Monthly Archives: January 2014

Scars and Altars: Sacred Memories of Who We Are

So the other day I happened to look down at my foot and saw a small discolored spot on my foot.  I saw the spot and immediately remembered when I got the scar while I was living in the Philippines.  I can’t recall exactly how I cut it open but it never quite healed right.  Its not problematic at all – in fact as I saw it I thought: It’s a gift.  It’s a gift because when I see it I’m immediately taken back to a time full of memories that are important to me and yet can become lost in the stuffed filling cabinet that is my mind.

I have similar scars on most of my body.  There is one I cannot see that is from taking a header into a radiator when I was four years old.  There is one on my right thigh from a camping accident when I was a kid.  I have a couple from a MRSA infection I got , and yes there is the two little teeth marks I seem destined to carry on my wrist from a vampire attack.  (Okay so it was a Chihuahua attack… seriously.  I was viciously mauled by my neighbors Chihuahua.  It’s a good story.)

They all lead to stories.

My scars are living memories etched in skin and I carry them as proud reminders to myself.  As I was thinking this the other day it occurred to me that there is something very spiritual about these scars.  There is a ritual significance about creating markers in our lives that keep us in mind of our powerful stories.  The Jews dotted the landscape of their physical lives with just such “scars.”

“‘Take twelve stones… and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” …When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’  then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord… these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” –Joshua 4:2-7

“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid… So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel… “This stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house” –Genesis 28:16-22

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart… bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  -Deuteronomy 6:4-9

These are just a couple… the landscape is littered with them.  And it makes every vista holy.  And we need such reminders.  We need to remember that we were slaves and royalty.  That we were rescued and that we failed in our responsibility.  That we are comforted and not alone and that we are called to do as has been done for us.

We need to remember that there was a time we understood it all with simplicity and then there was that time we had to journey to Mount Moriah because an unfathomable God spoke foolishness to us. We need to remember these stories because without them we are likely to construct a world far too small than even our own lives attest to – and we are likely to listen only to the ephemeral wisdom of today when once we knew far more.

We cannot remember it all in a single moment – but we can dot our horizons with reminders and warnings and the signs we need to find our way.  We need to remember these things because they are the root of empathy.  They remind us that right at this moment I am both beggar and rich man – that I’m spiritually lost and found – that I’m hurting and whole.  Because without such recognition it is so easy to fall into the trap of not caring about the other… because we falsely believe they are – other.

We need to remember these stories because pleasure and pain we are a product of our journey and we are much healthier beings when we are aware from what biases and baggage we are making our choices rather than simply allowing our subconscious fears and affinities to rule our lives.

All these memories – marked with altars and scars – are holy tabernacles of our being.  They are scripture written in the world around us and giving meaning to our lives –  if we can but hold on to their creative power. Holy places aren’t some place where we found God as if God was hiding, but they are all the places that our stories leaked – even bled – out sacred and foundational meaning about who are, whose we are, and with whom we are inseparably linked. Blood, sweat, and tears (of joy and sorrow) gave them birth… and they gave birth to us.

What scars do you carry as reminders of the stories that gave birth to you?  What Holy spaces carry meaning in your unfolding journey to center you and grant you wholeness?  What do you bind on your doorstep as a reminder that you are not alone… but also that you are not the center of the universe?  What altars have you constructed to be tangible reminders as you walk through the world to live with empathy and care as one who is inseparably woven into the lives of all you meet?

