Is the God of Love a Doormat?

Some years ago I wrote a newspaper column in which I asserted that scripture contains a progressive unveiling of God that finally achieves its fullness in Jesus Christ.  At each step along the way God incrementally pushed human understanding in two directions: toward greater inclusiveness and greater love.
I was soundly beat upon the head and shoulders by an irate pastor’s letter to the editor who chastised me for suggesting that each word in the bible was not equally true and valid with every other word and for all times.  There is nothing about progressive revelation in the bible, he said.  To suggest such a thing is to deny the inerrancy of scripture, an apostasy not to be tolerated.  There wasn’t much point in arguing with him on the pages of the local paper, and we never crossed paths for any face to face conversation.  But he wasn’t the only one who had trouble with the idea.
Members of my congregation also had their doubts.  It was during the advent of the gay issues that challenged many to take a hard look at who they would allow in and who they would keep out of their circle of acceptable others.  Surely God’s push toward inclusiveness had limits.  To be sure, we had broken down the walls that kept out people of other races and cultures, but we tended to replace them with attractive fences that one had to climb over to get in (You can come in if you promise to be just like us).  We denied it of course, but the guilt that haunted the recesses of our minds did not let us get away with it.  After all, hadn’t we recognized the legitimate ministry of women?  What more could you want?  I’m pleased to say that our congregation had the courage to make dramatic strides against the tide of beliefs held life long, but it’s not over.
Inclusiveness is all well and good as long as it’s about including Christians, and people who want to be Christians, in a society that is nominally Christian, at least in the minds of those who remember a former time that never really existed.  How can one become more inclusive in a pluralistic society where many do not want to be included for some pretty darn good reasons?  How can Christians be inclusive among people who believe that Christians are exclusive, bigoted, and superstitious?  And, parenthetically, so are the hard core believers in every other religion.  Just look around the world and see who the violent agents of despotism are: religious fanatics.  Include  me out!
Following God toward greater inclusiveness is not an easy path, but God never said it would be.
Following God toward greater love has it’s own obstacles.  I was frequently challenged in my adult Christian education classes by tough minded people, mostly men, who equated greater love with passive submission.  Either you stood up for yourself and defended what was yours, by force if necessary, or you became a doormat to be tromped on and over by anyone and everyone.  It’s one way or the other.  To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior was a wonderful thing.  Everyone should do it.  But to follow Jesus’ teaching and example by turning the other cheek, defeating evil with good, or giving up your life without a fight, that was just plain crazy.  Too much love makes one a pansy.  Be careful who you love, and don’t do too much of it. 
We are called by God in Christ Jesus to be profligate in our love for others, as hard as that may be, but the progressive unveiling toward greater love found in scripture is more about God’s self revelation about God’s self.  As God, especially through Christ, reveals a more and more powerful, unlimited love for creation, the echoes of God as angry, wrathful and vengeful recede farther into the background.  Oddly enough, some people don’t want to give up on those images of God.  The pastor who chastised me didn’t.  An angry, wrathful God is what kept Christians in line: scared the hell out of them, kept them fearful about getting into heaven, and, therefore, made them more committed to trying to be a good Christian.  That logic eludes me, but I’ve discovered an abundance of it buried in the minds of some of my own parishioners. 
The flip side of that are those who have made the God of unlimited love into a lovable puppy dog or teddybear.  In other words, they have done to God exactly what my tough minded men have claimed.  Either you stand up and fight or become a doormat, and they have made God into a doormat: a very nice one certainly, it even says welcome on it.  Just wipe the mud off your feet and come on in.
That is not the God of love revealed in scripture, but it is what happens when we interpret God in our own image.  That, I think, is what has happened over the centuries and is faithfully recorded in scripture.
Whether we are or not, God is inclusive and God is love.  How we progress in our understanding of that remains to be seen.  What is clear is that we have a long way to go and are very slowly making progress, so slow that it’s sometimes hard to measure. 

