This past Sunday I preached a sermon on letting go of our fear of being wrong. In the process, I also touched on something that seemed to resonate with the congregation: asking hard and uncomfortable questions. I was very excited to have several members of the congregation offer some questions about things they struggled with or wondered about. I think one way we get over the fear being wrong is to learn to ask questions about things rather than offer dogmatic statements or rules about things. Openness to teaching and guidance from the Holy Spirit by being willing to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” is a powerful way to work through such fear.
I want to offer a method for working with scripture that I find helpful. The reason for doing so is I think many people stick to a literal understanding of the Bible because they haven’t learned or been taught anything else. I know I was certainly more prone to see things that way until I had been exposed to other means so I want to offer a basic approach to help others if it might help them in their journey. The method I learned was construction-deconstruction-reconstruction. In short, put it together, take it apart, and put it back together again.
I liken the process to what my son used to do with Legos. He would get a new set and sometimes while we were still in the car, he would begin putting the pieces together according to the instructions (construction). When he finished, he would play with the Lego set as it was designed for a while but then he would see something else in it, something not in the first set of instructions. He would then take the set apart (deconstruction) and then use the pieces and pieces from other sets to build a new creation according to his imagination (reconstruction).
This method is also workable for scripture. Let’s take a passage from Genesis 1 to demonstrate: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, ‘Let there be light.’” In the construction part, we would look at the verse and what is around it. It’s the beginning of the Bible, the first part of the story of God and man. But let’s look deeper and take it apart, deconstruct it. It’s part of a creation story told in two versions in what we call the first two chapters of Genesis. It’s also an example of a creation story told in the Middle East at the time, one that was different from other creation stories. It was first told as a story for years before being written down in sixth century BCE. Jewish sages and rabbis did not necessarily see it as a literal seven-day creation but as a story written to explain who God is, why we are here, and how we came to be with a focus on the spiritual rather than the literal sense. The questions are really regarding what this says about God and what it says about us. Knowing some of those things gives us an opportunity to ‘put the verse back together’ or reconstruct the verse by seeing it in its place, time, and cultural history. We can now look at Genesis 1 in the sense of God as Creator and Shaper of life around and the continued creator and shaper in our own lives.
That is a quick practice and in truth the practice would take a bit longer. What I want you to see is that there is a way to ask these questions of the bible and our faith. I love this sort of study and digging so feel free to ask me if you want to know more. Mostly, I just want to encourage you to keep asking the questions, digging around in your faith, and seeking to know God in a constantly fresh and evolving way.
Seminary was the most fun I have ever had and one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It was fun because I absolutely love sitting around with other people talking about the various topics we covered especially theology, philosophy, and history. I could stay in a classroom for hours with the right group of people and enjoy the back-and-forth discussion around those topics. Even now, I love for people to ask me questions about theology just so I can enjoy the conversation. Agree or disagree, I revel in those moments as times to share and learn about faith and the world around us.
It was also difficult, if not terrifying times as well. When I started seminary, I had a religious studies degree under my belt and what many people had said was a pretty good grasp of Christianity. But also had a lot of unanswered questions, questions that had long been simmering under the surface. Seminary was my place to try and answer these questions as I moved toward ordination and ministry. The first few classes began mundane —Christian history, Theological Methods, Christian Vocations. But as I got deeper into my studies, I started noticing things weren’t quite what I thought they were.
The first set of questions came when I took Greek. I began to wonder about why certain words were translated to mean certain things when they could also mean things. Then came classes like Faith, Reason, and Christian Belief and Postmodern and the Church. I found myself outside of the theological bubble I had been raised in and able to address questions that had long bothered me. I was also introduced to a host of writers and theologians spanning across centuries and writing from a variety of perspectives—some ‘orthodox’ and some ‘heretical’.
For many seminarians, this is familiar story. You leave the local church with the faith of your youth, it gets challenged through process of preparing you for ministry, and you find yourself with a different perspective and a different set of lenses to look at those perspectives. For some, it’s not a matter of going to seminary. For those, it’s a matter of having questions that we shouted down, reviled, and pushed aside. The questions were uncomfortable to the authority figure around them and so they were told not to ask them anymore for fear of ‘leading others astray’. For some, these questions were never voiced. They simply sat buried under the fear of discovery by others and eventually forgotten or dismissed as unimportant.
This morning, we are talking about the fear of being wrong or more specifically the fear of being wrong about the big things. What do I mean by big things? I mean the questions that keep people awake at night, the questions that leave people uneasy. I mean questions like, ‘What is salvation?’ or ‘Where do we go when we die?’ or ‘Is there really a heaven or a hell?’ More importantly, I’m getting at the idea of, ‘What if we’ve got it wrong or get it wrong?’