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A Letter that Shall Never Close

My annual MLK day tradition is to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was an open letter written on scraps of newspaper in response to 8 clergy from Birmingham who denounced Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violent protests there.  It is a power-packed letter of prophetic voice and simply put: a great read. Not a comfortable read – a great read.  Honestly it could be a weekly devotional for me – every week.  I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety.  You can read it here: http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html

However, I realize that time is what it is for all of us so for those less inclined here are just a few of the great lines I wrestle with in own reticence to be an advocate for the victims of injustice.  There is no mistaking why I have my congregation recite part of the Brief State of Faith every week rather than the Apostle’s Creed.  Its because I love this section, and I struggle to live it and I need to keep that struggle ever before me:

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all   peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.  In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

So without further ado some selections that afflict me in gospel ways:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns… so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

…I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, ham and all over the nation, because the goal of America k freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,100 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Sports Arenas and Houses of Worship

So I’m having a less-than-the-norm day in terms of productivity.  I have nothing to hide, there are plenty of crazy days (yesterday I was checking off items on the to-do list like a madman) so I tend to think you need to balance those out.  So I’m sitting at my desk and I’m reading this article (http://extramustard.si.com/2014/01/08/nhl-versus-nba-attendance/) that is making note that the NHL has more teams selling out the stadium right now than the NBA.  The author is realistic.  This is not a sign that the hockey is eclipsing basketball in popularity.  What he does argue is that the NHL offers a better live fan experience.  The sport, he argues is actually easier to watch from up high in a live stadium than down low or on TV.  And the fans get into the experience.  They are offering a reason to spend the time and money to go to a game rather than watch on TV.  (I could say a lot about this from the perspective a Blackhawks fan but that would be to digress.)  The money quote?  “There’s a bigger incentive to leave the house when it actually feels like you will be part of something collaborative and special.”

This is that point at which I realized this wasn’t just some diversion from productivity.  That really was a great quote.  It’s the question I believe we, the Church, need to ask ourselves: are we offering an experience to people where they “feels like [they] will be part of something collaborative and special?”

Let’s face it: a good sermon is a good sermon, mostly regardless of whether it’s on a TV, in a pulpit, or from a podcast.  We live in a world where we have easy access to great music whenever we want.  You can buy excellent and engaging books and video series that challenge you and help you grow.  And we can put our money towards special interests that are near and dear to our heart with the click of a button.  None of these are unique to the church, and none of these require attendance on Sunday (or any) morning.  Pastors will downplay online religious experiences and TV worship services with the claim that they lack authentic community… but how often are our churches actually doing that – is Sunday morning worship really that much more authentic?  Do we actually offer something collaborative and special?

I am not convinced that this is often the case.  Let me borrow from the sports article one more time.  “There are certainly great fans at individual NBA arenas — Memphis comes immediately to mind— but my observation is that the average NHL venue is more collectively engaged.”  There are certainly churches offering a great collaborative sense of worship, mission, and belonging to a community.  But my sense is that this is less and less the case in many places.

So what is the challenge that comes from this?  What is our take-away?  Let me give three quick hits on what some of the take-aways might be, but my lists isn’t all there is, it’s just the beginning.

Belonging  – I could file this whole post under belonging, and it’s become a very important part of my ecclesiology so I’m challenged to be brief here.  But like with a professional sport team’s fan base belonging is the target.  Cubs fans consistently show up to watch one of the losingest (not a word I guess but it is in this Cub fan’s vernacular) teams.  They aren’t showing up because the product is the best, they are show up because the experience of belonging won’t let them walk away.  Jesus’ calling and baptismal covenant is about belonging.  And radical discipleship is the acknowledgment that the challenge of Jesus’ way is endurable, in fact joyous, because thick or thin – we belong here.  How many of our churches fight battles over style and not substance because we are afraid we do not attract people, or that people will get bored.  Connect with people, nurture people so that they belong to your vision and mission and you to theirs – and no differences over style will drive them away.  I’ve seen it.

Collaboration – pretty close to belonging.  But a particular, and easily overlooked, piece.  Collaboration acknowledges that in belonging each person has a voice and vote in the process.  Collaboration means everyone is invested in the process and the product.  No-one is just along for the ride, and everyone has to work together on the problems that arise.  Here I think is also a very interesting point for worship – which is so often led by a few for the (viewership?) of the many.  How do we collaborate for, in, because of worship?