Geeks and Holy Mystery

A lasting contribution to our way of life, from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, has been the popular assumption that all things can be explained by reason, if not now then soon.  It’s made living comfortably with holy mystery a bit of a problem.  Reason cannot make much of a dent in holy mystery, and so it has not had a lot of credence with many believers.  It’s tended to be put in the closet along with “ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.”  The result has been that serious conversation in the congregation about the work of the Holy Spirit has been hard to come by.  It’s been substituted with often heartfelt, almost magical, belief in the Holy Spirit as something between a benevolent genie and the agency of baptism that slays human souls or unleashes babbling tongues for which sophisticated Christians have no time.
We are, at last, entering an era when it is again possible to have serious conversations with ordinary members of our congregations about holy mystery and the Holy Spirit because they have a new frame of reference in which that conversation begins to make sense.  I’m talking about smart phones, tablets, laptop computers, and the Internet.  I know there are Dilbert-like geeks for whom there is no mystery in these things, and I know that ten year olds are proficient in all aspects of their use, but the fact remains that, for most of us, it’s all a mystery, and we are satisfied to live in it’s company.
It’s a little spooky that Siri always knows where I am, that all the controls on my car are run through a computer before anything happens, that I can have face to face conversations with friends and family living in distant countries, that I can get cash out of an ATM in a remote village in Italy, that even my stove and refrigerator have micro-processors managing operations.  A woman sitting near us in a restaurant announced to her friend that she loved her new tablet.  She didn’t understand it.   She just kept pushing buttons and new things happened, but how it all worked was a complete mystery, a mystery she was happy to live with.  
The ubiquity of electronic gizmos and applications, in all their mystery, that must be embraced, happily or unhappily, for modern life to exist has made it possible to reintroduce the concept of holy mystery and the work of the Holy Spirit to an audience that is no longer so resistant.  It’s not that God becomes the big geek in the sky, but that the idea of living in an environment in which we are surrounded by that which we use and depend on but do not understand provides an opportunity to guide toward a new discovery of the wholly otherness of God in the mystery of the Holy Spirit that is both with us and for us in ways that we may not understand, but are yet more essential to life than anything that can be dreamed up for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. 
Take advantage of it before the whole thing crashes.

What is Your Faith?

What faith are you?  What faith community do you belong to?  Do you have a faith?
They are common questions about faith, but what does the word faith mean?  I’m not asking for a word study of its origins in the Greek or Hebrew texts.  I’m asking what it means in the ordinary sense of the word as we use it today.  As for me, I think it has two distinct meanings that work in parallel with each other, or should.
There is faith as belief, and there is faith as trust.  Faith as belief is what we proclaim in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed.  Faith as belief is what some of us, if old enough, were supposed to memorize from the catechism.  Faith as belief is what is argued in the records of synods councils, and tomes of systematic theology.  I think that is what most people mean when they ask about someone’s faith; What are the doctrines that define what you believe about God?  Perhaps there was a time when saying that we were Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic was a shorthand, but well understood, way to explain what we believed.  I’m not sure.  That’s certainly not the case today.  Today it means little more than that we like something at church A better than church B without the slightest understanding or care of how they differ in doctrine.
Faith as trust is quite different.  Consider Abraham for instance.  He had no faith as belief, only as trust.  He had no doctrine of God, no creed to guide him, no catechism to teach him, no church to attend, and no pastor to turn to.  Whatever faith as belief he had was in the gods of Mesopotamia, and he had left them behind.  What he did have was faith as trust in the invisible God who spoke to him, calling him to journey forth, and promising that he would be the ancestor of nations.  It is also what the Epiphany stories of Matthew’s gospel are about.  Joseph could not possibly have had faith as belief to guide him as he took Mary to be his wife.  He could only trust in the words of the angelic messenger.  The wise men, by tradition, were foreigners to the Jewish faith as belief.  They could only trust in whatever it was that drew them to Bethlehem and led them home by a different way. 
My suspicion is that we need more of both in today’s world.  Most Christian are, I think, woefully ignorant about why they believe what they believe about God and humanity, and what they believe is sketchy at best, no matter how firmly it is held.  It leads to superstitious, magical, shallow, vapid kinds of faith as belief, bearing only the name and faint coloring of Christ.  Moreover, I have my doubts about faith as trust.  A good many of the folks I know who have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and who believe that God, who is, they say, in absolute control of everything, has a plan for them, are loathe to follow God in Christ without the assurance of their firearms and prudent qualms about their neighbors.  Like Luther before he discovered faith (as trust) through grace, they live in an untrustworthy world of demons and a wrathful god.
I’m a theologian.  Not a very good one, but a theologian nevertheless.  My passion is adult Christian education.  Faith as belief is important to me.  But on That Day, I believe I will be standing behind those who, like Abraham and Joseph, have walked in the way of faith as trust.  This Epiphany season maybe I’ll work on having more courage to walk into the unknown darkness trusting in the flickering light of a baby.

A Black and White Vengeful God?

