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Archive for July, 2017

A Listening God

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer…If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:12a,b,14

There was a movie in the 1970’s starring George Burns and John Denver called, “Oh God!” George Burns was God, in the person of a spry, elderly, outspoken gentleman. John Denver was an inquisitive, young assistant manager in a supermarket with a lot of uncertainty about life, strife, and God’s role in the world. John Denver’s character, over the course of the movie, grew fond of God and gained new perspectives on life. As God walked away at the end of the movie, John Denver’s character called out, “Wait a minute, what if I want to just talk to you sometime?” God answered, “You talk, I’ll listen.” And then God disappeared.

The “You talk, I’ll listen” theme is one I suspect many of us experience when it comes to God. We can never be certain that God is listening, however, except by faith. We hope that is the case, although our prayers seem to be answered in such haphazard ways, it is difficult to know if God actually listens. Sometimes, when God answers our prayer in a way different from what we desire, we wonder if God’s hearing is faulty. The Israelites experienced the same uncertainty. Through the many challenges during their time of bondage in Egypt, through the exile, and even after they finally arrived in the Promised Land, they complained that God was not listening to their cries for help.

In 2 Chronicles, God sets out conditions for the Israelites under which God was willing to listen: humble themselves, pray, seek God, turn from their wicked ways. Rather than making pious demands, I suspect God was giving instructions for how to become sufficiently spiritually attuned to experience God working in the world. If the people remained arrogant, trusting in their own powers, living only for themselves, they simply would not be in a personal state to know God’s presence. It was not a matter of God withholding anything from them, but a matter of their ability to recognize what God was willingly offering them. Some things do not change over the centuries…

The “You talk, I’ll listen,” motif lays a solid foundation for many friendships, counseling sessions, and marriages. I must constantly remind myself that when someone shares something that is troubling him or her, that person seldom wants me to solve a problem for them. Many of us cannot gain clarity on what is bothering us until we talk it out. Once we have contained the problem in words, we sometimes find there is either no solution needed or that there is no actual problem after all. Often, allowing him or her to frame the issue verbally is all they need from me. Anything more is not only unhelpful, but it can be harmful to the relationship. The day my father died, my best friend came and sat with me as I wept. He did not say anything, because there was nothing worthwhile to be said. I did not need to hear that everything would be all right, that God must have needed my dad in heaven, that I would see him again in the afterlife, or that I would feel better in a few days or weeks. I needed to grieve. He listened as I talked and made sure I did not suffer alone.

Sometimes, what we most need is for someone to simply listen to us without judgement, without offering advice, and without trivializing what is weighing heavy on our minds. God always has a willing and ready listening ear.

Note: this is the 20th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

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A God of Vengeance

 O Lord, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Psalm 94:1

A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. Nahum 1:2

There was a distinct face of vengeance put upon God throughout the Old Testament. God was often portrayed as a great punisher, one who would discipline those who did wrong and help gain revenge against those who offended or harmed God’s chosen people. Early faith was expressed in the belief in a vengeful God who punished those who behaved in ways that the scriptures or cultural norms defined as wrong. In the mostly tribal cultures of the Middle East, past and present, the people sought an advantage over other tribes, and the God of Israel was rendered as the difference-maker who would give the faithful an edge over the idol-worshiping infidels next door.

While we all want to believe God is on our side, and I believe that is an accurate assumption, it behooves us to carefully examine whether our side represents something that is Godly in nature. Would God really show preference for one group of people over those of other nations, religions, sexual orientations, or races? Granted, the Israelites claimed themselves as the chosen people of God, but was that actually played out in the Bible? It is clear to me that the Israelites had a relationship with God, which may or may not have meant God was willing to serve as a secret weapon against their enemies. Clearly, the Israelites were looking for security, and the face of God they felt they needed was one willing to be vengeful. God, however, seemed to have a different concept about what provided security.

When I compare the faces of God on display in the Old Testament with the face of God manifest in Jesus the Christ in the New Testament, I find some of the differences hard to reconcile. The prophet Nahum describes God as “jealous and avenging,” “wrathful,” and “rag(ing) against his enemies.” I find no similar traits in Jesus. The only people Jesus consistently showed displeasure with were the scribes and Pharisees – the religious elite who followed the letter of the law while dismissing the spirit in which it was given. His annoyance was reserved for those whose teachings were false or misleading to others (which should be a warning to those of us who pretend to any level of spiritual understanding). Otherwise, Jesus was non-violent and accepting of all – no jealousy, no vengeance, no wrath, no exclusion. Only love. Even on his final night on earth, as Peter drew a knife to protect him from the Temple police, Jesus told him to put away his sword because “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In many tribal cultures, the norm is that you are either the attacker or the attacked. Little wonder that we see power passed back and forth, within and between succeeding generations. Could it be that the Israelites of old were simply experiencing the yet-to-be-named third law of physics? They would attack another nation and win. Another nation would attack them and Israel would lose. When they won, they praised their vengeful God for leading them to victory. When they lost, they attributed it to God’s punishment for their infidelity. What if God was neither helping nor hindering them in their violent exploits? What if God was simply allowing them to experience and learn from the natural consequences of their own decisions?

Clearly, it is difficult for me to square the person of Jesus with a violent, vengeful God. As I switch my focus in the coming weeks from the faces of the God of the Old Testament to the faces of God in the New Testament, it will become clear that, in the end, God’s face is one of mercy and forgiveness. I have to wonder if the vengeful face of God is a face created by us in our own image.

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

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A Merciful God

 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

Psalm 51:1-2

If there were a Golden Boy in the Bible – the high school jock blessed with athletic ability, good looks, confidence, popularity, and who could seemingly do no wrong (even when doing wrong) – it would be David. He was perhaps the king of all sinners in the Bible, and yet God used him in mighty ways. There is no greater example of God’s unquenchable mercy than in the story of David.

