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Archive for August, 2017

A Human Face

 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:18

There is a significant difference in the faces of God presented in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In the Old Testament, God is mostly mysterious, unpredictable, and intangible. God appears in dreams, as a pillar of cloud, and as a burning bush that is not consumed. God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but aloof and inaccessible except to a select few. In the Jewish Temple, the Holy of Holies – the innermost shrine where God was believed to reside – could not be entered by anyone except the High Priest, and then only once a year. Although God’s grace manifested throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the exiling of the Jewish people from their bonds of slavery in Egypt, God is presented as being mostly unapproachable and capricious, at least for the common folks.

The New Testament presents an entirely different face of God, taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In anticipation of the birth of Jesus, the coming child was referred to as Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Unlike the God often portrayed in the Old Testament, Jesus had a distinct affinity for regular people and particularly for the outcasts, sick, lame, foreigners, widows, and children. He reserved his stiffest criticism for the religious leaders who piously set themselves and their God apart from being accessible to everyone. Jesus called common fishermen and despised tax collectors to be among his chosen disciples. He associated with prostitutes and lepers. He healed, taught, and fed everyone who came to him with a sincere desire to know and experience God with us.

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus came to make God known. There would be no more struggling to understand the cryptic teachings of the priests and the prophets as go-betweens, mediating between God and God’s people. In Jesus, God was present for all to be touched and witnessed, to be healed, and to experience. Instead of saying, “Obey my commandments,” Jesus said, “Follow me.” In other words, “Do as I do.” Loving and caring for others, tending to those on the fringes of society, welcoming the stranger – God, through Jesus, displayed concrete actions that people could observe and emulate. Jesus modeled non-violence in a decidedly violent world. He preached a message of abundance to a world where food, shelter, and other necessities were hoarded by a few to the detriment of many. He shared a message of love for all to a world sharply divided along lines of race, religion, and nationality. Thankfully, he shared parables that are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago because most of these divisive realities are still with us today.

John 1:17 says, “The law indeed was given through Moses (Old Testament); grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Verse 18 names Jesus as God’s Son, “who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The authors of the Old Testament described a God whose mercy and justice was mediated through a set of rules governing human behavior. In the New Testament, God is revealed as a human being, allowing us to learn how to be with God, to be with others, and finally to be with ourselves. God is love, and it is in that love that we find God. Ultimately, we can only find the essence of our being in God. Becoming that love is what Jesus modeled for us. Jesus was God in a human body – fully human and fully spirit. When we realize that we too are a manifestation of this unity of body and spirit, we gain the ability to truly follow Jesus not just as God’s creation, but as co-creators with God in healing our broken world, even as we heal our own broken lives. The human face of God in Jesus calls to us: “Follow me.”

 Note: this is the 21st in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

 

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Gods I Do Not Believe In

 Fools think their own way is right… Proverbs 12:15a

When joining the First United Methodist Church in Lawrence, Kansas, shortly after getting married, my wife and I attended an orientation class with the Senior Pastor, Virgil Brady. He explained that United Methodists believe and worship in many different ways. He had a pad of newsprint on an easel and wrote, “God…” He said, “Methodists believe in God, but they believe in God in many different ways.” Then he wrote, “Jesus…” He said, “Methodists believe in Jesus, but they also believe in different ways about Jesus.” In other words, the United Methodist church is united in its belief in God and Jesus, but allows a lot of leeway in what that means to its individual members.

I have thought about those words many times in the decades since that orientation. For me, it is sometimes easier to articulate what I do not believe about God than it is to articulate what I do believe. While I believe God loves us in spite of our beliefs, here are a few descriptors of gods I do not believe in:

  1. A God who punishes.  I do not believe in a God who punishes us for our wrongdoing. Rather, our wrongdoing creates its own punishment. Some may appear to get away with bad behavior because the law of cause and effect does not always bring the effect immediately after the cause. It is the brilliant way God created the world that makes our actions automatically hurt when they are inconsistent with the common good. We learn best by being broken, but God does not do the breaking. Rather, God stands beside us in our suffering, lifting us out of our despair. God does not, however, intervene between us and the consequences of our own choices.
  2. A God who discriminates. I do not believe in a God who excludes certain groups of people because of their ethnicity, their religious practices, their sexual orientation, their gender, their race, or their choices of profession. We see this very clearly in Jesus, who excluded no one. In fact, Jesus specifically reached out to the outcasts, downtrodden, and forgotten souls of society – the prostitutes, the lepers, the tax collectors, the disabled, and the foreigners. He treated women and children as equals in a deeply patriarchal society. Given the life that Jesus lived, I cannot believe a God who accepted all in Jesus would exclude anyone because they did not say the right words, practice the right religion, or behave according to certain humanly determined norms.
  3. A God who prospers believers with prestige, power, and possessions. Some Christians believe God rewards good behavior with prestigious positions, lavishing the chosen with luxurious possessions. It is so contrary to the life of Jesus that it hardly warrants mention here. If anything, it is our obsession with power, prestige, and possessions that creates the spiritual obstacles that trip up many of us, particularly in the West. We seek security and riches in all the wrong places because the wealth and blessing of God is not found in earthly materiality. Humility and brokenness are what make God apparent in our lives (see Matthew 5:3-12).
  4. An old, white, bearded man. This image of God comes more from artists’ depictions of God than from anything written in scripture. It is no surprise that in the patriarchal times of the authors of the Bible God would be portrayed as male, but a God of all must be beyond gender, race, and physical appearance. God loves God’s creation in its entirety (including, but not exclusive to old, white men).

These are a few of the gods I no longer believe in and do not find helpful in seeking the God of the Universe. I respect those who may treasure these and other similar images of God, however. God comes to all of us in ways unique and specific to our nature. The important point is not how we picture God but that we are open to the connection from our end. As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts. Email me, or add your comments on the blog.

 Note: Life Notes will be off next week, returning on August 17 with the 21st in the series on the Faces of God

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