Monthly Archives: September 2012

Suffering abounds: how can you believe in God?

You’ve all asked this question. You have all been asked this question.  Whole books have been written on it, and an entire segment of theology wrestles with it.  It’s generally called theodicy or the problem of evil… or what are you smoking that you can pretend a good God exists in this world ripe with horror????

I do not intend this entry to be a greatly researched response.  It is not intended to convince or convert you. I am not defending God – God never asked me to do such a thing even if I could (and I have quite a few answers I’d like to demand from God as well).  Consider this post in the category of we are having coffee and you asked a genuine and reasonable question of me, and I’m offering my response.  And to aid in that feeling I’ve grabbed no books, will google no replies, and have no idea what I’m about to say (okay – I’ve got an idea, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked after all… but it’s not an outlined and re-written response, its rather steam of consciousness)… after all – those are the real kind of responses aren’t they… and I kinda feel this question deserves that kind of response.  (For a brief backstory this post is actually in response to a real person who asked just such a real response in a time when I didn’t have time to respond… and this is my apology of sorts.)

First of all this question brings a lot of baggage (as many questions do).  And the response does as well.  For instance… what God do you think I believe in?  A lot of Christians believe in a lot of different gods and they all share the same name(s): God, Lord, Jesus, Yahweh (when we are trying to be clever and yet abusive to our Jewish roots at the same time)… etc.  The problem is those are just words.  For myself, I do not believe in a God of omnis… omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and perfectly good.  That God – in my opinion – is a philosophical construct and not God.  God says… I am.  That’s all.  I am.  What is important is that God is… not that God is all-fill-in-the-blank.  God just is. We many want to pin down God in words, or take great relief in the idea that we can name God as Superman without the allergies to kryptonite… but sadly God spends very little time in the scriptures I wrestle with caring about that need in us.   God simply says: I am.  Later God says more… like come and follow me, you are forgiven,  and even – I will am dying for you.  But first and foremost all God wishes to reveal is that God is.  As I learn about God, in stories of the Bible, of people of faith, and in my life I come to understand more about the character of God.  I come to understand what I believe I can count on.  But these aren’t absolute statements… they are… feelings if you will.  I am not alone… God is with me.  I am worthy… God loves me.  I have purpose… God invites me to join in fostering and cultivating goodness in creation.

I can’t convince anyone of these things, and I can’t convince myself either.  Its faith and it isn’t a science (of course science rarely is either which is the beauty of it all).  You have to experience them for yourselves.  They aren’t always rational statements and no matter how well I remember my symbolic logic course from William and Mary they won’t help me with God.  God just is.  No, if A then B… just A.  You want more, I want more.   We aren’t really gonna get it no matter how loud we yell… we just have to catch those little moments, those still small voices, those rearview mirror views of God working good in our life.

The Bible is full of moments of “counter-testimony”.  The Bible is gritty and it realizes the world is full of sin, evil, and suffering. The Bible says less than flattering things about God… like in Psalm 22 when the Psalmist says, “You lay me in the dust of death.”  God kills with a flood and then promises never to do that ever again (everything but the, “I’ve messed up and I’m sorry.”) And quite a few people enter debates with God (and God doesn’t always win).  My favorite may be when Habakkuk says (my own liberal translation), “Wait – are you the God of all those fancy omni-words… and you think that plan you just told me about is justice????  Think again… and I’ll be waiting here to see that you figure out something more in line with the whole good God thing.”

The first side of our problem when we wonder how we can believe in God in the midst of a world with suffering is what we believe ABOUT God.  What God do you believe in?  Philosophic constructs fail… even God ones, the moment you see a child dying of cancer, or the devastation the natural world wreaks upon itself and us, or see hard-work loving people who live life with a  black cloud not of their making over their heads wherever they turn those constructs are just so much dust.

