Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for August, 2017

A Middle-Eastern Hue

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

Being born white in the central part of the United States, it is no surprise I was raised with a white Jesus. I was raised with a Caucasian, male God, too. The images came from artist’s renderings, along with an unspoken assumption that we white folks were God’s chosen people, just as the Israelites believed themselves to be God’s chosen people of old. The whiteness of God was not anything I challenged; it just was what it was. My upbringing was not anything consciously intended to hurt those of other ethnicities. It was simply a product of being raised white in a very white culture. It also laid the foundation for my racism.

While I understand, intellectually, the conscious and subconscious pain a white God causes those of other races, I cannot pretend to know how deep that pain goes. Millions of African-Americans were forced from their homes and away from everything and everyone familiar to be sold into slavery in America. The indigenous, nomadic peoples of my homeland were forced off the lands that had supported them for countless generations onto pitifully inadequate and constricting reservations where they could no longer carry on life as they knew it. My western-European ancestors claimed this land as their own. For them, America was the new Promised Land, and no sacrifice was too great to make it so, even when that sacrifice denied and destroyed the personhood of others.

It is not my intent to tear down us white folks, but we cannot appreciate the deep-seated suffering that continues to divide us along racial and cultural lines without acknowledging our history of and our participation in, if only indirectly, the gross injustices of the past. Like any deeply repressed memory, it oozes to the surface at inconvenient times, manifesting as poorly understood hatred and violence. Because there is no safe place to hide, the problem belongs to us all. One starting point for healing, in my opinion, is for people like me to acknowledge that God is not white, and Caucasian is not God’s chosen race (any more than any other race).

It is not that my ancestors were bad people. They were mostly good people acting on mistaken beliefs. They used whatever means seemed necessary to attain their end of developing a self-proclaimed, God-given Promised Land for their purposes. Unfortunately and too often, the means were violent and oppressive. The end, however, is justified by whatever means are required when we believe we are carrying out the work of God. The weight of that generations-old oppression still sits heavily on the backs of too many of our brothers and sisters, mostly beneath their conscious awareness. Those of us who are descendants of the oppressors still bear the guilt, if subconsciously, and the healing must begin with us. While I do not know what forms of healing will be required to transform this pervasive wounding, I believe the first step is acknowledgement of my indirect culpability and the benefits that have accrued directly to me because of the unjust actions of my ancestors. “White privilege” is real, and I must own it.

Jesus, God in human form, was born into what we call the Middle East. His skin color certainly reflected that of his neighbors (i.e., not white). He would have appeared with neither the dark skin typical of the African peoples to the south, nor the light skin common to the Scandinavian races to the north. Rather, Jesus would have been a blend of those colors. In addition, the Middle East was a blending of cultures. The Western cultures came to practice mostly Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The Eastern peoples tended more towards Hinduism and Buddhism. Jesus lived at the crossroads of humankind, inclusive of and accessible to all. Honestly, where else would we expect God to appear? He blended cultures and hues because his Father, our God, creates and loves them all. Thus, there is a Middle-Eastern hue to the face of God. As Paul tells the Galatians, we are united as one in Christ. Our challenge is how to honor the many and varied hues of God with the love and respect accorded them as fellow and equal children of our one God. That is where the healing will begin.

Note: this is the 23rd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

Read Full Post »

The Face of Compassion

 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” John 5:6

To paraphrase Fr. Richard Rohr from a number of his writings, “God is found where the suffering is.”  Nowhere is that more evident than in the accounts of the life of Jesus found throughout the New Testament. This should surprise no one, since Jesus was a manifestation of God in human form. Although it is not clear whether Jesus sought out suffering people, he clearly did not shy away from them, either. Particularly with those who were shunned by society – those with leprosy and other visible infirmities, for example – Jesus not only acknowledged their existence and worth, he healed them.

In the story from the Gospel of John quoted above, Jesus found a lame man lying beside a pool, begging for someone to help him into the pool at the stirring of the water. There was a belief that whoever was first into the pool when the water stirred would be healed. Because of the man’s disability, he was never able to get himself into the pool in time. Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well. The man complained that he had no one to help him into the water, thinking that was his only hope. Jesus told the man to get up and walk, and the man got up and walked!

The religious elite chose not to rejoice about a lame man who was made well. Rather, they complained that Jesus had violated the Law by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus responded in verse 17: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” In my opinion, too many religious people and institutions continue to focus on rules, laws, and their own perpetuation while ignoring the pain and suffering in their presence. God’s compassionate gaze, manifest in Jesus, would not pass suffering by, regardless of the social norms, laws, or day of the week.

We see this same compassion throughout the ministry of Jesus, including with the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11), the man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-27), the woman suffering from hemorrhages (Matthew 9:20-22), and the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Luke 7:2-10). And here is a lesson for us: God-in-Jesus told us to show compassion, too. For example, in Matthew 25, Jesus told about the judging of the nations and said of those who will inherit the kingdom, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The crowd asked when these things occurred, and Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” While we may or may not have the ability to completely heal another, any one of us can ease another’s suffering in some way. We serve Jesus when we serve others in need.

Reading the accounts of Jesus and suffering people makes me wonder what he would do if he walked the streets of my hometown today. How would he react to the panhandlers, to the mentally ill, or to the homeless? I walk by them too often, pretending I do not see or hear. I cannot believe Jesus would do the same. How does the compassionate face of God call us to respond to the suffering in our world? That question is one I believe we all wrestle with throughout our lives. We should not be too hard on ourselves as we reconcile our hearts and our actions, however. God’s is a face of compassion and encouragement, not one of condemnation.

Live in the Lawrence, Kansas area? Join the discussion! On the 4th Sunday of each month (i.e., this Sunday, August 27, 2017) at the First United Methodist Church at 10:30 in Brady Hall, we will discuss the previous four weeks of Life Notes. Come share your thoughts and insights!

Note: this is the 22nd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

Read Full Post »

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

 

 

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »