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Undefining God

My apologies for my bad case of Blog Neglect in the last several days.  Life happened.  I have hope that things are a bit more settled now, in the aftermath of family visits and kid birthdays.

Tony Jones has issued a Challenge to Progressive Theo-Bloggers, and, like it or not, I fit most of the criteria.  I’m squeaking in before the deadline, offering my thoughts on God.  Warning: Contains things my liberal and conservative friends alike may find displeasing.

My earliest memory of having any interest in God is from around age eight.  My mother, an avid quilter, had a sewing room in our partially finished basement.  I used to love to sit down there with her, amid the bins full of fabric, thread, batting and stuffing (yes, there’s a difference, apparently), buttons, binding, and all manner of other quilting supplies.  We had a book shelf in the room, and I would quietly read while my mother marked, measured, and made the sewing machine whir.  Honestly, if there was a more spiritual place for a little girl, I can’t think of one.

Occasionally, I would talk to Mom while we were down there.  Unless she was marking something delicate, she never seemed to mind light conversation.  That basement room was a place I felt safe exposing the deepest questions of my heart.  On one of those occasions, I asked Mom,

Who is God?

My mother, not a particularly religious woman, gave me some answer about God being everywhere and in everything.  It fell pretty flat for me.  It didn’t make sense.  In fact, I remember being sort of angry, because I felt she hadn’t answered the question.  In my eight-year-old mind, God was a who, not a where or a what.

When I was first introduced to Christianity as a teen, something immediately clicked for me.  At last!  People like me, who understood God as a Someone rather than a Something.  I suppose that’s why it didn’t take me long to jump on board in the church; after all, in evangelical Christian faith, everyone knows who God is.  At long last, six years after my first query, I had an answer.

Here’s the part some of my more liberal Christian friends may find distasteful: I still believe that answer.  I still believe that God is the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I still believe that God is revealed to people through faith, through the Bible, and through the prompting of the Spirit.

But (and here’s where the most conservative of my friends will likely cringe) I also believe God is much, much more than that.  A common sermon illustration on the Trinity is that it is like water, ice, and steam—all the same thing, but all still H2O (this is one of my least favorite analogies, by the way, but bear with me here for a sec).  Yet “water” is much more to us than its molecular composition.  Water is for drinking, cleaning, bathing, swimming, growing crops.  Its meaning in our lives is so much deeper than what it’s made of or its properties or what it does.

That is what God is.

God is not merely the Someone we talk about in the context of the Trinity.  God is not only the creator of the universe and the author of all life.  God is . . . more.  Just more.

Long ago, I stopped trying to figure out who God is and started trying to experience God more fully.  I found out that some people take this to mean that we have to feel something during prayer or singing or listening to a sermon.  Personally, I have rarely had that happen.  Sure, I love those things.  But I don’t feel moved in the Spirit while doing them.  I’ve discovered that I meet with God in a vastly different way.

Love him or hate him, this video of Bill Hybels describes where I find God:

I find God—I feel deeply, deeply moved—in the things that wreck me.  In the things that shake me to my core, that make me sit up and say, “That cannot happen any more.  I will not take it.”  Because I believe with all my heart that this is where God lives.  This is where God works.  This is where God moves.  God exists in the places of our hearts where we are utterly, completely wrecked.  I believe we know God fully through that.  Because when we are spiritually destroyed by injustice, it’s not enough to shake our heads and say, “The world sure is going to Hell in a handbasket.”  The pain we see is what wrecks God, too.  The call is for us to become more Christ-like by doing something about it.

I doubt I’ve answered the million-dollar question of who God is.  I don’t think it’s answerable.  I don’t think we can do any more than live to experience God every day.  Where do you find God?  Where do you see God working in your life?

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Un-Feelings

Sometimes, it’s easy for us as Christians to forget that we are free. Being free doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, but it also doesn’t mean that we subject ourselves to doctrines which bind us through legalism. All that can ever lead to is feelings of shame. Faith in Christ cannot ever be about being ashamed, because that is not love or grace. A legalistic church environment denies basic, common human needs and feelings. When we live in that kind of space for any length of time, it leads to both suppression and repression.

We may be used to hearing the term “repression” in the context of sexual expression. It is often presented as an accusation by a non-religious person towards a person of faith and can be roughly translated as “prude.” A person may be referred to as “repressed” because he or she believes pornography to be unhealthy sexuality, for example.

Sexuality is only one aspect of repression, however, and the above example is a misapplication of the term. A person whose moral values lead him or her to conclude that a particular action or expression of feelings is wrong is not necessarily repressing anything. The reason for this is that repression refers to unconscious exclusion or avoidance of feelings or desires. A person with the value that murder is wrong is not repressing anger, merely making a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling anger.

