Something Substantive About God #ProgGod

Tony Jones dropped the gauntlet challenging liberal Christians on the ways in which we speak about Jesus, the Bible, and the church, while neglecting to say something of much substance about God.

It was hard to not get bogged down with disclaimers and subjectivity… but just one before we start: In talking about “God” we’re talking about one member of our more holistic, Trinitarian understanding of God. We’re talking about the first person of the Trinity. The typical “God, the Father” person. Okay. Disclaimer, over.

Here is something substantive about God.

1) God changes.

Right off the bat in Genesis we hear stories about how God changes. This change is embedded in the very creation in which we exist. God spends 6 “days” [not necessarily 24-hour periods] bringing the world into existence. Then on the 7th day, God rests in creation. There’s never a point in time where God exits creation. So then, because creation changes, God must open God’s self open to changing as well.

If we needed any more evidence of this, we can see a complete shift in how God relates to humanity when God comes down to earth in Jesus. So that’s the first thing we can say about God — God changes.

2) God is constant.

This may be seen as a BUT to the first one, and that’s okay. God changes, but God is also constant. Even though God has changed, and will continue to change, there is a constancy in God’s presence. Though the circumstances of the world may be continually changing and evolving, the presence of God is constant in relationship with creation. It’s as simple as that.

3) God is genderless.

This is one I’ve hit on here before. And you may have noticed some awkward phrasing earlier in this post. But it’s to draw attention to the fact that we constantly attribute male nouns and pronouns to God. God is not male. God is not female. Gender is a sociological construct. Sex is a biological construct. These are both human categories. God is bigger than human categories (this could also be the title of #3) We assign gender to God for a deeper understanding, but it can become harmful when we stick rigidly to those gender categories to our own peril.

4) God knows the end, but doesn’t know the future.

Follow me on this one. In the act of the crucifixion and resurrection, God secured the end of the story. If we use the cosmic chess match example, the resurrection of Jesus is the check mate in struggle between love and destruction (love wins, in case you hadn’t heard). So that’s the first part of it, God knows the end.

BUT God doesn’t know the future. In part I blame that verse from the book of Jeremiah for the view that God knows everything that will ever happen to us. God knows what we’ll have for dinner 10 years from now. God knows what book we’ll read in the living room of the house we’ll live in when we’re 50. No. I firmly believe that God doesn’t micro-manage like that.

Instead, I think we ought to orient our belief more toward the idea that God is constantly working with us to bring a future of hope, grace, and love. This is because God is dwelling in creation with us — as noted earlier. God works with us to bring about good, but God never usurps our power of choice to force God’s will on us.

So, to recap, God knows the end, but doesn’t know the (immediate) future.

5) God is love.

This is, above all, what I believe about God. At the very core of God’s existence is love. Any time I start to question or doubt, no matter how much of my faith I deconstruct, this is the one statement I just can’t deny.

These are the 5 things that I can absolutely say about God. Usually my God-talk is bogged down in deconstruction or linguistic caveats, but it’s been a good experience to make declarations and say these things about God.

These are the things I like about God. God is dynamic and changes along with creation. But the things that are constant are radically inclusive love and a future oriented toward hope and openness.

Cheers,
Eric

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What Do You Get When You Cross a Lutheran & a Crack House?

You get these two videos that have been dominating my brain this week.
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Excellent words from Nadia on the first night of the Dome when we were in New Orleans. Both Megan and I turned to each other after we heard her give this talk and were stoked to be Lutheran — as lame as that sounds. I hope you enjoyed her talk.

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Bit of a different talk, but equally effective. A lot of times we look for the church to be a refuge away from the “evils of the world.” What I really like about Pete’s video is that a lot of what we do, as the church, is we create more dependence on ourselves. People need to come to us for certain things. We have ministries that give people a fix rather than helps identify our brokenness so that we don’t need that fix.

Great points from two great minds.

So watch these videos when you get a couple of minutes. Let me know what you think of them. Pass them on, if you’d like. I think they are some profound words for us.

Cheers,
Eric

Living the Questions: Where is Your Brother?

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ – Genesis 4:9

When I was a kid, my younger brother went over to the neighbor’s house to play Sega Genesis (the cool, new, far-superior-to-our-Super-Nintendo video game system). My mom came up to me and asked if I had seen where my brother went and I — in my defiant 11-year-old wisdom — shot back with a “How am I supposed to know? I’m not his babysitter!” Defiance of the older brother at its best.