God is vengeful.  It’s right there in black and white.
So say more than a few believing Christians who were well taught that whatever grace might be, it is delivered by the hand of a God who is quick to anger, unforgiving, and ready to condemn for all of eternity.  Years of Sundays devoted to the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, and long standing involvement in adult bible studies, cannot erase the damage done.
I wrote a newspaper article some years ago about the progressive nature of biblical revelation, how it is a constant unfolding of new and deeper understanding, always headed in the directions of inclusiveness, love and reconciliation.  I was slammed in a letter to the editor by a local pastor who demanded to make it known that there is nothing progressive in the bible.  It is all of a piece, and no part takes precedent over another.  All is equally true and inerrant. 
How sad is that?  I’ve tried to explain to those in my classes that God can only speak with the vocabulary that his listeners can understand.  The early followers of the God of Israel had a vocabulary that could accommodate neither monotheism nor the mercy of a God who loves his people and desires to engage with them for their wellbeing.  What vocabulary did they have?  It was the vocabulary of the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia who were ruthless, capricious, numerous, needy and vengeful.   Nevertheless, as God spoke through successive prophets, he constantly pushed the vocabulary envelop in new directions, until we receive the full unveiling of God through Jesus Christ.  However, it seems that that it came to us in the form of a very complex origami package.  Two thousand years later we are still trying to unfold what that full unveiling is about.  God, it seems, is not done speaking.  That insight is hung on banners outside many UCC churches, and I think they’ve got it right.
That should not be hard to understand, but it seems that too many Christians have been treated with some kind of repellent.  They nod yes and go right on trying to read this or that text in it’s plain as day black and white meaning according to their early 21st century vocabulary, and without the slightest concern for how it relates to anything else in scripture.  The fact that God is not an American, that the two thousand years of Hebrew scripture cannot be judged as if nothing developed over those two millennia, and that the people of Jesus’ day cannot be imbued with contemporary American ways of thinking just does not penetrate.  
Oh well, I’ll keep on trying.

Worthy Fruit

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  John told those who came to him for baptism to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  So what would those fruits be?  That was a part of what my sermon last Sunday was about. 
These worthy fruits come with two problems.  The first has to do with repentance.  It doesn’t seem to matter how often we go over the meaning of repentance, the idea that it requires some deep expression of remorse over a particular moral failure is buried so deep that anything other than that is a hard sell.  The second has to do with what is required for something to be worthy.  Walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela?  Climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees?  Wearing a hair shirt with ashes?  Perhaps not quite that.  
Our contemporary American practice is to require some kind of public shaming, preferably the sort of shame that will stick for a good long time, allowing others a generous opportunity to tut-tut.  We don’t officially shun offenders, we just make them feel like they have been.   After all, wasn’t Lent intended to be a period in which those who had been excluded from Holy Communion because of notorious sins be lovingly restored to the bosom of the Church at Easter?  How good of us good people to be so forgivingly good to those notorious sinners. 
John, despite all the viper language, seems to have a different idea.  The mark of repentance, the fruit worthy of repentance, is to continue doing the ordinary work of daily life in the sure and certain knowledge that one is always walking in God’s sight.  That, it seems to me, was the great good news that his listeners heard.  By entering the waters of John’s baptism they bypassed the rigors of becoming acceptable to the guardians of the temple, something that was unlikely to ever happen, and came out as very much like the same person who went in, and yet dramatically changed as ones who, walking daily in God’s sight, led their ordinary lives in entirely new ways.  
So, and this is what we struggled with, by what do you measure the fruits of your labor?  Are they worthy of repentance?  That is to say, are they worthy of being gained while God is watching?  That gets to be a very interesting question.  Do I buy and sell in a way I want God to see?  Do I farm land, employ others, work for my boss, engage with my family and friends in ways that I want God to see?  Do I treat sales clerks, strangers, cops and crooks in ways that I want God to see?  In other words, as I go about my daily life, more or less as I always have, am I doing so in God’s company?
Think about it.   It could be that climbing the steps of St. Peter’s on one’s knees is easier.  Well, maybe not easier, but preferable to the discipline of walking in God’s sight.