I think we need to recognize; we don’t have it all figured out. The sum of all our knowledge about God doesn’t begin to have it figured out. Leonard Sweet, a professor and theologian wrote, “I warn students that at my very best, 80 percent of my theology is correct, 20 percent is wrong. The problem is, I’m not sure which is the 80 percent, and which isn’t.” For some people that isn’t comforting. For some, it’s downright terrifying. For others, like myself, it’s encouraging. To me, it means our relationship with God isn’t something that can be reduced to a formula of plugging in certain prayers, certain behaviors, and certain preconceived notions. It’s an actual, living breathing relationship. How you relate to God isn’t how I relate to God, and it never will be because you aren’t me and I’m not you. Some of you may say, “But doesn’t just give people a license to sin? What if their version of relating to God is a sin?” Well, what’s sin? The word means missing the mark in Greek. What’s the mark? The writer of Matthew offers this conversation,
Our verse today from 2 Timothy said, “Run away from adolescent cravings. Instead, pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace together with those who confess the Lord with a clean heart.” To sum all this up, act with love toward everyone—whether you agree with them or not—and let the Holy Spirit be the Holy Spirit. Anyone in here God? If not, you are out of your depth trying to convict people of sin.
I could continue the hypothetical back and forth but to what end? What am I getting at with all this? Each of us has walked a particular spiritual road to get here. Along the way, we run into questions that are uncomfortable, difficult, downright scary. These questions arise in us as doubts or questions. Many church authorities have tried shut down this sort of questioning because they themselves are afraid. Some are afraid of losing control over their people. Some are afraid of having to deal with a plurality of opinions they don’t feel equipped to address. Some are genuinely afraid of people being led down the wrong path and led away from God.
But fear has no place in love. And questions or doubts or whatever label you want to give them are natural. So is changing your mind about things as part of your journey. That was the point of sharing my journey through seminary. I started seminary with a particular mindset based on the limited understanding I had, and I grew into another perspective because of intense prayer, study, and soul searching. This is nothing new and happens repeatedly in the bible. Paul was a Jew and persecutor of the church before becoming a missionary and pastor in the movement. Peter sided with the Judaizers and shut out the Gentiles. Martin Luther was a devout catholic. John Wesley never left the Anglican Church he simply saw problems in it and changed his perspective to try and fix it. I could list others, some you would call heretics, some you would call saints, and some you would be surprised at. The bottom line is there is nothing to be afraid of when we are led by the Holy Spirit and led by love as our primary motive. The spiritual journey we take, when guided by those two principles in Jesus Way of Being, will lead us deeper into the love of God. The truth we find in the love of God, I believe, can in no way be anything to fear only to live in, to revel in, and to share.
As I was trying to remember this yesterday during the sermon, I kind of botched the translation a bit. I had used this in Sunday school and as I was preaching the idea popped back into my head to use it and I was so excited about how well it fit, I almost forgot the quote. What it should have been was closer to, “unity in necessary things; freedom in doubtful things; love in all things.” This phrase has been attributed to any number of theologians through the years: St. Augustine, Philip Melanchthon, John Wesley, and others.
In truth, the writer was man named Marco Antonio de Dominis, a catholic priest and heretic of the early seventeenth century. De Dominis was known to be vain, greedy, and difficult to get along with, excommunicated from the Catholic Church and run out of England by King James I. He also had a keen theological and scientific mind and engaged with the field of optics. He even wrote a treatise on the refraction of light which creates rainbows that was held up as a work of genius by Isaac Newton himself. Nobody’s perfect and even heretics get things right sometimes.
His theological musing, however, has popped up many times through history, even finding its way into the UMC Book of Discipline where it says,
Beyond the essentials of vital religion, United Methodists respect the diversity of opinions held by conscientious persons of faith. Wesley followed a time-tested approach: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
This phrase may well hold the key to how we might get along as both a church and a nation. The world around us is so often portrayed as a place of hostility and often the perpetrators are from inside the church as much as outside. So, what do we use this phrase to do that? How might we fit these eleven words into our theology and general practice in a world of contention and animosity?
I think we learn to take this kind of thinking to heart. There are somethings that make Christianity, well, Christian. These things are at the heart of what it means to be literally trying to be a little imitator of Christ. I would say these are things you find in the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandment, Matthew 25, and Luke 4. They are things Jesus used again and again and stressed in the gospels. There are other things which are non-essentials, and we should learn to see them that way. These are things like which version of the Bible you want to use or what kind of music you prefer to worship to. And finally, all things should be done in love (back to the Great Commandment with this one). If you can’t with love, you can’t call yourself or your actions Christian (see 1 John 2, 1 Corinthians 13).
And there you have it, a simple snapshot of how we might find a way to get along in a world that seems bent on being angry about something and at someone. Unity, liberty, and charity may well be the means by which we rebuild society’s trust in the church and mend a lot of broken fenceswithin.
You know who they are don’t you. I don’t have to tell you, don’t have to explain it. I can just mention the word and they pop into your head. They are everything wrong with this world. They ruin everything good. They stand for everything we can’t stand, can’t tolerate. And you know they think the same about you when someone mentions you to them. They think you are everything wrong with the world. They think you ruin everything good. They think you stand for everything they can’t stand or tolerate. And if we don’t do something about them, they are going to take everything good away from us and we will have to live in their world.
