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Archive for May, 2017

A Gambling God

“You have blessed the work of (Job’s) hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!”

Job 1:10b-12

God and Satan are having a discussion. God points to Job as a faithful servant. Satan argues that Job is only faithful because God has blessed him so richly, and if those riches were removed from him, Job would curse God to God’s face. God takes the bet and allows Satan power over Job’s possessions. Thus begins a series of misfortunes to make the most fatalistic pessimist cringe.

First, there is the theft and destruction of all of his livestock, followed by the murder of his servants. Next, his sons and daughters are killed when a great wind strikes their house and causes it to collapse. Job responds, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21) Satan then causes great sores to cover Job’s entire body. In his misery, Job says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10) Next, three of Job’s friends turn on him, arguing that it is because of his own sin, wickedness, and refusal to admit his wrongdoing that he is being punished. Job complains mightily to God about the unfairness of his situation, but does not break faith or curse God. In a divine showdown, an unrepentant God humbles Job by reminding him of God’s unfathomable power and Job’s vast ignorance. Finally, God restores Job’s riches to a level twice what he had before, giving him ten more children, and allowing him to live to see his great-grandchildren.

The story of Job raises a number of ethical questions about God. Why would God associate with Satan? Are women, children, and servants no more than property that can be murdered and then replaced with other women, children, and servants? Would God intentionally allow Satan – or anyone else – to destroy the life of a faithful person just to make a point? The gambling God presented in Job seems arrogant, careless, and insensitive.

Job’s story, whether we read it as factual or allegorical, raises the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Although not to the magnitude of Job, we all know good people who seem terribly unlucky. Many of us have experienced extended misfortune, too.  We find ourselves asking, “Why?” One of Job’s answers is that if everything comes to us from God, everything can be taken away – whether by God, fate, genetics, or random events. There is no amount of money, health, or other earthly resource sufficient to provide an impenetrable security against the endless variety of calamities that occur every day on earth. Tornadoes, floods, famine, stock market crashes, medical bills – all can wipe out our possessions quickly. While I do not believe God is the cause of our misfortune, the bottom line is that, like Job, any one of us can become destitute very quickly. Job, however, did not just lose his possessions; he also lost his relationships – his family was killed, and his friends turned against him. Of course, we lose people in our lives, too. People who are near and dear to us are here one day, then gone the next. Some die; others decide they no longer value a relationship with us. Life can be sad and unfair.

The grace in the story of Job, as in our lives, is that there is no hole so deep that God will not crawl down with us and help us find our way to sunlight, again. In his devotional, A Spring Within Us, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “Like water, grace seeks the lowest place and there it pools.” (p. 148) Job felt unfairly abandoned, and in the hardest times of our lives, we do too. Grace, however, finds us in our darkness and eventually leads us back to the light.

Did a gambling God cause Job’s misfortune? Does a gambling God cause our misery? I do not believe so, but I do know our loving God can restore meaning and treasure to any life that has lost both.

Note: this is the twelfth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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The Hidden Face of God

 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire. Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. Exodus 19:18,19b

There is a stark contrast between the God presented in the first three chapters of Genesis and the God described in the rest of the Old Testament. In the Garden of Eden, God was present with Adam, Eve, and the rest of creation. They walked and talked together as people in relationship do. Once Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, God seemingly became distant and mysterious. Leading the Israelites out of Egypt, God manifested as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As God prepared to give Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the people below heard only thunder and saw only fire and smoke. Psalm 13:1 asks, “How long will you hide your face from me?” The question arises, “Did God leave direct relationship with creation, or did creation leave direct relationship with God?” How one answers that question has a lot to do with how one views his or her connection with God. If we see God as a distant, aloof being, we are likely to believe God put the distance between us, presumably because of the original sin committed in the Garden. If we see God as a constant, involved presence in our lives, however, we are more likely to believe we separate ourselves from God. Personally, I believe the latter.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this series, we (humankind) have developed a collective and tenacious inferiority complex. Perhaps we are taught from an early age that we are not worthy of God’s presence, that God cannot possibly love us as we are. We believe we must first go to church more often, read our Bibles more frequently, or pray more regularly. While these may be worthy goals, I do not believe God monitors our religious activities like a cosmic scorekeeper. God is interested in the content of our heart; God knows our hearts and resides there, whether or not we acknowledge it. To the extent there is distance between us and God, the distance is maintained by us, and it is completely illusory. Because of our free will, we can choose to withdraw our conscious attention from whatever we wish, even when the object of our inattention is right beside us. We are most comfortable keeping some distance from God, thus making God seem distant and aloof. It is convenient, but wrong, to say God withdrew from us. It lets us off the hook for being so self-centered when we claim God is not involved in or aware of the details of our daily lives. Of course, our feelings of unworthiness make us fear that if we reach out to God, God will not reach back. Why would God care about a lowly sinner like me?

The hidden face of God is hidden by our own fear of consciously allowing God a prominent presence in our lives. Interestingly, the Bible says that God wanted all the Israelites to come up the mountain with Moses, but they were afraid – they felt unworthy. They remained below and saw only fire and heard only thunder. We should understand this, because we are guilty of the same thing. We keep our distance from conscious encounters with God by making our religion an intellectual exercise instead of an experiential communion. As such, we turn to God and see only fire and smoke. We hide behind words, creeds, tithes, and even prayers. It is as if we believe there is a threshold of religious activity that, once met, will make us worthy of God’s love – but it is a threshold we can never attain. While there is nothing wrong with our religious practices, they cannot close the gap between us and God. God will remain a mystery to us until we surrender our poor self-image and embrace the image in whom we were created.

