Honest Faith: A God that Suffers

Back in November, I was having a conversation with a priest. I was telling him about how I was angry and upset. I was angry and upset about several things; the state of the world, my personal situation, and the political climate. We got on to talking about images of God. He said that the traditional image of God had become increasingly outdated and inefficient for the modern world. He, even though he didn’t like putting it this way, said we need a “God for Millenials”. He went on to explain that we need a new image that is more accessible and available for people in the digital age. He said he was really playing with the idea and becoming more comfortable with the image of a God that experienced things with each of us and was with each of us in a much more real way than we could fathom. I think he was onto something.

I think I’ve mentioned before that God was my imaginary friend as a child. I often would picture God with me taking walks, having chats, and just sit with me in a very real way. Or as real as a child’s imagination can make something. I began to slowly break from that image of God growing up due to different circumstances. I began to imagine God much bigger than me. Which is the normal default image of God. A being that is bigger and much more powerful than we can imagine. The problem with this image is that a big God is impersonal, unfeeling, and uncaring. This became my default for God. A being that was out there, but didn’t care about me and my little problems. There was a certain phrase that I heard repeatedly that reinforced that image in my mind.

I was a pretty annoying kid. I’m probably still a pretty annoying adult as well. But I went through a pretty rough patch when I was a teenager. I turned to the people I knew at church for help and I heard a phrase that I would continue to hear throughout my adult life as well. “I’ll pray about it.” I used to tell the teenagers that I worked with that if anyone at church, or even if I, said that to them they had my permission to slap them. It reinforces the part of the Big God image that is distant and uncaring. I understand it was a way for people to distance themselves from me and my problems. I even understand why they would do that, but I think that in doing so to the least and most annoying of us we moved the church. The church became distant, individualist, and impersonal.

We are in a defining moment for the western Church. Do we continue with this image of being distant, individualist, and impersonal; slowly becoming a cult of the uncaring god? OR Do we change our image of God to broaden what we once thought to be true, becoming more inclusive, including, and caring? I realize that nothing is every as black and white as that, but I see that there are a lot of issues that seem to be pulling the church in both directions. Just the other day a prominent “Christian” (sorry, I can’t judge this person, but what he says and his actions speak in a different voice to me) leader said that if we don’t fall in line and support the country’s leader we were going against god. To me, that seems very cult like and a product of an impersonal image of God. I see some other prominent church leaders who are pushing us to think bigger and stretch our thinking of God during this time to be more inclusive. Those voices I appreciate.

Right now in this country, we are being called to help those who are suffering or asked to ignore it. We are asked to believe lies as fact or to stand up to falsehoods. We are called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; or ignore, be selfish and distance ourselves.

The image that the priest and I talked about a few months ago has stayed with me. For the first time since I was a child, I was able to picture God with me in a very real way. I broke down emotionally on my drive out to meet with the priest. I cried about all that I was upset and angry about. I yelled at God. After we talked about that image, I could picture God sitting next to me in the car. God was crying with me. God was upset like I was upset. This God was both my God and everyone’s God at the same time. It was as if God divided Godself to be with each of us. To be alongside all of creation at the same time. This was a beautiful picture to me. It was the picture that informed my ideas about Putting God Back together. 

This is not an image of God that excludes the “Big God” but clarifies it. This God is both everywhere and outside this reality at the same time. This is a God that suffers when we suffer, who is alongside the protester at the march, who is building a habitat for humanity house alongside former President Jimmy Carter, who is helping refugees in foreign lands weeping with them over their losses, who is celebrating alongside those who celebrate. This is a God that is both your God and My God, but much bigger than that too. A God that tasked us with Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. A God that knows you can do it because that God is right there beside you doing the work with you as you do it.

I know this a stretching idea. I know that this is a little bit of a different image, because it asks you to think outside yourself. It’s uncomfortable to think about other people. It’s dangerous to go against the norm. But I invite you to get to know the God who has been beside you all along. The God who suffers with you.