This concept is markedly different from suppression, which is a conscious avoidance of feelings and desires one deems negative. Parents often suppress their own needs in favor of meeting the needs of their children. This is entirely normal when a child is an infant; it is not normal when a child is an adolescent.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with legalistic church doctrine. Legalism as a measure of church doctrine is a way for church leadership to control the flock. It has little to do with actual righteous living or humbly following and serving a gracious and merciful God. Legalism, when practiced as church mission, is self-serving. Its aim is to create a group of like-minded and like-behaving people in order to project a certain image. It concerns itself not with love and life but with doctrinal purity.

In the end, this leads many people within those rigid confines to both suppress and repress their natural human feelings and desires. People begin to believe consciously that their feelings are sinful, and attempt to control themselves by denying their needs for self-expression. They may also begin to subconsciously avoid certain feelings because it is too painful or embarrassing to acknowledge their existence.

Sadly, this kind of thing happens even when a church has healthy boundaries and the leadership are attempting to guide the people without legalism. This brings me to the point I want to make.  One Sunday, for example, my son came home from his Sunday school class in which children’s very real feelings were denied. His sister expressed a “what if” type of concern, and I reassured her that we would take care of her. He piped up with, “You shouldn’t worry, worry is a sin.” I would very much like to know who used those words on my eight-year-old in such a way that he repeated them back to deny his sister the right to express her fears.

Children should not be told that their fears are “sin.” The world is a big and sometimes scary place to a young child. When a child has a fear, the correct course of action is not to scold a child for “worrying.” The correct response is to reassure the child that he or she is loved by God and the people in the church and that we are here for them. There are other ways, of course, of helping children feel safe, but that’s a basic beginning.

Not only that, the sentiment isn’t even Biblically true. It may be inferred if one wants to take certain Scriptures in a particular way. But the statement, “Worry is a sin” cannot be found within the pages of the Bible. We do find the idea that worrying alone, without faith, is a useless pursuit. But even that is a difficult concept to bring to children. One way it can be handled with older children is to ask if their worry has made the situation go away, or if they have had to trust an adult or pray about it. But for very young children, no more is needed than care and reassurance.

How often do churches make the same mistake with adults?  Rather than helping people explore healthy self-expression, we simply tell them their feelings are “wrong” or “sinful” or that God doesn’t “want” us to have those feelings.  The church becomes the thought police.  From that stems the shame, leading to people denying, in one way or another, that they have those internal thoughts.  People are afraid to be honest with themselves and others, and perhaps even with God.

Yet the truth is that the more open we are with ourselves, other people, and God, the deeper our relationships become.  God doesn’t want us to clean ourselves up, it’s His job.  He wants us to bring every part of ourselves to Him, keeping nothing back.  Not because He wants to judge us, but because He loves us and wants to crack us open that we can replace (not reject) those hurting, insecure, and sinful parts of ourselves with His grace and His desires.

I admit I struggle with this.  I still have a lot of trouble being completely open about some of the things in my life.  But I’m trusting God to fill those parts of my life with His Life, daily making me whole.

Reading and Praying

I finally finished reading Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, by Brian McLaren.  What a wonderful, refreshing look at prayer!

I don’t want to give too much away.  I think this book is best appreciated by reading it for yourself and engaging with God in prayer.  Even trying to summarize feels flat to me, like trying to describe a taste or a smell.  One can get close, relating it to something known by the other person.  But it will never be exact.

McLaren takes us through stages of prayer, likening them to seasons of spiritual life.  He has chosen a particular analogy, but I think it’s fair to say that there are many ways to view the stages in the book.  Of greater importance is actively participating, using the categories of prayer and spiritual growth not as rigid commands but as flexible guides.  There is natural flow from one season to another, but I suspect that many people will find themselves moving in and out among the different seasons with a little less order.

At the outset, McLaren connects with those people who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”  There is a growing body of people, particularly young adults, who have become disillusioned with church and all its trappings.  Yet they are crying out to experience God more deeply.  But this book is not only for those of us who feel let down by the way we “do church.”  Everyone can benefit from stripping down our souls to their very core, being utterly naked and unashamed before our God.  For anyone wanting to move toward a more meaningul prayer life, this book is for you.

If I were to attempt a summary of the book, I would not be able to convey the ways in which my heart has been changed and my prayer life intensified.  Instead, I will spend the next several posts offering prayers that have come to me as I read and reflected.  I urge you to pick up the book yourself.  Read it alone or with others, and make a habit of praying through it regularly.  You won’t regret it.

