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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

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

A Human Face

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

 

 

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

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.

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

A Merciful God

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