Passion – maybe I should call this energy.  Like fan chants (tribal language?) and team colors we witness our passion for our sports teams and it’s essential to the belonging.  But do we have this for our churches and in our worship?  When we are gathered do we look and feel like a people who would rather be here than anywhere else?  If not… why should anyone else want to be here – is our being here really important at all?

Belonging, Collaboration, and Passion.  These are all a part of making a community rather than just a random gathering of like-minded individuals.  And they remind us that the work of the church is the work of the community engaging in vital and essential ways in each other’s lives and the life of the world.  So recognizing some truth in the thought that “there’s a bigger incentive to leave the house when it actually feels like you will be part of something collaborative and special,” ask yourself: what are you doing to nurture that feeling in yourself and in others?

Christian Faith: 8 good Questions and a Foray into Responding

I received an anonymous-ish email from a group of friends wanting to engage questions that had been previous shut down by the churches they had tried to ask them in.  I share their questions here, and my attempt at first responses because I think we all carry questions, doubts, and fumbling attempts at answers.  And we need to be willing to offer them up in order to let others know their questions, and their fumbling attempts at faithfulness, are not alone.  We are all a lot like Peter, trying to walk on water to prove we are much more confident than we really are… let us be as willing as Peter to be wrong in an endeavor to walk more deeply in the way of Jesus.

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I feel a need to add two thoughts before I address the individual questions:

1)     Poor Christianity / Theology / Church practice can easily lead to one questioning Christianity as a whole.  In such questioning however I think we need to take care to separate two things out from each other as best we can (and it isn’t always easy): the stated “Truth” of Christianity as spoken by a particular church or person, and the validity of any faith in the way of Jesus Christ.  This is to say I think there is some really garbage Christian theology (yes, very judgmental of me – an impulse I try to check but lets face it some things really are garbage and I can be as judgmental as the next person regardless of my attempts not to be) out there but that doesn’t mean that garbage is the fault of Jesus and the way he attempts to lead us in faithful relationship to God and one another… its reflective of the abusive or non-substantive way that those person/s articulates that faith. Does this difference make sense?  I do not mean that you cannot criticize Jesus, God, or the way of life we are invited to as disciples of Christ.  Criticize away – even the Bible does.  But those criticisms are different from criticizing a particular church’s articulation of faith.

2)     That last gets at a difference in some ways between faith and religion. Christianity as a religion is problematic (and I say that as one very invested in it).  It creates institutions that seek to promote themselves and defines themselves apart from the movement of an itinerant preacher like Jesus and his first followers.  The second part of that is that the life of faith is a matter of constant interpretation.  It is a dynamic rather than static thing.  My answers then are conditional.  They are how I interpret the teachings of God and God’s people.  Others can take those same teachings and interpret them differently. Some do so in a way that they believe their interpretation is flawless and normative (that all people should believe the same way).  I am not one of those people (maybe occasionally but not usually).  Its possible I would answer these questions differently next week than I will today… its certain I would next year.

Now to the particular questions themselves:

1)  Why did God seem so mean in the Old Testament? Why would a loving God demand the death of so many people: Exodus 35:2, Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 and 22: 13-21, Leviticus 20:13? Why did all the firstborn children in Egypt have to die just because their king was stubborn? Numbers 16: 41-49-death just for complaining? Deuteronomy 13: 6-10, kill family and friends just for having another religion and speaking about it with you?