All of that might sound silly, might seem a bit over the top but stop and think about a moment. How many times a day do we hear things like this? How many news stories and social media posts have this kind of underlying meaning? How many conversations are had because of those stories and posts? Look at any form of media—social, news, internet, magazine, newspapers—and you can find this kind of speech with the subtle subtext of us versus them. We all have biases for and against things but there are people in this world who want, no need us to have biases mirroring their own. And so, we are routinely bombarded with this idea of us versus them and the idea that they must be feared because they are not us and they mean to cause us harm or take something from us. This idea of an enemy or fear of an enemy seems ingrained in us, something we simply do. Consider this quote from author and social commentator Umberto Eco,
“Having an enemy is important not only to determine our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”—Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy
The fear of other/them is one of the most pervasive fears in human history. It is rooted in something which kept us alive in ancient times, times when danger was more immediate, more likely to be life and death. Scientists have found this fear to be an inherent emotion, passed down by both instinct and behavior, and common to everyone as something we simply experience. But like many other behaviors we seem to be born with or are taught, fear of the unknown/them is something to grow out of. And fear of the unknown or of them should not be the starting point for how we approach other people, especially as disciples. The greater point, the greater emphasis, should be to make the unknown known. If the unknown is made known, it is no longer something that must be feared. It can be recognized for what it is and we can act accordingly.
These ideas are nothing new. We see them at work in the scripture passage I just read. Jesus walks past a tax collector named Matthew and says, “Follow Me.” I’m sure this raised some eyebrows among the disciples. Many of them probably knew Matthew. Some may have even paid their taxes to Matthew who may or may not have cheated them. Among Jesus disciples was a man named Simon the zealot. He was a member of a Jewish movement or political party committed to overthrow the Romans and those who collaborated with them. Those like Matthew. I imagine Simon took a long hard look at Matthew and maybe walked up to Jesus after Jesus called Matthew. “Master,” I imagine Simon saying, “are you sure about this? Do you know who he is? What he’s done?” And of course, Jesus calls Matthew anyway, something I’m sure Simon gets over in time. These two people—Matthew and Simon—are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Yet as followers of Jesus they are willing to give up their politics for a truth beyond their politics.
The Pharisees, however, are another story. After Jesus calls Matthew, the disciples and Jesus are invited to a banquet at Matthew’s home. I imagine it was quite an affair. Tax collectors were often well off in the Roman Empire. Matthew not only had Jesus and his disciples there but all Matthew’s friends and acquaintances, people who were fellow tax collectors and what the Pharisees termed as sinners—those who violated certain purity laws as interpreted by their sages. The Pharisees looked on with disgust as Jesus and his disciples made themselves unclean by sitting at table with these undesirables. Jesus was not only in the presence of them, but he was calling them to be his followers, and acting like one of them.
Yet, this example of the kind of ministry Jesus engaged in tells us something of his notion of us and them. We are all us, there is no them. Anyone can be one of us if they choose to be and our response is to let them. Some of you may say, “What about people who aren’t Christians? Aren’t they them?” No, theyaren’t. Those who are not yet disciples are just that, not-yet-disciples. Not-yet-disciples are simply people who haven’t woken up spiritually to the Jesus Way of Life. For that matter look around the room. Some of the people in here may well be not-yet-disciples. They show up. They act the part. But their heart isn’t in it and their attitudes are far from those of a Jesus follower. They are the themthey think other people are without even knowing it.
Most of the time, I have found they are not the problem. We are the problem. We are the problem because our zeal to protect ourselves and our loved ones and quite frankly our sense of ease and comfort keeps us from remembering we are not our own. We have chosen the way of a disciple. We have chosen to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus. We have chosen to live by trust in God not fear of others. 1 John 4 says, “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. This is how love has been perfected in us…because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”
The way of Jesus is love and love, mature love born of God and guided by the Spirit of God, puts aside fear of any kind.
Let go of your fears. Let go of your mistrust and in some cases even hatred.
Roth, Randolph. “Table and Figures from “Criminologists and Historians of Crime: A Partnership Well Worth Pursuing,” and “Homicide Rates in the American West”.” Crime, History, and Societies, 2017: 389-401.
“So, the problem is not so muchto see what nobody has yet seen, as to think what nobody has yet thought concerning that which everybody sees.”— Arthur Schopenhauer
My wall is littered.
Some of images are pictures of musicians and musicals (complements of my son). Some are movie and film posters lovingly recreated (also by my son). Some are memes and other silly images. There are also various other things I find interesting—John Steinbeck’s rules for writing (maybe from the author, maybe not), the membership vows of the United Methodist Church, a list of missional qualities I find helpful to remind myself of, and several quotes.
Among this sea of images, I have a version of the Schopenhauer quote above, or a variation of it, taped in the corner above my computer screen. I ran across it sometime ago (not sure when or where) but I liked the idea behind it. To me, it speaks of taking things we have come to find ordinary or run of the mill and finding more behind them than we thought might be there. It is also one of the methods I use for scripture reading and biblical interpretation.