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Christian Guilt

Yesterday my wife and I both read an article that set our blood to boiling. On one hand, I began to wonder about why we actually subject ourselves to such drivel (yeah, why do you read my rantings?), on the other, I started to think about what he was saying and realized he and I had more to feel guilty about than those he was trying to call out. I thought a lot about this notion of guilt.  I thought about healthy, and unhealthy guilt. I thought about what really separates the two, and that put me in the writing mood…

I remember as a young person I would attend a school, church, and even camps that told me I was a sinner. They told me that I should feel bad because I was. In essence, I was asked to understand a heavy burden that I was to bear. I’m not sure they precisely meant it in that way, but that’s the way my small brain took it. They told me that God loved me so much that God came to relieve me from that burden. To be honest, that is part of the Gospel message, but it isn’t everything about the gospel. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that what they did was bad. I’m saying that it probably isn’t the best thing to be telling children about the Gospel message. OK bear with me…. My point is that I think it is a manufactured guilt that many Christians give to children to help them understand the Gospel. Yes, every child has lied. Yes, every child has done something to upset their parents. But I am not sure that every child has had the life experience to really understand the burdensome and overwhelming guilt that God took off of humanity and placed on Godself. I think we as Christians tend to exaggerate “facts” to try to carry our agenda. I probably have just done so in this paragraph! I think this is a major problem that is rearing its ugly head in the church today.

I feel as though we cradle Christians have grown into this idea that every little thing we do wrong is horrible. I think we get so focused on these little things that we miss the larger, the much more important wrong things that are going on around us. It, in essence, has turned us all into extreme naval gazers (Up next on MBC the new hit reality show “EXTREME NAVAL GAZERS!”). I’m not saying we shouldn’t feel bad for lying, or overindulging or what have you. I’m saying that we get so focused on trying not to do these little things we miss the: gossip run rampant in our hearts and minds, the mistreatment of people around us, and injustices we face every day but are too consumed with self to notice.

Now on to manufactured guilt. It’s used every day as a manipulation tool. For instance, that ASPCA commercial with Sarah Mclachlan gets me every time! They show those poor abused animals and I just want to adopt them all! That is manufactured guilt. I didn’t abuse those animals, but I want to do something to help them. Yes, I may have done something that led to an animal being abused, but how am I to know? It’s effective as an advertising method. Many many people, companies, and even charities use it. I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong, but it’s used every single day. The one thing I’m sure of is that it should not be used to advertise God and God’s message.

God came to tell us that we have been set free. That we no longer have to live under rigid oppression of old testament law. We are under a new covenant. Does that mean we should go on sinning? NO! It means that we should try to better ourselves BECAUSE WE WANT TO! Not because we have to. I have found that still to this day many people are forcing this on children, as if God were this cosmic Santa Claus that is making sure you are good so that you get the big present at the end. No! I believe the Gospel is this God came to set us free from the burden of being perfect, instead God already sees us as perfect. The burden of perfection is not on us. We should strive to be better. We should not let guilt drive us, but rather it should be desire that drives us.

Now that is saying a lot of bad about guilt, but there is still healthy guilt. There is the guilt that reminds you that what you did or what you observed was not a part of God’s ultimate plan for creation. I think that’s different. That is part of that desire to be better. As Paul put it in the book of Romans, all things in creation are in exodus to the perfection that God has for them. Everything is striving to be better. It’s our job to help each other to be better. That’s why we have that healthy guilt. It shows us that something needs our help or attention to be better. For instance, the article we read yesterday. It boiled our blood because it stated that an injustice was correct because the Bible said it should be that way. We feel a healthy guilt that tells us that this certain injustice is not correct. That all things are striving to be better, including the people group that this person was trying to call out, and the Bible says no such thing. So if you have that pang of guilt examine that feeling. See whether or not it’s healthy. Determine if you should be doing something to help some other part of creation along in its exodus toward perfection.

Anyway, that’s just what I think. What do you think?

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Learning to Love Pt. 1: Letting Go

“To change the world
start with one step
However small
the first step is
hardest of all” — Dave Matthews Band

“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.” –John 21:4-8

I think one of the hardest things to learn in life is the ability to let go. We have a tough time as human beings not being in control of our lives, surroundings, situations, and people we know. I think it is a trait that we evolved over many millenia. It’s that instinct to be safe and guard ourselves by controlling every situation. I believe it is in learning to let go that we learn how to love. I do believe that part of love is letting go: Letting go of our need to be right, letting go of our need to control, Letting go of our right to revenge, letting go of the pain, and even letting go of being the victim.

