Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Life Notes’ Category

The Trump Conundrum

 Political commentary is not my forte. I have no need or desire to write in favor or against President Donald Trump, any more than I did for his predecessors. Rather, for those of us who believe the world we see outside ourselves is a reflection of the world within, Donald Trump provides an interesting and humbling self-reflection. The American political system is awash in seemingly unresolvable conflict, and the current face of that system is Donald J. Trump. My interest is not so much in Mr. Trump’s strengths or fallacies, however, but in what his strengths or fallacies, as perceived by me (and you), reveal about me (and you). Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation for June 12, 2017, wrote, “All the conflicts and contradictions of life must find resolution in us before we can resolve anything outside ourselves.” I (reluctantly) agree.

Beyond a reasonable doubt, I know the qualities that bother me most in others are qualities in me that I try desperately to hide and deny. A characteristic of Trump I find bothersome is his narcissism – his seeming self-centeredness and need for self-promotion. Of course, some of his popularity stems from exactly that quality, so I try not to cast it too negatively. Any admission on my part that his narcissism is troubling is more a confession of my own repressed narcissism than criticism of his behavior, anyway.

The more interesting questions to me stem from the observation that we, as a collective, voted a person with the distinct characteristics of Donald Trump (or name a predecessor, if you prefer) to be our president. Assuming we can agree he is narcissistic, we can begin to consider what about us put him in such a high office (including those who did not vote for him). For starters, I would argue that we are a narcissistic nation. Further, the vast majority of us are narcissistic individuals. There is something within me that always focuses on me. How will this event affect me? How can this person enrich my life? How can I turn this situation to my benefit? It is self-preservation, and it is necessary to a point; but have we carried it too far?

Where does our narcissism originate? One interesting allegory is found in Genesis 3:4-5, where the serpent tries to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit: But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This story is at the heart of what some Christians consider the original sin. Adam and Eve had everything they could possibly need in the Garden of Eden. Only one thing was forbidden – eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. To do so would make them like God. Does our narcissism stem from a craving to be like God? Do we desire power over our circumstances? Do we want to be the judge over who and what is good and evil? Do we need to be set apart from and over others? I think our political realities suggest that may be the case. Every day in Washington, DC, we find our elected representatives promoting their political parties and ideological leanings over working together to address the pressing problems in our country and our world. Political ideologies have become the idols of our age, and too often we find ourselves worshiping at the feet of divisive dogma while children starve, addicts overdose, our environment decays, and civil wars rage. Has our need to be right – as we define it and to the exclusion of what others believe – overridden our desire to live in peaceable relationship with others?

At least in part, Donald Trump represents a large group of people who feel left behind, unappreciated, disenfranchised, and forgotten. My observation is that every four or eight years, the delighted and disappointed groups trade places. We swing back and forth like a pendulum, preserving our dualistic obsession with believing if one thing is good, the other thing must be bad. There is no effort to make the pendulum move in an ever-widening circle, where all ideals and peoples are included, honored, and respected.

My friend, Bryan Welch, commented that “the explicit anti-narcissistic message implicit to Christianity is missed, altogether, by (so many of us) who self-identify as Christians.” If we are to move our country and our world forward, no one can be left behind – no nationality, no culture, no religion, no age group, and no orientation. We are all in this together, and the Trump conundrum is this: When we look in the mirror and see Donald Trump, what aspect of ourselves is being reflected? More importantly, seeing ourselves exposed, what are we going to do about it?

Note: Next week I will return to the series, The Faces of God. 

Read Full Post »

The Good Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. Psalm 23:1-4

Some may believe the image of God as a shepherd is trite or out of date. I disagree. In fact, I believe God taking on the face and role of a shepherd is one of the most meaningful and insightful analogies about God’s relationship to us. The first line of the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As we better understand God and God’s workings with and through us, we realize that most of us seldom lack anything we actually need, certainly not for extended periods. We often desire more than we have, but that is another issue entirely. Obviously, there are parts of the world, including in the United States, where there are people who lack necessities like sufficient food and shelter. I believe God, the good shepherd, attempts to take care of those needs by encouraging the rest of us to share our abundance to help meet those needs. A shepherd does not feed the sheep; a shepherd assures there is food available for the sheep to eat.

