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Posts Tagged ‘brokenness’

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 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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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 15: Brokenness Leads to Wholeness

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:17

The egg shell must be broken at the right time for the chick to emerge. The caterpillar must be broken and bound for the butterfly to emerge. The skin of reptiles must split open for them to grow into their next stage of life. And, painful as it often is, our current state of life must be broken in order for us to move to the next stage of our development. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths, and being broken is at the heart of the process. I do not enjoy it, but I can either be broken willingly, or I can fight it tooth and nail, but broken I will be.

The central problem is that a full and satisfied heart has no motivation to change. When we are satisfied, we fight to maintain the status quo. We do whatever we can to minimize change, even when a change is necessary to improve the lot of our self and others. In political contests, one candidate is often portrayed as the “change” agent and the other as the “establishment.” The former makes the case that the political system is broken and needs to be rebuilt (or reborn). The latter claims the current system is good enough to provide a solid foundation from which to improve. In many cases, who we favor depends on the level of brokenness of our current state in life. While I do not advocate change for the sake of change, brokenness, in its time, is necessary for the sake of growth.

I am not advocating that we break a perfectly good life – destruction is a process that happens naturally enough, with or without our prodding. When we feel the status quo of our life starting to bend, however, it may be time to embrace a change. It may be the Spirit moving in our lives in a way that will lead us to a new level of wholeness. Sometimes, that may mean breaking away from negative influences by ending a toxic relationship, leaving a disrespectful employer, or receiving help for an addiction. Other times, we need to break away from our own inertia by intentionally committing ourselves to a new relationship, forming new, healthier habits, or beginning a regular prayer or meditation practice.

Sometimes we have already been broken, but we do not yet recognize the possibilities. We, like Humpty Dumpty, have fallen off the wall, and we expend energy and resources trying to rebuild what once was instead of taking stock of what is now. Being broken opens a new world of possibilities for us, but we will never see the possible until we willingly let go of the shattered past. An old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Realistically, there are times when we do need to break something in order to move ahead in life.

Brokenness leads to wholeness. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Broken Hearts are Roomier

Then it was that, broken in spirit, he began to lose much of his arrogance and to come to his senses…    2 Maccabees 9:11a

Don’t look now, but Christmas time is here. The season that is supposed to be about new birth, fresh starts, hope, peace, love, and joy too often manifests differently. At least it does if we are not intentional about keeping the annual Christmas chaos at bay. What often happens to me is I give in to the pressures of buying gifts, decorating the house, and attending every party possible. These should be joyful activities; but when overdone, they become burdensome. Before long, the stress of unmet expectations has me exhausted, miserable, and ready for the season to be over – often before it has truly begun. There is not room in my life for the Christmas clutter and for preparing my heart to receive the Christ child. I do poorly trying to do both, so I feel it best to choose one and let the other have whatever space remains. Granted, with two grown children, it is easier to choose the Christ child than it was some years ago.

The problem originates in the limits on our time, money, and heart-space. We can only fit so much into our days, only spend so many dollars, and only give so much of ourselves. At some point, there is no more space in our schedule, our budget, or our heart. When we reach that point, something must break, and I suggest it be our hearts. I am not recommending a literal breaking of the heart itself, but a breaking – a reassessment – of what we consider of primary importance in this season. Our heart, in this metaphor, represents our highest priorities. Why should we be upset if we do not meet someone else’s unreasonable expectation? Is that really our problem? Why would we place similar expectations upon ourselves? When we break something unnecessary out of our heart space, we immediately make room for something else. We must be careful, however, that we do not choose another shallow, poorly screened lover for that now-open space. Being discerning is appropriate whenever we allow something inside of us.

I do not know anyone who claims to have ample time for self-reflection and study of the deeper meanings of Christmas and the impact the season should have on us. When we break our hearts away from unrealistic and unproductive pressures, I suggest filling that space with prayer and meditation. My new book, Uncovering God in Christmas, is intended to help (see details below). In her song Coming Around Again, Carly Simon sings: “So don’t mind if I fall apart, there’s more room in a broken heart.” Open a space for the Christ child this season. Allow that Holy Presence to change you from within by making room for the new birth. It will be the best gift you receive this Christmas!

Come home to church this Sunday. Fall apart, come broken, and come back to Christmas.

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Broken Hearts, Open Minds 

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is open wide to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also. –2 Corinthians 6:11-13

When I was in my early teens, I was enamored with a girl who lived down the street. We started “dating,” which meant I was allowed to come over and sit with her on her front porch once or twice a week. We could also walk a short distance down the street, as long as we remained in view of her mother’s front window. I was devastated when she broke up with me. She gave me my first broken heart.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer considers broken hearts. He writes, “There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about. The other is to imagine the heart broken open into a new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome. As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”

Palmer’s latter definition is reminiscent of the Christian concept of being born again. The initial birth process is difficult. There is no reason to believe being born again will be easy, either. Letting go of beliefs we have long held to, once we discover them to be no longer helpful, is not easy. We must let go of what is known as we reach for something unknown – unknown, yes, but full of possibilities.

Brokenness is a central theme in Christianity. Sometimes our old ways of thinking need to be broken open in order to allow new concepts and ideas to reshape us into more useful vessels for the Spirit. We can be broken voluntarily, meaning we willingly offer ourselves to be broken. More often, at least for me, we are broken by unforeseen circumstances, often of our own making. Our lives are sailing along smoothly, and we feel like we are in control and then, BAM! Something happens that rocks our world and breaks us in such a way that we cannot reassemble our life back the way it was. We find ourselves in a forced career change, a loved one leaves us, or a medical condition inspires a reevaluation of our priorities. Rebirth is not easy and is not without pain, but is ultimately necessary and good. Palmer refers to “the tragic gap between reality and possibility.” If we are to move beyond today’s reality and approach tomorrow’s possibility, we must be willing to let go of yesterday. We should not always be in such a rush to reassemble our broken hearts. And perhaps our hearts should be reassembled with something less adhesive than super glue, leaving them more easily rebroken. A closed heart leads to a closed mind, and a closed mind leads to a small and closed life.

Come home to church this Sunday. Come and be broken with others.

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