In the 11th chapter of 2 Samuel we find King David on the roof of his palace. He observed a very beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on the roof of her home. David sent for and slept with her. Bathsheba became pregnant, posing an embarrassing problem since her husband, Uriah, was away fighting one of David’s wars. In a lame attempt to make it look like the baby was Uriah’s, David had Uriah leave the battle and come home to his wife. Uriah, troubled by the fact that he was home and his fellow soldiers were not, refused to sleep with his wife and returned to the battle. David ordered that Uriah be sent to the front of the battle where he would most certainly be killed. Uriah died, freeing Bathsheba for David to take as his wife. In a relatively short period of time, David used his position and power to commit adultery and murder. The cowboy philosopher of the last century, Will Rogers, said, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Unfortunately for David, that sage advice came a few thousand years too late.

Psalm 51 was written by David sometime after these events as his way of seeking God’s mercy for his despicable behavior. The Psalm provides sage insight into the merciful face of God, as well as how we can experience it. First and foremost is that contrition is internal. This may seem obvious, but too often, even in biblical times, we prefer to make amends outside of ourselves through sacrifices and other methods that only serve to mask the demons lurking within us. Until those demons are exposed, however, we keep digging ourselves into the same holes. In Psalm 51:17, David writes, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” If our transgressions do not break something inside of us, opening us to new understandings, building a desire for change, and teaching us new ways to behave, we cannot receive God’s mercy. If we are not sufficiently willing to allow God to change us from within, God’s love and mercy towards us will never stick. It is not that God withholds mercy from us as much as we are not in a state to receive it.

In Psalm 51:6, David writes, “You desire truth in my inward being, therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Likewise, in verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Wisdom is internal, and we must open ourselves – make space –for it to enter. In the New Testament, this is called repentance, or turning ourselves around.

I believe we suffer, collectively, from a poor self-image. Either we forget, or we are afraid to believe the image and likeness from which we were created. We feel unworthy to receive the mercy of God because we focus on our sin instead of our destiny. We forget that we are always in a process of growing toward our destiny, our union with God. In God’s eyes, our sins are not so much evil as they are growing pains. Every child falls many times before he or she attains the ability to walk confidently and competently. We do not think less of them for their clumsiness; we lovingly help them back up.

In spite of his numerous human frailties, David went on to become Israel’s most celebrated and beloved leader. While David and Bathsheba’s first child died young, they had another son, Solomon, who became another accomplished and beloved leader for Israel. If God showed mercy to one displaying the growing pains of David, how much more must God be willing to show mercy to us? And, as God shows mercy to us, how much more should we show mercy to each other?

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

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A Militant God

Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.” The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns. Numbers 21:2-3

There is a militant face of God that appears in the Old Testament where God seemingly participates in the destruction of an enemy. Sometimes God participates as the destroyer, where other times God empowers the army of one nation to overthrow another. In the passage from Numbers 21 above, God is asked to “give this people into our hands,” which means to wipe them out. Because the Israelites defeated the Canaanites in this particular battle, God received credit for the carnage. Stories like these turn some people, particularly those with a pacifistic bent, away from the Old Testament.

I, too, find the thought that God might actually take sides in a physical battle troubling. (I am also bothered by people who pray for their team’s victory in a sporting event.) My concern centers around two issues. First, I believe all people are created in the image of God and are loved by God as such. Second, the image of a militant God is inconsistent with the uncompromisingly non-violent persona of God embodied as Jesus the Christ in the New Testament.

While I realize the Bible was written from the perspective of the Israelites, I find the idea that God’s support or displeasure was revealed in the outcome of a war difficult to accept. Especially considering that in addition to the normal carnage of warfare, the women and children of the defeated group were often killed or enslaved. This is not to mention the plundering of everything of value. It seems that “winning” was not sufficient, but that total annihilation was somehow justified. When the Israelites were defeated in battle, the biblical authors attributed it to God’s “punishment” for their insolence. What troubles me is the implication that God would somehow participate in the annihilation of a human life God created and called good. I understand that our human sin separates us from God, but I believe God reaches out to us in our sin to pull us back, rather than brutally snuffing the life out of the sinner.

The Old Testament portrayals of God leading a nation into battle is, to me, contrary to the life of Jesus the Christ, God’s embodiment in human form. Jesus’ life was a model of non-violence. In his final human act on earth, he submitted to the violent and deadly actions of his captors. He allowed himself to be falsely accused, humiliated, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Surely, if there was a time for God to intervene in a violent way on behalf of innocent life, that would have been it. Instead of portraying a militant face of God, however, Jesus manifested a vulnerable, submissive face. He held up a mirror for humanity to view its own cruelty and inhumanity. Perhaps God was waiting for one of us to intervene…

Fortunately, I believe there are other ways to interpret the violence recorded in the Bible. We can read biblical stories literally and as historical documents, and we can also understand them allegorically. Perhaps the battles documented in the Bible represent the battles that go on inside of us. I know I am forever trying to “defeat” or “annihilate” something in myself that is detrimental to my life and the lives around me. I, like many of us, worship the idols of wealth, power, and possession, covet what belongs to my neighbor, and attempt to establish God in my own image instead of allowing God’s image to shape me. It is a constant combat to overcome my human frailties, and that is a battle I could see God taking sides in. By the way, I am all for praying before a sporting event, as long as the prayer is for the participants to show respect to their opponent and to act in ways that honor their status as children of God.

God does not seek destruction as much as the transformation of a curse into a blessing. That is a militant face of God I can rally behind.

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

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