One of the biggest things for me to let go of was being the victim. When I was younger, I played the victim a lot. Oh, poor me… I think on some level I didn’t want to heal from wounds that I encountered in my life. I received attention, however negative it may have been, for these wounds. I wanted to be noticed. I felt so lonely and so abandoned in my own mind. The reality is probably much different then what I had chosen to believe at the time. It was easier to play the victim. The role was very easy to portray. I think at some point in all of our lives we do this don’t we? We prefer to have these little pity parties for ourselves, and hope that someone will rescue us. We sit and wait when we are perfectly capable of walking out of these situations ourselves. I could have gotten up. I could have changed things, but I was too afraid. I was too stuck in that mentality that I refused to let go of the pain. I held on to it like we all do at times. My Rector told me about her thesis back in Seminary. She said it was about the spirituality of the victim mentality. She said that when we play the victim we believe we are blameless. It’s not our fault that we got into these situations, so we shouldn’t be the one to get ourselves out. This was one of the hardest things for me to let go of because I didn’t want to take responsibility for my situation. I think that my inability to let go created the circumstances for those situations to get worse, and they did.

Another thing that I still struggle with letting go of is my need to be right. I have learned in my first two years of marriage that more often than not I am not right. But all jokes aside, I think this another thing that we as human beings have a tough time letting go of. It’s this need to always be right that causes us to: begin to dismiss people because they believe differently than we do, Hold on to grudges, refuse to forgive others, and even refuse to forgive ourselves. I find an epidemic, especially with the teens I work with, to fall in with the last on that list. They for some reason got in their heads along the way that they could not be forgiven for whatever it was they did. Who tells us these things? Is it because we can’t forgive others for things? They feel the need to be right in their self image of a horrible being. I think this is what leads many to begin to bully others. They have been bullied themselves, so began to believe what others said. They then turn around and push it on others. I think this stems from a need to be right that we find so hard to let go of.

Letting go I think should be the first step in getting out of the box I previously wrote and talked about. I think playing the victim just reinforces the walls. We point to it as the reason why we can’t leave. I think then that our need to be right reinforces our excuses. We are right about not leaving. We can’t let go. Because look at how awful and horrible the world is outside our box. Look what it did to me! I can’t go out there.

Last night I talked to my youth about something that inspired a previous post, which turned out to be one of the most popular surprisingly, “Does God Cry?”. I talked to the students about the existence of God. I think that at times like these where we feel that the world is about to break it’s tough to believe that God exists. One of my reasons for believing that God is there is because I have been to some of the darkest places and I have found that despite the dark there is still hope, still love. That to me shows that God is there. The bible says that God is Love. I know that love exists. I know that it can overcome every thing. I think that we hold on so tightly to the darkness that we can’t see the light that is there waiting for us. I think letting go is the first and hardest step in beginning to love. This Love God has called out to us in the darkness to let go of all we are holding on to there and move toward Him. Move toward the light that is love, hope, and all things good. Letting go can take many forms. I can only speak for things that I have had to let go of. I can’t speak for those things that you may need to let go of that are in your way. I just know that it’s the first step of many to move out of the darkness and into the light.

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The Continuing Adventures of Missing the Point

I know I often write about faith and culture, about the dichotomy that does not exist between them; despite the constant rhetoric from the western church that it does. I was sorting through my I-tunes library this morning in an attempt to get more of my good music that I haven’t listened to in a while onto my I-pod. (wow, how yuppy do I sound right now) I came across a song by Steven Curtis Chapman that I loved when it was first released. My friend Johnny G. can attest to that! Anyway i would like to share the lyrics with you before moving on:

See the Glory

By: Steven Curtis Chapman

I never did like the word mediocre
I never wanted it to be said of me, oh, no
Just point me to the top and I’d go over, over
Looking for the very best that could be
So what is this thing I see
Going on inside of me?
When it comes to the grace of God
Sometimes it’s like …