I think often we run across things in the bible or at church, hear a version of it from someone we like or trust, and never question it or really think about it again. For some people, it feels good in that moment and therefore no more consideration is warranted. For others, they fear delving too deeply into things that might be or lead to uncomfortable thoughts or ideas. For some, protecting those ideas most comfortable and most dear is also most important.
I look at it a different way. If an idea is truth, it is truth. It will stand up to scrutiny no matter what you throw at it. If it is not truth, no amount of preservation, protection, or shielding from the outside will keep it from crumbling. The writer of 1 Thessalonians puts it this way, “Don’t suppress the Spirit. Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes something similar, “For from the time I learned Thee have I never forgotten Thee. For where I found truth, there found I my God, who is the Truth itself, which from the time I learned it have I not forgotten” (Book X, Chapter XXIV). Or as my father has oft said, “The truth will stand when ice water melts.”
No matter your quote of choice, I believe the search for God’s truth and the truth about God, when approached with honest and genuine love and desire for the presence of God, will be rewarded. I believe God hears the honest prayer and recognizes the honest heart of the searcher seeking the truth of the Spirit’s teaching.
So, seek. Look. Dig. Delve. Mine. Wander.
And know those who do so with honest hearts, intent on finding God will be rewarded.
People are afraid. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes not so much. According to what I have researched, people are afraid of lots of things. If you look up the word phobia on the internet, you can find hundreds, maybe thousands, of lists naming tons of individual places, objects, situations, people, and animals to be afraid of. Of course, if you have pinaciphobia you’ll want to avoid those lists since you’re afraid of them, and if you have, sesquipedaliophobia, or the fear of long words, you might not like some of my sermons or that word.
To say the least, people feel a sense of fear about a wide variety of things. So, let’s ask the question, what do you think people are afraid of? Of all the things we might worry about, have anxiety about or just out and out fear, what comes to mind? Stop and think. I’ll give you a minute (ask congregation to share).
Social scientists spend a great deal of time studying these things and have found some things. A Chapman University study investigated this earlier this year. “In January of 2021, a random sample of 1,035 adults across the United States was asked about ninety-five different fears ranging from topics about the environment, government, natural disasters, COVID-19, and many more.” The list they came up with looks like this:
Corrupt government officials 79.6%
People I love dying 58.5%—#5 in 2019
A loved one contracting the COVID-19 58%
People I love becoming seriously ill 57.3%—#3 in 2019
Widespread civil unrest 56.5%
A pandemic or a major epidemic 55.8%
Economic/financial collapse 54.8%
Cyber-terrorism 51%—#7 in 2019
Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes 50.8%—#2 in 2019
Biological warfare 49.3%
I wondered how different this list would have looked in another year. According to the same researchers, the list did look different just two years ago:
Corrupt government officials 77.2
Pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes 68
People I love becoming seriously ill 66.7
Pollution of drinking water 64.6
People I love dying 62.9
Air pollution 59.5
Extinction of plant and animal species 59.1
Global Warming and Climate Change 57.1
Not having enough money for the future 55.7
Many of the things from 2019 are on the 2021 list but what if we go back a little way. We might things like the Russians, communism, hippies, “the man”, people over thirty, fear of failure, and a lack of control over the forces that affect our lives. We could keep running down this rabbit hole and let ourselves have a good old-fashioned freak out but there isn’t really a reason to. And I think the reasons for that is found in the difference between fear and anxiety.
“Fear is a human emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat.” In other words, your body is responding to what it sees as a physical threat. If I yell ‘snake’ you will react differently than if I yell ‘heretic’. A heretic will at best, bore you, at worst, annoy you. A snake, depending on what kind it is, might kill you. In the story we read from the gospels, the disciples are facing a physical threat. There is a storm. It is swamping the boat. They might die. There is a physical response coming from their body to prepare to flee or fight, in this case to flee. They are experiencing fear not anxiety.
Anxiety is something different. Anxiety is the vague sense of being in danger or feeling like your circumstances are dangerous when they are physically not. Your body still reacts with the same flee or fight response but there is no real fear. National Institutes of Mental Health says something like 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. Unfortunately, our general environment doesn’t seem to be trying to help that anxiety go away. If anything, I would say certain groups and individuals are exploiting it for their own gain.
Sometimes the things we learn to fear are the things others told us to be afraid of but a not a potential source of harm. An example: my grandmother was terrified of being murdered or attacked if she or anyone in the family went to Atlanta. She watched the news out of Atlanta—even though she lived seventy miles away in Rome—and was convinced that if anyone in the family went to Atlanta we were going to get robbed, shot, or killed. My father worked in Atlanta for nearly thirty years. His brother lived in Atlanta for most of his adult life. I worked in and around Atlanta for over a decade. The worst year for murders in Atlanta was 1990 and the chance any individual would be murdered was 0.00001184 percent. But she watched the news. She trusted good ole’ WSB as the source for truth and Atlanta may as well have been Dodge City circa 1880 when you had a 1 in 61 chance or 0.016 percent chance of being murdered.
Getting back to our passage from Matthew 8, I like the question Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid, you people of weak faith?” Another way of saying this might be, “You’ve been walking with me. You’ve seen what God has been doing in and through me. Heard the teaching and seen the miracles. Don’t you trust me?” I think this question was posed the way it was not only for the disciples in that moment but for those disciples who would hear the story after. It is a way of God saying to us, during all you face, the storms of life both real and imagined—true fear and false anxieties—I am here, and I am bigger than all of that. When you turn on the news and the talking heads babble about whatever the momentary crisis is, I’m bigger than that. When you scroll through your social media feed and see all the naysayers and doomsayers and manipulators claiming the end is near and your only hope is to listen to them, God says your real hope is listening to the Holy Spirit. When all seems lost in the world—wide and near—around you, seeking God is where you should be found.
Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Giving into fears and anxieties and allowing them to guide our decision making robs us of the time we have been given to love God and enjoy the great gift of life we have been given. Let go of anxiety and fear. Embrace the Holy Spirit. Use the tools God has given us—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—to grow as disciples and lead others to do the same.
Roth, Randolph. “Table and Figures from “Criminologists and Historians of Crime: A Partnership Well Worth Pursuing,” and “Homicide Rates in the American West”.” Crime, History, and Societies, 2017: 389-401.
One of the greatest writers of the modern era was also one of the most rejected, at least when he started. Steve started writing when he was a young teenager. When he wasn’t winning bible memorization contests for MYF, he was writing short stories and a mimeographed newspaper he did with his brother Dave. Young, enthusiastic, excited about writing, he began submitting stories to pulp magazines.
The first rejection letter came, and it wasn’t so bad. Steve pounded a nail into the wall and poked the letter through. In his memoir he said, “I felt pretty good actually. When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.” Eventually, Steve started shaving and by then, the letters began to weigh down his nail. He traded it out for a spike, kept writing stories, and hanging letters.
One day, a rejection letter arrived with something new on it: criticism. The editor read the story and wrote back, “This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.” For a sixteen-year-old boy who had spent the last several years writing and submitting stories, this was a success. Feedback from an actual, real-life editor. Later after Steve had a few more failures but more importantly a few more successes under his belt, he edited the story and resubmitted it to the same magazine and they gladly accepted it. Steve later wrote, “…When you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, ‘Not for us.’” That little bit of criticism, constructive and well-placed, became a spark that helped launch the career of horror grandmaster Stephen King.
Criticism can be a good thing. It can help smooth off the rough edges and work out the kinks. But only when properly used and only with the right heart behind it. Unfortunately, that isn’t the version we are talking about when we refer to a Critical God. As I said last week,
I believe, and I think both research and observation will bear this out, that people who claim to serve God, don’t all serve the same version of God in the same way. In fact, I think all those perspectives shape the characteristics we see and sometimes give to God. Rather than accept God as is, we tinker with the character and personhood of God until we have someone comfortable for our personalities to deal with.
And the same can be said of the Critical God and the Distant God, which we are talking about this week. This Critical God offers a greater sense of mystery than the Judgmental and Benevolent Gods. The Critical God is all-knowing and all-powerful—like the Judgmental God—but unlike the Judgmental God, waits to judge until later. This version of God is making a list, checking it twice, knows who’s naughty and nice and is planting gardens and firing up pits accordingly. This version is a just God, often seen among minorities, the poor, the exploited. These are people who have no chance of seeing justice done for the wrongs against them in this life. But the Critical God—distant, watching, waiting—will give out justice for them later and reward them for their belief in the next life.
The Distant God is just that, distant. This version of God created everything, cranked up the machine called the universe, set it in motion, and went on a permanent vacation. This version is more cosmic force than being, mysterious and unknowable. The Distant God has nothing to do with human affairs and isn’t concerned with mankind’s judgment or the affairs of the world. This kind of God doesn’t need worship or praise, doesn’t respond to prayers or personal desires. He left the building long before Elvis and shows no signs of coming back. The afterlife isn’t even a consdieration.
From what I have seen, many people in this country, in our community, see a blended version of Judgmental God and the Critical God. He is not only engaged in the world and judgmental, a literal, present force, either looking to or willing to actively punish people for their actions, he’s also keeping score for those who manage somehow, miraculously, to get by with little punishment in this life for their perceived sins and ills. Not that God can’t be benevolent. Those who see God as mostly judgmental and critical often say God does it out of love. And those who claim a belief in this Judgmental/Critical God sometimes act like God is distant and unknowing. It’s as if God is going to judge them one day but not for all those little things, they don’t think God sees or knows about. God is whichever version they need based on their desire in the moment, a convenient version of God for whatever we need.