Resurrection

Today we are celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord.

Easter is one of my favorite days.  Over the years, I have celebrated in many different ways.  I have attended sunrise services by the lake, early worship surrounded by a garden of fresh lilies, liturgical services full of old hymns and scripted prayers, charismatic services with joyful song and dance, and contemporary services.  I have been blessed and my heart has been moved by all of them.

No matter how each church chooses to honor this day, there is no question that it’s the single most important day in our entire year.  Of course we understand that Jesus suffering and death on the cross on Good Friday meant atonement for our sins.  But the truth is, that death would be meaningless without the joy of the Resurrection.

If Jesus had stayed dead, in the tomb, then we would be left with no more than another martyr, another person who sacrificed his own life for the sake of a cause.  Perhaps in some way, Jesus would have been remembered.  He might have been considered a mystic, or a strange kind of pacifist, or merely a religious scholar.  People might have been able to dismiss him as a crank who took his odd political views a bit too far.  He might have served as some kind of example of how not to fight against an oppressive government.  His disciples might have faded quietly into the scenery, disheartened and reluctant to trust again.

Whatever people would have thought of Jesus, whatever else might have happened, most people’s lives would have gone on unchanged.  But because of the empty tomb, the world is forever a different place.  Because of the empty tomb, faith forever has a different meaning.  Because of the empty tomb, we are forever different people.

By his suffering and death, Jesus atoned for our sins; with his Resurrection, he conquered death itself.  The Resurrection reminds us that death gives way to new life; grief gives way to joy; heartache gives way to healing.  Easter is not a time for solemn reflection or sadness.  It is a time abundant rejoicing, overflowing gladness, and reverent awe.

However you are celebrating today, my prayer for you is that this day will be filled with abundant life and joy.

One Body, Many Ways to Worship

I had a kind of revelation last night.  We had our midweek service at church.  We were privileged to have people from the local Messianic congregation leading worship, and their Rabbi gave the message.  It was fantastic.  We were invited to join their dancers to learn some of the steps, and my son and I participated.  Even more than being able to dance myself, I enjoyed seeing my son praising God with his body.  Watching him dance gives me incredible joy!

Anyway, back to the point of this story.  As we were worshiping, I realized that it wasn’t just “nice.”  It was truly good.  By “good,” I mean in the sense that God meant it was good when he created the world.  I can imagine that this is what God wants for us, to see us both honoring Him and feeling our own pleasure.  What struck me is that in some ways, we’ve become so limited in our practice of praise.

Every church tradition has things that draw me closer to the Living and Real God.  I like our church, I usually enjoy at least part of the worship (I admit there are songs that I could take or leave, and ones I actively dislike).  But I miss aspects of other worship styles.  Over my 20+ years as a Christian, I have attended or been a member of many different kinds of churches.  Each one has something that speaks to me.

The few times I’ve attended Catholic Mass, I have been awed by the architecture, the candles, the formality.  It reminds me that God is royalty, meant to be honored and glorified in His temple.

I love the raw enthusiasm at Charismatic services.  People are unashamed to move their bodies, raise their hands, shout praises.  That excitement reminds me of my children, and how we are to become like them before our God.

I appreciate how Pentecostals are so open to the Holy Spirit.  God is incredibly powerful, and He wants to share that with us!

The uniquely Jewish flavor and the rich history of the Messianics reminds me that we must never, ever forget where we came from.  It’s very important to be aware of our heritage, to understand how God has and continues to work in and through the Jewish people.

Our services are very contemporary, with newer praise songs and a band.  I like to sing old hymns in new settings, a perfect blend of the poetry I love and the music I enjoy.  I think we’ve done a good job of helping people who want to go to church but have been hurt in the past.  We care for their emotional needs.  This is important, because it strips away the layers that might otherwise cover up genuine faith.

Some of the churches I’ve attended have had a more liturgical style, including elements such as traditional hymns and corporate prayers.  This speaks to the idea that we can honor God collectively, as well as individually, through disciplined practices.  Although this is my favorite style, I know that I would not be content in it forever.

All of that had me thinking about the ways in which we, the Church worldwide, are as much the Body of Christ as any individual congregation.  Sometimes, because we’ve decided who’s in and who’s out, or which way to worship is best, we stop acting like the Body.  We become mouths that refuse to listen to the eyes and ears, or hands that fail to connect to the heart.  But we need all of the parts of the Body!  And we need to honor each part for what it brings.

Today, I’m making it known that I want the whole thing–I want beauty and majesty, enthusiasm, openness, history, tradition, and modernity.  I desire it all!  I hope, over time, to continue to experience and appreciate the different ways we worship and honor God.  My prayer for you is that you are able to do the same.  Go, visit a church that differs from what you know.  Find a new way to feel the presence of God.