The hidden face of God longs to be unmasked.

Note: this is the eleventh in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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The Fiery Face of God

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Exodus 3:2

Fire is an amazing phenomenon, almost like something outside of the rest of creation. Its sustenance requires three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Combining these three elements is not sufficient for a fire to actually manifest, however. There must also be an ignition source – a spark to initiate or invite the fire to begin. Fire, like electricity, is neither good nor bad; rather, fire can produce either good or bad results. Fire can heat a home, cook a meal, and provide soothing light; fire can also reduce a home to ashes or burn a person beyond recognition.

God manifests as fire in numerous places in the Bible. In Exodus, God appears to Moses as a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. God leads the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:22). Psalm 29:7 proclaims, “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.” The New Testament author of Hebrews writes, “…for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). You get the picture: one of the faces of God is fire.

The ancient science of Alchemy used fire to purify metals like gold and silver. The art of the practice was to apply the right amount of heat to a substance in order to burn away the impurities without consuming the precious metal. Considering alchemy in an allegorical sense, God is the divine alchemist applying fire to us in order to burn away that which is unhelpful in us. The difficult, challenging, and painful times of our lives can be seen as a divine torch, burning away our narcissism, humbling us, and sometimes driving us to our knees in a cry for mercy. While I do not believe God rains hard times down upon us – we do that to ourselves – I do believe God takes what remains and stands ready to remake us anew. In the sense that one of the faces of God is fire, that fire is a resurrecting fire. Unfortunately, some measure of destruction is necessary for resurrection to occur, so the initial phases of the rebirthing process often feel more like a punishing fire from hell.

A legendary bird, the Phoenix, was said to live until reaching a certain stage of decline when it would simply burst into flame, reducing itself to ashes, only to rise again as a new creation from those very ashes. It is a mythical example of the pervasive cycle of life: birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. A more down to earth example occurs annually in the Flint Hills of Kansas, which are burned to black stubble every spring, only to be reborn to an iridescent green a short time later. The centuries-old practice of prairie burning purges the old growth, replenishes the nutrients in the ground, and clears the way for the rebirth of the prairie.

The analogy of God manifesting as fire assures us that our God is not an emotionless bystander. Fire is symbolic of passion and action. God’s love for us is fierce and tenacious. We do not consciously experience the fiery love of God because we are seldom in a state of sufficient awareness to recognize it. Regardless, God’s love burns brightly for each of us. The creator in God recycles all the elements of the earth in a never-ending dance of recreation, molding new combinations and rebirthing the old. Nothing is wasted, ever – no experience, no element, no being. When necessary, God manifests as a consuming fire, forcing the old to release the elements of its construction in order to allow a new creation to enter.

One face of God is fire – feel the burn…

Note: this is the tenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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A Wrestling God

 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:24-25;29c-30

Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, wrestles with God one night. Back and forth they go, apparently struggling to something of a stalemate. God strikes Jacob’s hip and knocks it out of joint, but Jacob will not let God go until he receives a blessing. God, in the person of a man, says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” After the blessing, Jacob released God but then walked with a limp because of his hip. Wrestling with and receiving a blessing from God left its mark on Jacob.

As we consider the various faces under which God manifests in our world, this story is another example that refutes our typical image of God as a distant, impersonal being. Personally, I believe I wrestle with God on a regular basis, although in non-physical ways. For example, I struggle with how God can be a loving, involved God and still allow child abuse, starvation, and the murder of countless innocents on a daily basis. (Never mind that the answer always seems to be, “How can you – meaning me – be a loving, involved human and allow such bad things to happen to innocents?”) It is a sometimes unwelcome reminder that we are God’s hands and feet on earth. Just as Jacob’s wrestling seems to end with no clear winner, our wrestling with God often ends with no clear answers. What occurs, instead, is a dialogue that eventually leads to new understandings, along with new questions. There is a push and pull, a give and take to interactions with God that can be frustrating for their lack of clarity, not to mention my lack of certainty that I am actually wrestling with God and not simply arguing with myself.

The thought of wrestling with God is one interesting piece of this story. Another aspect is that God came to Jacob in the person of a man (some translations say it was an angel). For me, this is a reminder that we, particularly those of us who hold ourselves out to be Christian, expose ourselves as representatives of God, if not God in the flesh, to others with whom we interact. I feel this most intently in my role as a father, because I know a child’s image of God is often formed by their interactions with their earthly father. The point is that we always leave an impression on those we meet. It is our responsibility to assure that the impression we give is consistent with what it means to be a child of God.

Another takeaway from the story is that Jacob’s wrestling with God left him with a limp. Wrestling with God should leave a mark, in that it should change us in some noticeable way. If we are left unchanged from an encounter with God, we must wonder if it was God we really encountered.

Finally, Jacob’s encounter with God happened when he was alone. In our busy, hectic world, we must be intentional about dedicating alone time so God can manifest to us. This means time away from television, family members, and cell phones where we just rest in God’s presence with no agenda other than to rest in God’s presence. Whether we devote 5 minutes or an hour, whether it is daily or weekly, alone time is vital to our development as spiritual beings. In this sense, God is shy. God will seldom compete for our attention against the distractions of our world.

Wrestling with God changes lives, but it also leaves a mark.

 

Note: this is the ninth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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