goldman, a family mediator. It is called the Ring Theory of Kvetching. Kvetching is complaining or, in their words, dumping on others. It is the complaint or expression of pain that comes from suffering. The diagram is perhaps best depicted by the Edith Sanford Breast Foundation, and it looks like this:
In our family, we have made it very clear that our daughter and granddaughter are “ground zero” in the tragic death of their husband and father. While the grief is profound for all of us, I am not the one at the very center of this tragedy. For me to kvetch inward is to objectify my daughter and attempt to make myself the subject (the center) of the diagram, and it is incredibly harmful to my daughter and her family should that happen. Likewise, it is harmful to us when people farther removed from the situation kvetch inward to us and, often very unintentionally, displace us from our rightful role in this circle.
Ultimately, this same circle makes sense in our relationship with God. Instead of caring and dumping (kvetching), it has to do with empowering and worshipping. In this way of thinking, God empowers out to us and we worship in toward the center. We are people who are called to worship, but our worship doesn’t happen without the work of the Holy Spirit. When God is the subject of our worship, then it is God’s Holy Spirit who guides and shapes our worship.
Leonard Sweet, in his book, The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us the Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong, tells the following story:
There is an old Hasidic story about a young Jewish lad who lived on an isolated farm with his family. They were quite poor and lived simple lives. One day the boy got to travel to a village with his father. He was drawn to a synagogue where he heard prayers being recited. His heart was touched, so he went in and sat down to listen to the prayers. The boy was deeply moved and wanted to join in the prayers, but he could not read the siddur, the Hebrew prayer book. So he closed his eyes and simply prayed the alphabet, “Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet, hey, fav …” He recited the alphabet over and over again. Then he said, “O God, I don’t know how to pray or what to say. Here are the letters of the alphabet. Use them to make up the prayer I should pray, the words you would like to hear, and answer my prayer as you see fit for me.”
The boy’s prayer in that story is perhaps the most authentic form of worship. Maybe the best way to keep God as the subject is just to open our mouths, utter the alphabet and ask God to construct whatever it is that needs to be offered in worship.
Jesus, likewise, knew the power of this, and he admonished his followers, “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11, CEB)
And Paul likewise carries out this theme when he says, “In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.” (Romans 8:26, CEB)
So as I finished my devotional and reading for today, it became clear to me that God is not the object of my affections. God is the subject of my entire life. God is not the object of my worship. God is the subject of passion in my life.
How different would our church be if we saw God as the subject of our lives? How different would be our world? How would we treat others if we saw them as subjects and not objects of our affections?
This is ultimately the destination of my decades-long journey of letting go and letting God: discovering that God is the subject of everything in my life and we, the children of God, are the objects of God’s affections! Make God the subject and you will change the world!