My mother raised sheep as a teenager, and I remember her telling me how dumb they were. Her experience was that if they were not watched constantly, they would invent trouble to fall into. It was as if the sheep simply trusted that a shepherd was watching over them at all times, protecting them from life’s perils, regardless of what they did. (Perhaps sheep are not dumb, just faithful.) The third verse of the 23rd Psalm comes to mind, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me…” According to mom, her sheep would mindlessly wander into any dark valley available.

I tend to think of shepherds as necessary in open fields, where there is no fencing to keep the sheep contained within a certain area. Of course, it is still possible for sheep to find themselves in trouble in a confined area, but it limits the possibilities. The point is that the days of the shepherd being physically present with the sheep 24 hours a day, at least on modern farms, are probably over.

Even contained within a fenced field, and even with regular access to food and water, sheep can find themselves in danger. Coyotes and other predatory animals love nothing better than fresh lamb chops, and fences alone will not keep predators from easy access to the sheep. This is perhaps where the image of God as our shepherd becomes more meaningful. A shepherd does not create the dangers for the sheep, any more than God creates dangers for us. Danger is inherent in the world around us. A shepherd seeks to protect the sheep from the dangers that are naturally present. When danger cannot be avoided, however, a good shepherd stands with the sheep so they do not have to face the danger alone. While God may not physically intervene between us and threats, God does remain with us throughout the danger. As I hinted earlier, God also relies on us to help care for God’s sheep. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus’ answer? “Tend my sheep.” Understanding God as our shepherd does not imply that God is or needs to be physically present with us. It does mean, however, that God inspires others to help in our time of need, just as God encourages us to help others in our times of abundance. We are, after all, the hands and feet of a very good shepherd.

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

 

Read Full Post »

An Inclusive God

So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:15,17

The story of Jonah shows a face of God that will manifest fully in the New Testament in the person of Jesus – a face of inclusion. The prophet Jonah was told by the Lord to go to Nineveh and warn the people to change their wicked ways. Jonah did not want to go because Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a country that had long dominated Jonah’s homeland, leaving Jonah’s people bitter. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh carrying the Lord’s message of salvation because Jonah did not like the people of Nineveh. He would have preferred that the Lord destroy them for their past trespasses, instead of providing another chance through the warning of a reluctant prophet.

As the story goes, Jonah received his instructions to head east to Nineveh; instead, he boarded a ship headed west to Tarshish, fleeing from the Lord. Jonah fell asleep below deck as the Lord caused a great storm to hit the ship, threatening to break it apart. The crew, frantic to save their lives and their ship, confronted their run-away passenger. Jonah confessed that God was causing the storm because of his disobedience. He told the crew that throwing him overboard would calm the seas. Eventually, the crew threw Jonah over the side and the seas grew calm. A large fish swallowed Jonah, and he spent three days in its belly before being spit up onto dry land. The Lord, again, tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. This time he goes and tells the people to turn from their wicked ways. Much to Jonah’s likely chagrin, the people repented and God saved them from destruction.

Trying to hide from God is never a successful strategy, at least not in the Bible. Beginning in Genesis with Adam and Eve trying to hide from God in the Garden of Eden, many different characters try to hide from God in various ways, but they never succeed. I catch myself trying to hide from God sometimes, although I am old enough to know better. Anytime I say or do something that I know is inconsistent with the way Jesus lived – something selfish or harmful to others – a part of me hopes God does not notice. I can be a narcissistic person, and I believe God provides me with opportunities daily to help me become more other-focused. It is those opportunities from which I often try to hide or ignore.

Jonah preferred that the people of Nineveh should die in their sin. He felt that was what they deserved. God, however, is an inclusive and persistent God of grace. This God is portrayed by Jesus as the good shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 to save one wayward sheep who has wandered astray (Matthew 18:12-14). This is the same God that in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), throws a huge party in celebration of the return of his long, lost son. God rejoices when any lost child (regardless of age) is brought back into the fold. We humans are quick to judge, and we are quick to label others as good or evil, Christian or non-Christian, right or wrong. God, however, sees beyond our dualistic categorizing to the heart of a being created in God’s likeness. All are precious, loved, and worthy of redemption, regardless of what the Jonah’s among us believe.

When we try to hide from God’s calling, we often find ourselves in a dark and lonely place. We are given time to reconsider our actions – thankfully, not in the belly of a fish – and we are always given another chance for more inclusive behavior. God’s patience is infinite, but God’s persistence is relentless.

An inclusive God is calling. What and who are we excluding?

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

 

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »