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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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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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The Timeless One

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. Psalm 90:1-4

I had a revealing dream several years after my father’s death. He died suddenly, early on a  December morning, when I was 14. In the years that followed, a series of dreams haunted me where I knew he was present, but just out of sight. I would run to where he was, but by the time I got there, he would be gone. The revealing dream was this: My sister and I were looking out the front window of our home when I saw dad park the car and get out with a bag of groceries – and then I woke up (in more ways than one). The dream told me that one day, the years without my father will seem no more significant than the time apart from a trip to the grocery store. The reason this is true is that our experience of the passage of time is but a moment in the context of eternity.

Psalm 90 equates a thousand years to yesterday. Likewise, 2 Peter 3:8 tells us: “…with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” God time is not the same as human time. Here is a way we can perhaps visualize how this is possible. If we were two-dimensional beings – experiencing life only through height and width – we could only experience the third dimension (depth) in time. In other words, in any given moment we could see above and below, side to side, but not front or back. We would only be able to experience moving forward or backward in the passage of time. To us now, as three-dimensional beings, it is clear what lies immediately ahead for our two-dimensional friends because we can perceive all three dimensions at once. As the theory goes, we experience the next dimension beyond our physical reality in time. The question is this: What is the nature of the fourth dimension that we can only experience in time? When freed of our three-dimensionality, what expanded reality will be revealed to us, in the same way that depth appears to a two-dimensional being? I believe this is at the heart of our quandary, that our earth-bound perception is limited to three-dimensionality, and the mysterious reality beyond our experience unfolds for us in time.

The creation story in Genesis records that God created the earth and everything in it in six days. Some Christians believe creation occurred in 6 twenty-four hour periods, probably less than 10,000 years ago. Many scientists believe the creation occurred with a Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. For me, the question of which time frame is correct is irrelevant and unanswerable because time for the creator – the Timeless One – is inconceivable to us.

Albert Einstein proved, mathematically, that time is relative and not absolute. In other words, time is not a precise measurement that exists independent of our observation of it. In fact, in his later years, Einstein concluded that past, present, and future exist simultaneously in the fourth dimension, which he labeled as time-space. The point is this: Time, as we experience it, is only accurate in a limited way and for a limited cross-section of reality. When we are freed from the limitations of the earth-bound portion of our lives, the spans of decades, centuries, and eons will seem no longer than a trip to the grocery store.

All of this is to say that there is both biblical and scientific evidence that time is not as we believe, nor is the world we experience the entirety of everything created. Our lives are one part of an eternal creation that stretches from before our birth to beyond our physical death, when we will rejoin the Timeless One in an existence beyond earth-time.

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

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