I do not believe in a perfect God.  I believe that God is larger than I can fathom in a world more complex than I can even see.  I believe this God is good (though what that means I don’t know… it certainly doesn’t mean what I would like it to mean) and that for reasons I cannot fathom God doesn’t just answer the world’s ills.  And as much as I’d like the kind of answers Job and his friends wanted… God doesn’t give them.  And that is okay with me.  I’m okay with a God that cannot be fully known.  I’m okay that there are answers I demand that God won’t answer.  God’s people suffer and God suffers too.  God hears cries and responds… God is at work in the world.  But sometimes that work is too little and too late.  (Guess what… I too hear cries.  I do too little too late.  Does this get God off the hook?  No way.  But I realize I need to make sure I’m not trying to hold God more accountable than myself either… and that’s a pretty big thought so we’ll leave it at that for now – but I had to mention it so sorry for the interruption.) 

Jesus weeps when Lazarus dies… and weeps when he enters Jerusalem… and asks to not have to die right before he is arrested… and moans about being forsaken by his father in the midst of death.  Crap… and now he’s being mocked because no omni-God-father is rescuing him now.  Jesus suffers… God suffers too.  And it’s all pretty shitty.  I know… I know… that offends some of you but really I hope it’s the reality that offends and not my language because any less of a word doesn’t feel like enough for me as I see billions of faces transposed onto the cross suffering and not being rescued……….

I believe Jesus rose from the dead.  Its foolish.  It really is.  But I believe Jesus rose from the dead and that with it Jesus raises hope.  Jesus raises hope that shitty isn’t all there is to say.  That God is walking alongside us, willing to suffer with us, and hoping too that justice can be done, that peace can be a reality and not just a beauty queen answer, and that death will be no more. No more.  A pipe dream?  Yup – God’s pipe dream.  And I believe God is at work in the world making it reality and that its taking longer than I would like but it still the goal and that primary way God is doing that is by getting you and I to do it.

I believe God is at work in the world through you.  And me… and all people.  I think God doesn’t really care if you believe that statement or not.  And many other Christian opinions aside I think God calls good anyone adding good into the world be they Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist, or Jew.  And so I believe in God because I believe in you.  All evidence to the contrary I believe in me.  All suffering and evil and crappy shit right in front of me I believe in humanity, because God believe in us even after all this time.  That chicken and the egg logic… yup it is – but I believe it.  I stake my life on it.

Do I make sense to you? Probably not.  Wish I could be clearer?  I do too.  But my coffee is cold (this happens to me ALL the time), and it’s all beyond me anyway –and there is beauty to that too (which I miss much of the time but can see now and then when I’m willing).  There is more to be said of course, and less to be said… I invite you to say it all and none in the comments.  It’s meant to be a coffee conversation after all.  Thanks for joining me.  Thanks be to God, for you for me and for this world that isn’t what I’d want it to be but is still worth living in! Amen. 

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Being Jesus’ wife has got to be tough work

So I’m guessing you have seen some press or maybe you haven’t, about Jesus having a wife.  If you haven’t you can find many articles talking about it.  Some old Coptic (Egyptian Christian) texts have been found that quote Jesus as referencing his wife.  I have several reactions to such a claim:

1)      That a group asserts a belief in such a reality doesn’t make it either true or false.  It was true for them, so they wrote it, and believed it, and presumably they garnered some depth to their faith because of it.  Good for them. 

2)      Being Jesus’ wife had to be tough work.  I’m sure he had some funny moments and could be playful and loving.  But you would have had to be very comfortable in your skin around him.  He was prone to needing a lot of alone time.  He had a melancholy streak to him.  He had no home.  And of course he suffered and died.  The trouble wouldn’t have ended there – his friends were wishy-washy at first, a bit clueless, and always around.  Eventually they found some spine but that generally led to similar homeless traveling or home-bound refereeing of squabbling communities not to mention their own stories of suffering and dying in your husband’s name.  Not an easy legacy to carry.  And of course it wouldn’t end there… because now you’re getting raked through the coals because your very existence is messing with people’s faith.  Damn you wife of Jesus – it would better if you had never been born… or thought of in a Coptic tradition.

3)      This gets me to my real point.  If Jesus had a wife, or if he didn’t, it ought not to threaten your faith… even though so many of us will likely think it spells doom and thus is a idea that must be rooted out and destroyed.  HERESY!