And that is my greater point for this little series—our God, the God we really worship by our actions—is quite often the Convenient God. This final version of God is not one of the four but all four and maybe a few more. This version of God is the one I think most Americans really worship. It is a god judgmental toward our political, religious, and all other perceived enemies. It is the god benevolent toward us, our friends, our family, those who share our ideals and perspective. It is the god critical and waiting to punish those who displease us by their actions and activities which are most often the same as those being targeted by the Judgmental God. And it is the God who is distant when we want to step outside the Way of Jesus without being caught or punished for it. This Convenient God is a God of our own interpretation—progressive or conservative; rich or poor; Democrat, Republican, or other; pick any two opposing ideas and ideals and insert them here. It is a God that simply makes life easier on us and harder on those we see as enemy. But none are God. All four are versions are created to satisfy a desire to feel comfortable with the version of the world we created for ourselves.
And it is time to let go of this false God of our creating. It is time to dig deep into scripture, our traditions, our experience, our reason, and look beyond the politics of their time, our time, and embrace the tremendous divine mystery that is God. It is time to do some serious soul searching to see if the real God is even in there. Ask yourself,
Where did my ideas about God come from?
Who influenced my ideas the most?
Where did their ideas about come from?
We need to scrutinize ourselves, our motivations, and the motivations of those who have influenced us to see where our version of the being we call God came from. And then we need to repent, to change direction toward a better understanding of God. We need to get rid of the baggage from our lives and those who influenced us and seek to find God as God is not as we and others want.
Froese, P., & Bader, C. (2015). America’s Four Gods. New York: Oxford University Press.
King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Pocket Books.
“So now, revere the Lord. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”
Steve Jobs said,
A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
This quote reminds me of another quote I heard years ago which has a variety of forms to it. It started out in England as a “Birmingham Screwdriver.” Later the phrase evolved to “Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.” The version I learned came from psychologist Abraham Maslow who said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Whether we are talking about the misuse of the tool or Steve Jobs commentary, what we are getting to is the idea of perspective. Your perspective informs both your sense of limitations and your sense of vision. Rarely do people wonder about things enough to question their viewpoint. What you can see is normally all you will see because as human beings we tend to view the world as being only what is in front of us, what is at our disposal. And this extends from the seen to the unseen where religion is concerned. Most people know what they know about their faith from close family or friends. Ministers get about half an hour of influence a week and even when you get a little more, you have nowhere near the influence of trusted family and friends.
These perspectives become remarkably resilient. Since they come from trusted sources and often reinforce what we already believe or want to believe, we do not easily let go of them or question them. As one researcher notes, “Once formed, impressions [perspectives] are remarkably perseverant.” In other words, once you have an opinion, you are likely to keep it, no matter what. So, practically speaking, the perspective people have on their faith is largely informed by those closest to them and not likely to change. It is always a hammer and always will be.
So, it’s no surprise when people read the Joshua passage that they think, “Of course. I’ve already chosen. I serve God.” But the question today is the question from back then: which one? I say that because I believe, and I think a both research and observation will bear this out, that people who claim to serve God, don’t all serve the same version of God in the same way. In fact, I think all those perspectives shape the attributes we see and sometimes give to God. It reminds me of a song we used to sing in the youth group I had in Thomaston, Georgia. The lyrics are:
The song is basically a tongue-in-cheek way of saying God is beyond our attempts to be defined as an extension of ourselves. But it makes a valid point and that is we want to know the God we serve is more like us than not. Rather than accept God as is, we tinker with character and personhood of God until we have someone comfortable for our personalities to deal with. Over the next two weeks I want to talk about what one book/study calls America’s Four Gods. I think the subtitle of the book really gets to the heart of things: what we say about God and what that says about us. Let’s dive in and see if we see ourselves.
Since this is only going to be a two-week study, I’m going to take these two at a time. The first two are the Authoritative God and the Benevolent God. The authors of the study define the Authoritative God as engaged in the world and judgmental, meaning this version of God is seen as literal, present and either looking to or willing to actively punish people for their actions. Like anything people have their hands in, this version of God is seen on a scale from judging and punishing with glee to acting as a literal father chastising his children only because it is necessary. The more extreme version of this God is the father of what I call Christian bullies, those people who look for any opportunities to “share their faith” but they are just trolling and criticizing anyone who disagrees with them in the name of defending the faith.
The other expression is the Benevolent God. People who see God this way see God not as the one looking to punish wrongdoing or trying to find fault with our actions but rather a force for good in the world, one less likely to offer individual or corporate condemnation. For believers in a Benevolent God, God is the one who comes along side us in the midst of tragedy and difficulty, the God who appears as a presence in our lives. Often, believers in a Benevolent God do not see God as the direct cause of things but the miraculous salvation in their midst. Rather than sending the hurricane, as the Judgmental God would, the Benevolent God comes alongside the sufferer in need. This version of God is grace upon grace upon grace no matter the situation and no matter the need.
This doesn’t mean people who see God mostly as Judgmental do not see a benevolent aspect of God or that people who see God as Benevolent don’t believe God will offer judgment. It simply means their baseline understanding of God is either one or the other.
I would propose something else—a God of balance. To judge, biblically speaking, means “to choose, to decide, to make distinctions between things.” And there are times God has to make distinctions about whether or not the things we do lead to health and wholeness or disease and brokenness. There are also times the Holy Spirit needs to offer correction and redirection. That doesn’t mean if you have a car wreck, God wants to get your attention. Sometimes stuff just happens because people are, well, people. It does mean there are moments and even events the Holy Spirit uses to helps reorient our direction (repent) toward the way of God. We are called to be disciples, a word that denotes a disciplined life oriented to the example of Jesus, following the Holy Spirit.