You sure you don’t want to start with something a little lighter?  🙂  I can’t really answer for God.  God had a bad day?  I’m not being flippant here.  I wish I could answer this better and I will try a bit.  Ultimately?  I don’t know.  There are dark and violent aspects to most spiritual traditions.  Why?  On some level I believe that is three-fold.  One – God is Holy (that means basically… OTHER) and we cannot fully comprehend God and there is some aspect of fear before that which exists on such a different level of being that we are insignificant before God.  I think articulations of such Holiness become full of fear, capriciousness, and yes death as a way of making real the different order of being between creation and Creator.  Second – I believe Scripture is as much a human document as a divine document.  That is I would not consider the Bible to be the dictated and inerrant word of God.  Humans wrote it and when we write a story – divinely inspired or otherwise – the story takes on our character.  So I believe God, even in Scripture, looks something like we imagine God to be as much as it is the revelation of God.  I believe some of the violence of God is the tellers of the story projecting their own violent ways onto God.  Third – the Bible is, as you mention earlier, a pre-scientific story.  In such a world where so many causes of effects in the world were not seeable and knowable were thus credited to God.  If someone couldn’t have children it was God punishing their sin.  If someone died for unknown reasons it was an act of God… so was weather and the growth and fall of nations.  So I wonder at times how much bloodshed is credited to God that wasn’t much more than the brokenness of creation.  I can’t answer that… and yes there is danger (some would say an unacceptable one) of relativizing scripture in this way.  And yet it works for me and somehow in the mix of all these things I believe I cannot understand the violence of God in these stories but I can stay in relationship with God.  You might say – I extend grace to God just as God has done toward me.

2) If “Ann” was raised in a different culture and a different religion, upon her death, do Christians really believe she will go to Hell forever? If so, she was raised to believe her religion was right just like a lot of Christians. Why should she be punished forever for that?

Or another scenario:

If somebody was raised in an abusive home, grew up living a hard life, died early  a sad broken person, never became a Christian. Would that person really go to Hell?  If so, how come? They were abused and had a horrible emotionally crippling life, too broken down to accept anyone’s love, let alone believe in God and all because of their family members choices.

Hell.  Again, some would answer yes to your questions.  I do not agree with this.  I believe Jesus died and descended into Hell by way of freeing creation from it.  That is to say – I believe Hell, beyond the hell we create here on earth, to be an empty place.  I’m a border line Universalist so I believe God desires to save all people, and who am I to say that God will fail.  If such a place as Hell exists I would imagine its more likely to find people who knew full well what God desired of us and instead chose to turn that message to their own gain to the detriment of God’s people.  Jesus keeps his greatest rebuke for the Pharisees when they become rooted in their own power and control.  If there is such a place as Hell I believe it would be reserved for those of us who act in this way rather than in forgiveness and love.  Read the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  You notice something?  The sheep don’t know they are sheep.  They don’t remember doing good things.  They just did them.  I bet you a fair number of those sheep had no clue about Jesus at all… but they lived in the same way as Jesus and thus got the point Jesus was after – live in love for one another.  And the people who were goats?  They wanted to do right by Jesus.  The problem is they were saving their right for just Jesus.  They were looking to do good only when they thought they would get something from it.  And that didn’t work for Jesus who tells us the point is to see me in those who are least.  Love your neighbor when that neighbor most looks like someone you DO NOT want to call neighbor.

I do not believe there is a place with Pearly Gates called Heaven and a place full of eternal fires called Hell.  Not that tangibly at least – maybe its true, who knows – only God really.  But I do imagine that the people you describe were welcome into God’s loving embrace, that were at peace, blessed, and made whole- and I take a comfort in the belief that the same will await me one day whether I’m aware of it or not.  This is the Gospel.  It’s a very religious thing to try to put gates around such love…. I firmly believe God would rip such gates down and look at us with that look that spoke a thousand words: still you do not understand grace.

3)  The bible was written so long ago. The world and people have changed so much since. Technology, science, medicine, people’s concepts of life have come so far. Is the bible still relevant? Why is there no new teachings/ideas to keep up with all the other changes?