Reflections on "Love Wins"

Last night, I finished reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  I am confirming that all the criticism is just empty hype.  Quotes have been taken out of context and the message has been sorely misunderstood.  There are several things that became clear as I read the book.

First, one has to read the whole thing to really grasp the meaning and intent of what Bell is saying.  There is clear direction, and a spiral toward the conclusion.  Reading the last chapter first makes little sense, nor does reading the first chapter and giving up.  One needs the book in its entirety to make sense of the complex questions at its heart.

Second, there seems to be some general misunderstanding both of Bell and his theology and the concept of universalism.  It doesn’t appear, after a thorough reading, that Rob Bell is a “universalist” in the sense that most conservative Christians mean the term.  When people speak of universalism, they imply that underlying that theology is the idea that Christ doesn’t matter.  If everyone is “saved” in the end, then why bother sharing the Good News?  Bell repeatedly affirms throughout the book that Christ does indeed matter very much.  That fear can be easily laid to rest.

Third, it isn’t the existence of Heaven and Hell that are being questioned here; it’s the particular notions about them that are common in our theology.  It isn’t a denial of “reality,” it’s a criticism of our limited understanding being peddled as absolute truth.

All of that said, I am treading dangerous ground by selecting a favorite quote from the book.  Towards the end, writing about the character of God, Bell says:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.

Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God.  God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction.  God is the rescuer.*

I love that.  We have this notion of God that God is “perfect” and our imperfections are going to “spoil” God’s perfect Heaven.  God cannot tolerate this.  But at the same time, we speak of God’s infinite love.  It isn’t intentional, but it certainly does lead one to believe that God’s love is, in fact, conditional, and that we need Jesus to “smooth things over” for us.  Not so!  That single quote from the book opened my own eyes to my failure to really grasp how big, how amazing, how loving God really is.  I’ve been living under the shadow of an angry God who stares down at me disapprovingly for all my faults and sins.  I’ve been asking Jesus to make me right, fearing to direct my prayers at God because he might be mad at me.  Suddenly, I’m ready to face the real God–the one who loves me, the one who rescues me.  I’m ready to really let God know me, to open the door of my heart wide and let that love come in.

Are you ready?

*from Love Wins, by Rob Bell, p. 182

What I'm Reading

A few days ago, I received my copy (kindly pre-ordered by my wonderful husband) of Brian McLaren’s new book, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words.  If you haven’t bought a copy, then may I suggest that you go as quickly as you can and remedy that situation?  Even after only a few chapters, I am thoroughly captivated by by the book.

I will reserve my final review for when I have finished the whole book.  This may take some time, however.  It isn’t the kid of book that one can devour like a novel.  It also isn’t the kind of book one can read methodically, as with a factual or philosophical text.  No, this is a book that must be experienced, savored, and fully appreciated.  That is what I am now doing, so have patience and I will eventually be able to give a good assessment.

In the meantime, I wanted to share something meaningful that occurred to me as I was reading the first few chapters.  If you haven’t read anything about the book, I will share at least this much.  (I don’t want to give away too much and spoil its unfolding, lessening your enjoyment.)  Each pair of chapters deal with a particular concept or word which makes up a part of the inner spiritual life.  The first few chapters are all setting the stage for these later specifics.

Anyway, I found the chapter on the names for God to be very meaningful.  What struck me was how many ways there are to understand the character and nature of God, yet how infrequently we draw on these, especially in prayer.  We tend to being our prayers using this selection of words: God, Father, Lord, Jesus, and, occasionally, Spirit.  But we don’t necessarily even add adjectives to those words.  We may indeed be missing out on a fairly simple, and perhaps obvious, way to connect with God.

Broadening our approach may help others connect, too.  For example, it may be difficult for some people to begin their spiritual journey by praying to the Father.  Many people have had difficult or non-existent relationships with their earthly fathers, making it hard to relate to and understand a Heavenly Father.  That leaves fewer options, which is no small thing when there is an appearance of limited choices to start.

Although we might describe the attributes of God, we rarely use those attributes to name God.  But what if we were instead to use those descriptors as titles?  Instead of describing how God has created everything, we might address our prayers to the Creator.  The same goes for other attributes of God–most of the adjectives we use can be altered slightly to become names.

I don’t know how this would work in practice; there is a case to be made that it could be confusing for some new believers.  Somehow, though, I think the benefits ultimately outweigh the risks.  I, for one, have begun to put it into practice in my own prayers, and I have noticed that even such a seemingly simple change has dramatically altered my quiet time with God.