This defiance is the crux of Cain’s argument with God. Not only did he kill his brother because of the anger issues previously discussed. But then when God, knowing full well what Cain has done, asks him about it, he gives an indifferent I don’t know and then essentially says, “What am I, his babysitter?”

In 2010, there were just shy of 15,000 homicides in the United States. That’s 4.8 murders per 100,000 people. Most of the industrialized world has a murder rate somewhere around 1.3 murders per 100,000 people. For some reason, America has a pretty unhealthy obsession with killing each other. Here’s the astonishing thing… only 14% of those murder victims didn’t know the person who killed them.

That means that 86% of all murder victims know the person that killed them. It seems like we have a problem with being our brother’s keeper.

The story of Cain and Abel couldn’t have more to do with our modern situation. I don’t always appreciate the limitations of dualistic thinking, but it comes down to this, when God asks “Where is your brother?” what’s being probed is this very question: Do you practice a heart of protection or a heart of destruction? Are your actions merciful or hardhearted? Do they enhance or diminish another’s dignity? 

The community that we’re called to is beyond our family. For those of you who don’t have brothers, you may look at this and say “I don’t have a brother so my brother is nowhere.” If you’re thinking that, I hate to say it but you’re kind of missing the point.

The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus had a conversation with a lawyer about eternal life. Jesus affirmed the man’s answer that loving God completely and one’s neighbor were at the core of what it means to be truly alive. But the man wanted make sure that he was doing absolutely everything he had to do (he is a lawyer after all). So he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the lawyer a story of a crime victim in the ditch alongside the interstate. Two very respectable community leaders drive past him and do nothing. They are not evil or malicious people. But at that moment in time, they lack mercy. Then a third person comes by. She’s from another country. Maybe she was in that country illegally. It was this foreigner who stopped and showed compassion for the victim, binding his wounds, medicating them, and taking the man to an ER and paying the bill for him.

Jesus then turns the question back around on the lawyer and, like God to Cain, says, “Who is the neighbor?” The lawyer answers, “The one who shows mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” 

“Where is your brother?”

“Who is my neighbor?”

These are both questions about how we relate to those around us. Do we act with grace and love or do we act with jealousy and anger?

Are we most often like the Good Samaritan? Or are we most often like Cain?

Where is your brother? Where is your sister? Where are those in need of protection? Where are those who need mercy? And what are you doing to protect them?

Living the Questions: Why Are You Angry?

“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 
The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?'” – Genesis 4:4-6

Of all the questions to live, this one is probably the hardest for me. Anger lives in a very dark place. But if we look at the story of Cain and Abel, it’s a pattern we know a little too well.

Proceeding any of this is an offering. Cain makes an offering to God — something that he gave his life to. His brother’s offering was met by God’s approval and satisfaction, his was not. We come with offerings everyday. In a very real way, Cain and Abel were offering their livelihoods. Looking for their worth. In essence, Cain’s livelihood was met with rejection, while his brother’s to satisfaction.

After Cain’s rejection comes anger. But the anger is just what’s on the surface — as is so often the way. Anger is all the deep-seeded emotions that we have boiled to the surface, but it’s not what’s so deep down. Anger is a surface emotion.

Behind anger is often where jealousy is found. 

A lot of times jealousy can rear its ugly head and take us off course faster than we even realize. With Cain and Abel, the jealousy isn’t too far from the surface. Abel’s sacrifice was excepted. Cain’s was not. BAM! Jealousy. Where does jealousy creep into your life? A lot of times we don’t even become aware of it until it’s already taken hold. We don’t even notice it sneaking into our thoughts until its already firmly planted there.

The grass is always greener

One of the things we have to realize, but is so faulty with our thinking, is that no matter what we do, if we get that thing we’re jealous of, if we get our neighbor’s new Porsche, or the promotion or whatever, we’re still going to be jealous. It just moves on to something new. So behind anger is often jealousy — with Cain it certainly is the case.

Behind jealousy is pride.

Pride is one of the things I fall victim to a lot. With Cain, he had pride in his crop. I have pride in my ideas. I want my ideas to be found the best among all others. That’s where my pride comes in. And it can be awfully hard to have so much stake in such fluid objects as “ideas”. But there it is.

A lot of times we take pride in our work — and that’s okay, “I’m not saying don’t take pride in your work.” But when it becomes a barrier between you and other people, that’s when it’s a problem. For Cain, pride lead to jealousy, anger, and ultimately killing his brother. I’m going to go ahead and say that was not the “good” kind of pride.