I believe Scripture operates as myth (yes this would be a scary word to Scriptural literalists but that’s their problem not mine).  That is they are deep and abiding stories that seek to understand the life of God in the midst of God’s people.  I am not a slave in Egypt.  But I can understand what it means to be a pawn in systems that are so big I am voiceless and powerless.  I am not an exile in Babylon but I can understand what it means to be forsaken even by God.  I am not an unnamed woman who has hemorrhaged blood for 12 years becoming more and more hopeless and isolated.  But I can feel the good news of having one who sheds titles given to him like Prince of Peace, Savior, and Lord and also stops what he is doing to acknowledge me because he thinks I am important enough to stop on his way to “important people’s aid” to speak directly to me and welcome me back into the community.  These stories don’t need technology and science to speak their truths.  They do require the work of interpretation to find how they speak to us and our context.  That was always true, and always will be.  And I believe God prefers it that way because it requires us to participate in the story telling even as listeners (though too many people wish “experts” would just tell them what to do… to this I believe God says: no).

I think there are lots of new teachings.  We simply have ceased to call these teachings a part of the Bible.  Another day we can talk about how the Bible came to be but for today your current questions are enough and I think its enough to say: the canonical content of the Bible is closed but the process of mining these stories by the power of the Holy Spirit for a message to us today is a constantly open and occurring and necessary.  God is Living.  Nothing is done or over.

4)  Why do so many Christians and churches use fear as a tactic to sell Christianity? Hell is often used as a threat to freak people into going to church/being a Christian. Many times I’ve been told “what if you’re wrong, you’ll burn in hell forever. It seems wrong to believe in a religion just in case because you don’t want to burn in hell.

If someone has a faith that they believe is necessary for salvation, and if someone believes that this faith is perfect and untarnished and must be defended to stay that way… I guess they will do anything to protect it and anything to make other people to adopt it.  I came across a thought from Carl Jung (psychologist) the other day, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”

If you think that Heaven is the destination we are all aiming for and that a certain belief in Jesus is the only bridge to get to it – you will do all sorts of things to make sure people do, and you will live in a constant worry that you are still on the bridge.  Such things place a great deal of dependence for salvation on our will, choices, and life rather than on God.  And I must say it mystifies me.  Shaming people into good works is not itself a good work.  And you cannot create love by guilt or by force.  If God is love, you have to move people to love by living love.  An author I like named Eugene Peterson says we must not simply ask What would Jesus do, but How would Jesus do it.   So all I can really say is – I agree with you.  I don’t understand fear as a motivator to Christianity, and Hell as a threat (like the naughty and nice list of Santa Claus).  And no – belief as “hedging your bets” is not really a life forming faith.  Its empty words.

5)  Why do we pray? If it changes Gods mind then he is not sovereign. If it does not change Gods mind then it doesn’t seem to have a point.

A question for you: If God chooses to change God’s mind… does that mean God isn’t sovereign?  It is still God choosing to do something by God’s own will… even if the suggestion didn’t originate with God.

A second thought.  I believe there is a cathartic (and thus healing) effect of voicing our challenges, hurts, and laments.  So even if God is not some doctor in the sky at our beck and call (and I don’t believe God is) merely “talking it out with God” can itself have healing effects.  I think prayer is best understood as a conversation with God.  We may make it about our wants and needs… but it is meant to be a conversation of clarification.  We discern what God’s will for us, we speak our will to God… we hopefully find some solace and togetherness in the conversation.  It doesn’t mean we get what we want.  It doesn’t mean its clear and easy – when is conversation ever clear and easy?  Maybe it is amongst good friends… a reason to practice prayer regularly so we get better at that particular conversation.  So I guess what I want to say to you is… what do you understand prayer to be about?

6)   We have free will, but it seems like a joke. We either accept Jesus and go to paradise for eternity or refuse and upon death be damned to hell forever. How is that freedom of choice when it is the same as having a gun to your head?