It also doesn’t mean that God is a Zeus/Marduk/Jupiter hybrid, waiting to hurl lightning bolts and curses for everything we do wrong. Some things don’t require divine punishment, they are their own punishment. Smoking often leads to lung cancer. Cheeseburgers often lead to heart disease. A mega-sized Blizzard a day keeps the diabetes active and happy. We don’t always have to be looking for divine wrath as a sign something is wrong. Many, if not most, negative things have their own consequence.
So, what is your God? A harsh, spiteful, vindictive monster waiting to pounce? A pushover with no sense of regulation? Or perhaps something more balanced between grace, mercy, and discipline?
Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork. One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another what needs to be known. Of course, there’s no speech, no words—their voices can’t be heard—but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth. God has made a tent in heaven for the sun. The sun is like a groom coming out of his honeymoon suite; like a warrior, it thrills at running its course. It rises in one end of the sky; its circuit is complete at the other. Nothing escapes its heat.
My family and I have lived in five different states over the past seventeen years: Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado, Wyoming, and now South Carolina. During that time there have been a few constants, things that we always find in every place that we live. First, we usually find the local library. We are a family of voracious readers and within the first week or so of moving to a new place, everyone has a library card. When we can’t find what we are looking for at the library, we find bookstores – used, new, Salvation Army or Goodwill – we find places to get books. And finally, we find all the museums, zoos, and aquariums in the area and normally end up with season passes.
While we were in Colorado Springs, our family got an annual pass to the Denver Museum of Natural History. Since the kids were homeschooled, we took trips during the week on less busy days and usually had the museum to ourselves. We had the chance to see all the standard exhibits about dinosaurs, native cultures, and animals from across the region as well as several special traveling exhibits like the Sherlock Holmes exhibit.
For some people, that may or may not sound like much fun, but for us, it’s heaven. We love the opportunity to learn but more than that, we love to revel in the wonder of it. Whether it’s a great book that carries us off to places we may never go or places that may never exist, staring up into the starry expanse of a planetarium, or wandering through an exhibit about peoples that once walked where we walk now, there is a sense of awe and amazement that comes with exploring these things and seeking to understanding them.
My personal favorite was an exhibit we saw after we had moved to Wyoming. The Denver Museum was given the opportunity to present the Dead Sea Scrolls. We were able to take a trip back in time to see coins, pottery, architecture and of course, the scrolls themselves, most dating from the second century BCE to the second century CE. It was a fascinating exhibit and it reminded me of one of the reasons that I have continued in ministry, even when things were difficult: The Wonder of It All.
No matter how difficult my circumstances have been or how easy they have seemed to be I have always maintained, to varying degrees, a sense of wonder, awe, and amazement about the person and work of God from the first spoken words of Creation to the myriad of words spoken now about God to this day. And I don’t think that I am alone. Consider the great classical works of art, music, and literature and you find yourself looking at statues and frescos of the patriarchs, hearing symphonies and oratorios to celebrate the life of Christ, and reading stories and parables of the work of God in creation.
A Psalm of wonder
Wonder is simply a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. For the Hebrew people, this takes on the meaning of a special display of God’s power. Psalm 19 is one such work of literature within the scriptures that speaks to this wonder.
The entire Psalm speaks of the wonder found in the Creator (1-6), in the Creator’s directions for the creation (7-10), and in creation’s prayer (11-14). In the first part, the psalmist writes about the declaration made by the created order. The writer sees everything as the handiwork of God and in everything a message that whispers, “Look at this! Marvel at this! The Creator made it!” This declaration is echoed in the story of Job where it says, “But ask Behemoth, and he will teach you, the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or talk to earth, and it will teach you; the fish of the sea will recount it for you. Among all these, who hasn’t known that the Lord’s hand did this? In whose grasp is the life of everything, the breath of every person?” The second part speaks of the Creator’s directions for the creation, specifically the idea of Torah—literally, instruction in Hebrew. It speaks of the truth and wisdom in the Creator’s teaching and direction, how these words lead to healing, wholeness, and health. The third part is an act or worship as response to the Creator. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” In other words, the psalmist is praying that what they are saying and thinking should make the Creator feel a sense of approval.
A refuge of wonder
Another thing I do when our family has moved to a new place is set up my office at church and at home. A great deal of my time is spent within the walls of those two places, reading, studying, pondering. But more than that, it is a place of wonder. In those two places, I find myself digging through the histories and experiences of others who have encountered God over the centuries. As I read and write and pray through and with what I encounter in the pages I read, I find the awe and wonder of God in their stories and experience it in my own.