I’m playing Gameboy standing in the middle of the Grand Canyon
I’m eating candy sittin’ at a gourmet feast
I’m wading in a puddle when I could be swimming in the ocean
Tell me what’s the deal with me
(I know the time has come for me to)
Wake up and see the glory

Every star in the sky tells His story, oh
And every breeze is singing His song
All of creation is imploring
Hey, come see this grand phenomenon
The wonder of His grace
Should take my breath away
I miss so many things when I’m content with …

How could I trivialize it
This awesome gift of God’s grace?
Once I have come to realize it
I should be speechless and amazed

Wake up and see the glory
Open your eyes and take it in
Wake up and be amazed
Over and over again

God’s love is calling to you and to me
Wake up, wake up
Open your eyes

Yesterday I was chatting with the pastor of the church i work at. She had me looking for a quote which i was unable to find, despite my internet prowess. Her friend had found it before us and this made me think as well:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

I think that the unthinkable has happened. We have become complacent with mediocrity. We are content to live our lives ignorant of the greater reality that surrounds us everywhere we are. Have we gotten so used to the amazing that it doesn’t phase us anymore?

I am currently sitting in my office which faces the park and the Rimrocks beyond that. It is so beautiful and green. We have had a very long winter and in fact it keeps trying to sneak back in the door without going through the usual seasons of summer and winter first. I see people running around the park playing, picnic-ing, and enjoying the surroundings. I wonder though, how many of us have just taken the time to observe the incredibleness of spring. We have come out of a season of death and cold. We are now observing the season of new life. A resurrection of creation that is taking place all around us in the northern hemisphere. We miss the point.

Unfortunately, I feel this story is true about the majority of the western church as well. We are missing the point of the incredible gospel that is told to us every day. I mean we hear the words “God loves you”, but do any of us really believe it? Or do we rather go through the motions to just be labeled as “spiritual”, “holy”, or “religious”? How many of us actually believe that? How many of us actually let it impact us? Like Anne Dillard said, We are children playing on the floor with our chemistry sets! We have no idea the power and the beauty of God’s love, power, and care for us! We have put those things aside like they didn’t matter. We are missing the point.

The church has become so influenced by culture that the church has become an agent of culture. We just end up reinforcing the ideas of general society instead of becoming the counter cultural revolutionists that Jesus once was. We have put a beauty pageant sash on Jesus, and made him up. He doesn’t look like the same person. He now looks like this nice guy who likes everyone and pets little lambs. That isn’t Jesus. Do you know that man? He was a counter culture reformer. He was telling people that the kingdom of God is here! He said that God had already made peace with the world. We didn’t have to earn God’s favor! I think it’s funny that the church likes to quote so often the verse that states “Be in the world, not of the world” John 8:23b, Jesus isn’t even talking about culture there at all! Jesus is talking about belief. He was saying he was different than all the other teachers. The dichotomy that doesn’t exist should be our message. It should be the power and message of the true gospel, which states: “God loves you, there is nothing you can do about it!” That is what should set us apart from the world. The world that wants you to think that you have to appease the powers that be. This, unfortunately, has become the “gospel” the western church is obsessed with and therefore made it into an agent of culture. This “gospel” states: “be moral and turn from your evil ways and maybe God will take notice of you”. There is a whole lot more to this idea that will have to be saved for a different post on a different day.

I think it is rather appropriate that Lent takes place during the winter and usually ends toward the beginning of spring. It’s like God is using the whole world to tell us, “There is always a second chance!” Wow, that is incredible is it not? God loves us so much that there is nothing at all we can do to screw it up. No matter how bad we get,  No matter how much we ignore it or God, No matter the circumstances God loves and forgives us! That is the Good News is it not? If we truly believed that why don’t we live like it? Do you live like God loves you? Do you live like God loves everyone and everything?

I don’t know about you, but I want to live like that. I don’t want to continue overlooking the beauty and the grace that surrounds me every day. I don’t want to continue ignoring the power and majesty of God’s love and grace! God is here! God is now! God’s kingdom is here! God’s kingdom is now! I am a citizen, are you?

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