Do we have free will?  Is this a given?  To some degree I would agree with you and to some extant I would not.  I certainly would not agree with the next sentence.  That is a particular articulation of one interpretation of Christianity.  It does not speak for me or mine.  I think there is a bigger question of free will – which I’m not sure you are asking – about is our will ever really free (we are after all products of our environment, of systems around us, of our parents… etc.  We aren’t nearly so free as we imagine).  I think here you are still wrestling with this second sentence.  If this is the sum of Christianity what is the point… and in that case I would say: I don’t know. I reject it and so I’m not even interested in discovering what would be the point of such a thing.  I know the world of which you speak and are wrestling with (recovering from?) and how it speaks its Truth of Christianity.  All I can say is that it is not the only way of understanding Christianity and it isn’t mine and it bugs me to hear it because I know how much abuse has been done in the name of Christ by such articulations.  “God is love, those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” I John 4:17 (might be 16 I’m getting lazy and not looking it up at the moment… you’ll find it – and trust me I’m not making it up.)  If these words are true.  (And I believe they are.)  Gun to the head theology is anathema.  A loving God would not extort devotion.  Such a God invites us to understand that the only way we love God is by being loving people towards ourselves and each other… all others.

7)  What’s the point of Satan, why did God create him if he knew what he would do? Why does God bother letting him exist now?

What the point?  Maybe we should start with who (or what) is Satan?  Hasatan (in Hebrew) mean the accuser.  Early in Scripture Satan is not necessarily an adversary to God.  Satan is like the prosecuting attorney.  Satan is the “devil’s advocate” of God’s heavenly court.  Only later do we begin to think of Satan as an actual force or advocate of evil.  This is probably for many reasons… Judaism does not start out monotheistic but becomes so – so we have to eliminate non-God god-like beings.  Also we have to understand why God’s will doesn’t just happen and sometimes rather than blame ourselves we scapegoat Satan.  Other times there is such palpable evil that can’t help but give it a name and agency… Satan.  Lastly I think there times we don’t want to believe things of God and so we actually split God into two beings: God the good, and Satan the bad (aka bad-god).  I think this is more about us and our child-like need to make the world black and white (even God) than it is really a truth of the nature of God.  But what do I know – I have no special insight to such things.  Satan is.  Satan is not.  I believe both of these things to be true.  I could say more here but it would get confusing (as in I would begin to confuse myself) and I’ll hold off for now.  All of these question require a bit of give and take in conversation so we’ll see what you do with that first foray.

8)  What/who is God? He’s not really a man with grey hair and beard, wearing a robe, sitting in the clouds, right? If not what is he, what does he look like or resemble?

Well, you began and end with HUGE questions.  Do I get to say I don’t know?  There are many answers to this question and none of them is right and none are probably wrong and absolutely none is the full answer.  We talk about Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation – he gives us insight into who and what God is.  But the whole of God?  It would be like asking if we could find a place from which to view the whole universe… which, if scientists are right, is growing – at least until it starts shrinking – so how could we ever do such a thing?  Even if for a moment we glimpsed the grandeur of it all – in the next moment it would be more than it was, and in truth we lack the faculties to even “see” it.  Such is God I think.  There is a mystery to God we cannot fully comprehend. And yet in all that majesty God chose to descend into human form out of desire to be in relationship to us.  Little ol’ us.  God wants to know us, and be known by us.  What does God look like?  I believe God looks like you and your husband and your friends sitting around asking questions, God looks like a gay family member who has been hurt and psychologically abused by the very people who profess to be devoted to love, God looks like a child whose eyes are full of wonder, God looks like the sky on a clear night where you stair up into an abyss and you are pretty sure there must be someone like you on some other world who is staring back at you right now.  (okay maybe that’s just me.)  To quote it again, “God is love.”  We have a need to turn God into a person, but God is more than that, and pursuing God as some external object we can catch and hold onto is, in some way, to try to control God – who is infinite – by making God less.  This is why to say God is love works so well for me (though it wasn’t my idea) – you cannot hold love. You cannot even fully define it.  But you can feel it, and you can see it when it’s happening.  So that I can see something and say – God is in that.  But it is very hard to come up with some objective definition of God apart of the life of God’s creation.

This may feel wholly (and holy) inadequate.  But I’ll let that stand as a first response.  Please question my responses; let me know where they don’t work – what the problems with them are, or what further questions they inspire.  And we will go from there.  Like I said – next week I would probably say something different!