This, I believe, is also an invitation to us. That we too consider God in Creation, and God in Spirit and Truth with us here in our daily life. When speaking of worship with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus tells her that true worship is not to be found in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim – the place Samaritans worshiped God following their understanding of the example of Jacob. Jesus tells her, But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth. What Jesus is telling her is that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, there will be no need for going anywhere to experience the awe and wonder of God’s presence. We who seek to be in it will find it and will know it as we know our own selves through the gift of the Spirit. And if you are not finding it where you are looking, maybe you are looking in the wrong place. And if the places you’ve always found it before aren’t revealing now, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” To wonder with God is to also wander with God.
Wondering as a lifestyle
The point of all this is for the hearer of psalm to meditate, to stand in wonder and awe of the Creator, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we do so, we will find a natural response begin to surface, the response of praise. Consider the psalms in general, what are they? They are the response of praise to an encounter between the writer and the God they have been in the presence of. For each of us, there is the unending possibility, through the Holy Spirit, of encountering God. In fact, for those of us who follow the Way of Jesus, it should not be a possibility, it should be a certainty. The presence of God in our lives should be such that we should be constantly encountering it. If we live as Paul admonishes and we pray without ceasing, we will find that being a people of awe and wonder of the works and presence of God is second nature. If we are truly what we claim, the way we live will be an example to others of living from one display or God’s power to another.
Are you a person who experiences wonder? If so, wonder on. If not, what are you waiting for? The God we live in wonder of lives within us through the Holy Spirit to show us the surprise and admiration, born out of the beauty, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, and the inexplicable of our relationship with him.
I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened. — Mark Twain
My wife is the smart one. She is also the quiet one in public settings. Most people never hear or know it, but she is the unquestionable intellect in our family. Most of our mornings begin with a cup of coffee and conversation. I usually wake up charged and ready to go, ready to jump into ideas and thoughts. She tends to be more relaxed and likes to ease into such things, usually after the second cup of coffee or second half hour of wakefulness. Yet every morning, part of our daily ritual is some sort of discussion, usually dealing with something one or the other read.
This morning we had our coffee outside, enjoying the rising sun and the various wildlife chattering. We had both been reading articles online and started talking about one a friend posted on Facebook called, Jesus, John Wayne, and John Wesley: Why the Curious Silence on Masculinity in the Wesleyan World? The general idea was churches in the Wesleyan tradition didn’t have as many problems with toxic masculinity (thought they are not immune to it) because women have had leadership roles through much of the latter half of the twentieth century. This means Wesleyan men don’t find it so unusual for women to be pastors, superintendents, or bishops (again not all Wesleyans are created equally, some would argue…with signposts).
As with most of our conversations, we wandered afield. Eventually, the conversation ended in empty coffee cups and the need to get to work. But I began to think after the fact about many of the driving forces behind the Jesus and John Wayne mentality. The author quoted “Baptist scholar Alan Bean as saying, ‘The unspoken mantra of post-war evangelicalism was simple: Jesus can save your soul; but John Wayne will save your ass.’” I wondered at the motivating factor behind the two ideas, the sacred and the secular wrapped up in a pithy, Twitteresque one-liner intended to rebuke one side and stir the other. The word I got was fear.
Fear, I think, is one of the most powerful and most damaging motivators. It originates as a reaction to environment, something needed in our early days as a species to keep us alive. When things posed a serious threat to our health and wellbeing, our brain developed a mechanism to defend or retreat. The world changed, true mortal threats are fewer and farther between. But the mechanism for fear response is still hardwired. Now, the issue is ideas and whether those ideas threaten our way of thinking. Anytime we encounter ideas our context regards as uncomfortable or challenging, the response kicks in and we become defensive or inquisitive.
We now live in a world of religious and political fear. Throughout the life of the United States, we have blended politics and religion and the most recent version of this is the wedding of the Republican Party to the Religious Right during the nineteen-seventies. You could also say there has been a wedding of the Democratic Party to the more liberal expressions of Christianity, although many of those have existed long before the later twentieth century. The greater point is both sides of the arguments—left/right, conservative/liberal, etc./non-etc.— use fear as a motivator. If you don’t vote/think/support this, they win and if they win, they will take away X, make you do X, or make you think X. If they aren’t stopped, they will destroy our country. If we don’t do something about X, the moral fabric of our society will unravel.
I’m not buying it.
Communities define culture. If you live in a rural community, you will likely think in a way which benefits rural causes and champions rural ideas, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal. The same can be said of suburban and urban environments. Your community will be what it is because your people are who they are. And over time, they will change. Some places previously X will become Y. Some places previously X will become X2. The issue isn’t a right or wrong issue, the issue is what is perceived as good for the community residing there. Churches are communities. Churches define their own culture. Church culture will change over time based on pastoral and communal influence. There will be no force involved only the shift in people and the shift in dynamic brought by them.
Fearmongering is an anti-Christian waste of time.
Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.
1 John 4:18
Stop letting people who want to control your thoughts and your votes tell you what to think and who to be afraid.
Seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance to understand and live out the Way of Jesus, a fearless way of living not bound by changes in political office or denominational ideology.
Live into the love of God and the love of neighbor as you live by breathing.
Rise above the noise and hear the voice of the Divine.