Okay so in case you don’t already know I’m a fan of heresy.  Where would be without it?  We’d be Jews waiting for the messiah to get around to coming… we’d be Roman Catholics practicing works righteousness…  we’d be living a hundred year old Constantinian imperial model of how to be the church (okay maybe that one is still more or less true, and understand that I don’t intend to say its bad to be any of those… but I’m clearly not one anymore and the only reason I’m not is because of heresy).  The point is… heresy stirs faith.  Heresy is wrestling with God on the river’s edge and getting your hip jolted out of joint.  Heresy is hearing a teacher say, “You’ve heard it said… but I tell you.” 

Jesus was a heretic.. Martin Luther and John Calvin were heretics… so I’m happy to be one too.

In his book Velvet Elvis author Robb Bell says (and I LOVE this), “Doctrine makes a good servant and horrible master.”  Unfortunately many of us have a deeper relationship with our doctrines than with the God whose world inspires them.   Robb Bell contrasts two approaches to them.  A brick wall or the springs on a trampoline.  In the brick wall approach we cannot allow anyone to mess with a single point of doctrine or the wall begins to crumble.  The trampoline however is built on the idea that the springs are dynamic and moving and changing – you can’t have a trampoline unless the springs move, stretch, and are generally dynamic rather than static.  There is fluidity to the ground upon which our faith rests. 

If the existence of a wife for Jesus is proven (and I cannot imagine such a thing could be done but who knows…) it doesn’t change anything.  Big surprise… a human being got married.  Jesus is totally human.  And at the heart of being human is companionship.  Granted companionship doesn’t require marriage, but it certainly fits in the picture. 

The heart of this all this is, for me, big and broad and far reaching.  Upon what do we stake our faith?  There is tendency to desire absolute true statements that cannot be messed with.  But that isn’t what we were given.  I’m sure you’ve heard someone say that they are in the right because they are standing on the word of God (meaning a particular verse of the Bible usually and often to the exclusion of other verses).  What’s amazing about that is that any one of us that picks up a Bible is picking up a word from God that has been interpreted many many times already before you read any of it. 

A human oral tradition passed it on for years adding nuance (wait for it…) and their own spin on the story. (If you don’t agree with that than spend some time wondering why we have four gospels instead of one… and why they all differ in varying degrees.)  A human eventually wrote it out based on their recall of the stories… and others edited it (sometimes – and, wait for it, changing the story)… and yet more humans transcribed it over and over and over (I’m sure they never made any mistakes!).  Eventually a group of humans put together what we would call “The Bible” choosing some texts over others.  And in many cases had to choose which particular copy would be the authoritative one.. and other times having to piece a text together out of fragments and make decisions about which ones should be used.  And that was all to get a copy in a dead version of a language few people still speak.  So then a much more recent group of people had to make their interpretation of the best way to say all that in English.  So basically when you read the Bible you are reading a text that has had a lot of different people making their own interpretations on a text… and it’s a lot of links in the chain back to its original authorial intent.  Why do I share all this?  Because our faith is not built on a brick wall… it was always a trampoline (at best).  Because the Bible isn’t meant to be a historically perfect account of all that transpired between Genesis and Revelation.  This means that historical data – true or false – can’t make the Bible crumble… but you also can’t so easily “stand” on the world of God because that word doesn’t really stand still for anyone (and I’m betting this was true for any wife of Jesus as well).

I for one find that life giving.  God isn’t pinned down in words on a page.  The very nature of faith is belief in something that cannot be proven, that cannot be pinned down, that has – at its very nature – an essence of mystery.  Sadly, far too often, in the name of that very faith we attempt to suck out all the mystery, life, and dynamic energy in order to make it knowable, static, and… brick like.  This suits our desire to explain everything and control it… but that reeks of turning God into an idol of our making to suit our needs (hey – check out this golden calf I just found).  And Jesus has a response to that tendency in Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)

So let’s cut Jesus’ wife a break… and let us put our doctrines in service to God, not God in service to our doctrines.  And let us stop worrying about how other people’s faith (or lack of) threatens ours and instead realize that God and faith and the life they inspire is far too grand to be captured in only one picture, one practice, one creed and one brick wall.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

People of Memory, Presence, and Hope

So about a week ago I posted on Facebook a thought attributed to Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu (better rendered, Laozi, a title rather than a name for the author of one book Tao Teh Ching that doesn’t include anything like the following quote- that is, he never said it.  Its a misattribution to get you to think it must be true) .  The quotation was, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”  I think there is some truth and wisdom to the quote.  However…. I also don’t entirely agree that the conclusion to be drawn is that we are therefore to live fully in the present as people of peace.  Even as I posted it, fully agreeing that its message is one that might help us at times to diagnose our depression and anxiety, there was more to be said, not only about anxiety and depression, but also about our orientation to time: past, present, and future.