Be proud of your hard work.

Be proud of projects that have taken you a long time.

Be proud of overcoming things that have been difficult for you.

BUT

Don’t let it become a barrier to you. Because when it becomes a barrier, you do things like killing your brother. Not good. But even at pride, we’re still not at the root of the problem. We’re not at the very core of what the issue is in Genesis 4, the question that God asks of Cain.

So we have anger ==> jealousy ==> pride. And now we have one more dimension to add on.

Behind pride is selfishness.

This is where Genesis ultimately leads us — back to selfishness. Cain’s parents (Adam and Eve) went against the command of God because they were selfish and put their own curiosity above living with God. God’s only rule was “Don’t eat the fruit from that tree over there.” That was the only rule.

But then, when someone tells you there’s only thing you can’t do — every bit of you longs to do that one thing. It doesn’t matter how little sense it makes at the time. When someone prohibits, our desire is to test that rule. To push it just a little bit further. Because we’re selfish. Because we look out for numero uno — ourselves.

This is how it’s always been. And until we can break out of this mold, or at least acknowledge there are people outside of ourselves — we will always be a culture steeped in anger. But when we move beyond our anger to name and acknowledge the jealousy, pride, and selfishness behind our anger, it can do a lot to really get us to acknowledge the things we have in common — our humanity.

A little acknowledgement was all Cain ever wanted anyways.

So what are the things that make you angry? What gets you really pissed off? And what experiences could you share about how God works in those times of anger?

Cheers,
Eric

Living the Questions: What Have You Done?

The man said, “The woman you put here with me —
she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 
Then the Lord God said to the woman,
What is this you have done?” – Genesis 3:12-13

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? That “oh sh*t” moment. Maybe you just shut your locked car door to see the keys taunting you from the ignition. Or you’ve gotten to the bus stop/subway station/carpool meet up spot to see nothing but tail lights pulling away. Or maybe you’ve gone for a drive, left your wallet at home when the red and blue lights come on behind you.

Or maybe it’s a bit deeper than that. A lie exposed. A terrible mistake uncovered. A damaged relationship pushed to the brink. Regret is a hard emotion to deal with. If you could just go back and do things over, maybe they would have ended in a different — better — way. It almost always leads to some sort of guilt or other form of remorse. It can get pretty bleak.

If you’re a religious person, particularly a Lutheran — as I am, this question of “what have you done?” is brought to our attention every week. We start off our services with confession (well, after announcements and maybe an opening hymn). But not long after everyone gets as comfy as they can in their pews, we’re standing and confessing all the crap we’ve done. The sins known and unknown, things done and left undone.

We start our time together feeling terrible about ourselves.

Then we hear words of forgiveness. But for a lot of people, the damage is already done. Once we’ve had time to meditate on all the bad stuff we’ve done and the good stuff we’ve neglected, some people are in a pretty dark place. We don’t even hear those words of gospel that we’re forgiven. We get so caught in a feedback loop of how terrible of people we are that there can be a point of no return. (This is one of my beefs with Lutheranism — it makes you feel like crap an awful lot of the time)

When I was doing my CPE, I dealt a lot with guilt and regret of the “if only I’d done this” variety. That’s a road to nowhere good. My supervisor lead me to a book called “Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality” by Matthew Fox (no, sadly this is not the same Matthew Fox that played Jack in LOST. But that would be awesome).

Fox’s whole point, and what I have been thinking about as I’ve reflected on the question that God asks the woman in Genesis 3, is that we forget that before any sin or wrongdoing happened — before anyone ever asked “what have you done?”we were created as a part of a good creation.

When we gather for worship, the first thing we do is answer the question “What have you done?”, but that’s the 3rd question God asks. We’re missing the first two, which can be incredibly fruitful.

What would it look like if we took time in worship to honor and celebrate our good-ness as created beings of God? Not to pat ourselves on the back or get haughty (we’re still Lutheran, for crying out loud). But what if we made room for ourselves to primarily be the good, created beings that God made us, THEN we moved to the part that we’re steeped in sin and cannot free ourselves?

To me, that just feels lighter. As a worshipper, I would feel much more secure to then explore the indicting question God asks of all of us — “what have you done?” — and then be able to hear those words of forgiveness.

My fear is that by beginning our gathering time as a community with confession, we’re leaving people in that “oh sh*t” moment of having locked their keys in their car. When we feel that pang of shock, we’re often not very open to seeing the blessings that are all around us.

And they’re everywhere.

Cheers,
Eric

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