Stumbling Blocks: It Gets Complicated

When the gospel is read on Sunday, I wonder how many will say it’s all about eyes plucked out, weighted bodies chucked in a lake, bloodied stumps where hands and feet used to be, and worm infested souls roasting forever in blazing fire?
They are powerful images more suitable for chain saw massacre horror movies, but here they are in scripture.  I can only imagine Jesus’ audience.  I bet he had their attention.  It reminds me of the day I preached a few well known lines from Jonathon Edwards without any preamble.  The congregation was stone cold, wide eyed silent.
My guess is that Jesus said something like, “OK, now that I have your attention, I want to talk to you about what’s really important.”  For me, and perhaps for other preachers, “what’s really important” comes a sentence earlier and it’s about putting stumbling blocks before one of these little ones who believe in me.  If I am in the business of leading the flock given into my care from baby food to real meat, from immature to mature faith, then it’s going to look a lot like I’m putting stumbling blocks all along the way. 
I don’t think I am.  I think those stumbling blocks have been there all along, and it’s my job to help plot a course through them.  On the other hand, what if something I say or do  does put a stumbling block, a gigantic one, in someone’s way?  It’s something I think and pray about quite often.  The homosexual issue was a big obstacle for some, and I was accused of putting it there by more than one person.  Sometimes little pebbles can appear like obstacles that I have deliberately placed on the road of faith.  There was the man who trembled in rage because I distributed Holy Communion in a way he was unaccustomed to, or the couple who said I had removed a major obstacle for them by saying something in the liturgy, and I have no idea what it might have been, or the woman who stomped out because the candles were not lit in the right order. 
It’s especially hard when counseling with persons from very different faith traditions within the body of Christ.  Not long ago it was a young man from a fundamentalist background for whom anything other than what he believed to be the literal truth as revealed in the bible (by his childhood pastor) was heretical, and therefore a major obstacle.  I don’t know that I tiptoed around that one.  
Biblical teaching and preaching is where the truly big stumbling blocks lie.  A few months ago I took a dozen older adults through the book of Revelation.  It’s what they wanted.  I like to think that what we did in those five sessions was to sweep away obstacles that are, in some other denominations, the stuff of solid teaching.  It gets complicated.  Bible Basics for Adults is a study guide I wrote and have used for many years to help adults become comfortable enough to wallow in scripture, letting it wash over them, learning to swim in its waves and cross currents.  Some, accustomed to only one way to read and understand the bible, can’t take it.  Their faith is not supple enough, and for them it’s an obstacle they cannot overcome.  The best I can do is to reassure them that the faith they have in the place where they are is OK with God.   They are fine with that, but not at all certain that the faith I have in the place where I am is OK with God.  If I think I’ve overcome the obstacle that blocks them, they are fairly sure that I have taken a detour leading far off the right way.
It gets complicated.

Human Nature in the Post Apocalyptic World

I don’t watch movies very often, and on television when I do.  But I try to keep up by checking out the reviews.  One thing I have noticed about all the post apocalypse films is the assumption that the natural and normal condition of humanity is barbaric tribal warfare dominated by the cruelest, most evil, most violent characters.  

Apparently, as the plot lines go, our thin veneer of civilization is held together only by a flimsy binding of technology, and when that goes, so goes any pretense of society based on law and respect for one’s fellow human beings.  Hobbes thought pretty much the same thing, as do today’s Tea Party types, at least in their very unsophisticated and largely unexamined view of the world.  Survivalists are absolutely convinced of it. Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Congo would be a good example of what is assumed to be the normal unrestrained human condition.
I wonder about that.  What makes Kony so appalling is that he is not normal but abnormal, psychopathically evil.  What the movies portray, and what modern society may fear, is that most humans are some version of Kony except for the restraints of society that are themselves dependent on technology.  Is that true?  When the Roman Empire collapsed and western Europe fell into the so called Dark Ages, it did devolve into waring duchies, but it also preserved a semblance of social structure, law and learning in each jurisdiction.  However corrupt it became, the agency of the Church did not allow moral authority to be abandoned.  The thousand years of the Middle Ages was marked by a slow, constant march toward new understandings of what it meant to be a civilized people.
Something was at work that was not dependent on Roman roads, postal systems, peace keeping forces, forms of government, and elements of social structure.  I imagine that there are many things at work.  As a Christian, I believe in two.  First, that in being created in God’s image, and in spite of our sinfulness, the spark of God in us impels us in a Godward direction, however wobbly our path may be.  Second, I am reminded by the canticle recommended for use each Friday, that God’s ways are not ours, and that the Word God sends forth will succeed in that which God intends.  That intention is summed up in the words of Christ that he came to save the world, not condemn it.  
Not all who claim the name of Christ see it that way.  Several of my acquaintances are convinced that the utter depravity of human kind, apart from the few who will be saved, is clear evidence that it is the devil, no doubt a Socialist, and not God, who is in control of things on earth.  Therefore, one must, on the one hand, affirm Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior in order to stake one’s assurance on being among the (few) saved.  On the other hand, one must be prepared to defend one’s self against the unsaved by whatever means are at hand, and a heavy calibre hand gun is a good thing to have at hand.
In America that gives us two large groups who are inclined to buy into the movie plot line as reliable metaphor for real life.  Secularists who worship at the altar of technology, a fragile and undependable god whose demise will unleash the very worst of what we are capable of being.  And a certain brand of Christian, probably of Jews and Muslims also, who believe that’s already happened, and God is depending on them to fight the evil forces, spiritually and physically, as proof of their place in God’s kingdom, which is not here and not capable of being here as long as the devil is around.
I don’t give much credence to the devil as a particular fallen angel, but if I did I could not imagine a better gang of allies for him than them.