As I began to reflect on this, the title that I eventually used for this blog post came to mind.  As a follower of Jesus Christ I feel called to be a person who stands equally in all three times, and even – to some extent – in all three emotions.  The challenge is to maintain the tension and balance of our position.  We can become stuck in the past.  We can be fixated on the future.  We can be aimless in the present.  Living oriented in on only one, or excluding one, of these is problematic for our sense of who we are and where we are going.

Christianity has a journey focus – we are going somewhere.  It also has a sense of discontent with what is now.  I hear Jeremiah remind us not to cry “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)  While the future may hold anxiety, it also holds hope.  We yearn and seek that which lies over the horizon… we discern the work of God, “who is doing a new thing.” And we do this with a sense that it keeps us from stagnation, it keeps us from accepting a status quo that is not fully justice or peace or love.  We are moving towards Promised Land, towards rivers flowing with justice, towards Jerusalem (and the cross… and the resurrection), towards New Jerusalem. We must be people of the future.

Christianity has a strong sense of presence.  I think of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter and yet so aware of the moment that he is able to stop and acknowledge the hemorrhaging woman offering her healing not only of body but of mind and spirit as well – something that would not likely have happened if Jesus was so fixated on where he was going that he couldn’t stop be truly available to unexpected ministry in the moment. (Mark 5) We are to see Christ in the neighbor, love strangers, seek to know one another, travel together…. all of these require us to be present in the moment.  Not just physically present but emotionally, spiritually, and mentally available to those around us.  We cannot be so fixated on the future we yearn for that we aren’t actually living in the present reality.  We cannot be so tied to the past that we aren’t even aware that what we recall is no longer the state of our world. If we are living in a memory of what was (what used to be) it is much harder to be present to those around us.

And yet, we are people of memory – of the past.  There may be no greater moment of this than Jesus saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  The Table where we break bread and poor cup is likely the best example of having a foot in the past, present, and future.  (Okay so we don’t have three feet – I didn’t say it was easy, following in the way of Jesus is hardly ever easy.)  Our Jewish roots are a wonderful example of being rooted in key narratives of the past.  Remember we were slaves in Egypt… remember when God rescued us… remember when we sojourned… remember these stones, when God brought across the river Jordan… remember exile, estrangement, alienation, rescue, healing, and promises – always remember promises.  We are not simply are own people – we got here because someone else journied, helped us, carried and pushed us, we are here because God formed us in the womb, loved us, and sent us out into the world – the present, and the future.  We do not wish to be tied, tethered, or anchored in the past.  But we are rooted in it.  In Paul Ricoeur’s great work on symbols he reminds us that symbols exist embedded in narratives that give them life, without such narrative the symbols have little meaning. And I’m reminded of Abraham Heschel’s great thought that it’s not so much that the Jews have kept the Sabbath but that the Sabbath has kept the Jews.  Placing oneself in a story that is rooted in the past (but not stuck there) gives life and meaning to our own stories.  We do not live in a vacuum – we are people of the past, of memory.

Any orientation to the exclusion of any other way of making meaning and finding purpose is a problem.  Jesus calls us to a way that is ripe with paradox, and tensions that try to hold us in a place of faithfulness.  Grace is paramount… but must not become cheap.  We are to love all people… but not at the cost of forgetting to love our self or God.  We are to yearn for God’s coming Kingdom… but not miss the wonderful blessings already all around us.  We are to remember who we are… but not miss the God who is doing a new thing.  Not just a new thing, “Out there.”  A new thing in you – and in me.

So how balanced are you in orientation?  How balanced is your community, and God’s creation?  Be people of the past… of the moment… of the future.  People of memory, presence, and hope.  Thanks be to God, so be it.Image

(I’m not entirely sure who the photo credits go to, photo was shared by wimp.com on Facebook on 9/6)