Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pictures of God

I used to think that God had certainly made it difficult for ordinary people to understand him. Countless sermons, books, and articles had impressed on me the certainty that only someone with a master’s in Theology, a doctoral Thesis under their belts, and the time to study Greek conjugations and ancient Rabbinical teachings at their leisure would truly be able to properly interpret God’s Story for us. I used to think that the slide into heresy was lurking just one verse misinterpretation away, and if I disagreed with, or if I questioned, a pastor or teacher on a particular interpretation I was surely destined to tumble off of the balancing act of Biblical interpretation into either the pit of Legalism or Liberalism. 

I often approached God feeling pretty dumb. “Hey God? I know I don’t have a theology degree or anything, and what Paul was writing here is Greek to me, but…I don’t get it. Why would you say that or act like this?” “Hey God? The preacher said that CLEARLY this verse is saying one thing, but it just doesn’t seem that clear to me. I’ve heard good arguments for other points of view. Am I going to hell now because I’m not sure? Oh yeah, and…IS there a hell? That kind of seems like a big issue that I’d like to not be wrong about, but I don’t want to go all Pascal’s wager on you and just opt for the belief that maximizes the expected utility.” “Hey God?  Do we have free will or not? What does that really mean?”

I don’t like to feel dumb. It’s one of my biggest insecurities. Logic tells me that I am smart, or at least, that I have some type of intelligence that seems to mesh well with the ways the world works and allows me to present a moderately successful fa├žade, answer basic questions without stammering, and perform well on nearly every standardized test. I can tell you that earthworms have five hearts, that both cattle and deer are ruminants, and the difference between when to use lay versus lie. (Most of these facts are of little use to me in daily life or standard conversation. Discussing digestive systems of land mammals is kind of frowned upon at dinner parties.) 

I can attain practical, factual knowledge when I lack it, but the mysteries of the study of the Divine seem beyond my grasp. And that doesn’t make sense to me.

Here’s what I know. Jesus showed up to some pretty ordinary people. He didn’t emerge on the scene, hand people the 30 volume set to understanding the Son of God and expect them to read up for the coming quiz. He did stuff. He spoke through stories they already knew, and he told them parables and then didn’t always tell them what they meant. He knew perfectly well that we were always going to be a little confused and muddled about him because the people with whom he hung out were sometimes confused and muddled about him. Sometimes they were REALLY confused about him. 

I’m beginning to think that if God is as smart and as omniscient as we give him credit for being, he has not been shocked by our difficulty in the twenty-first century to interpret and understand a Bible written through the eyes of a people who lived centuries ago. He knows that we’re going to get confused about him, and he isn’t out there rolling his eyes at our wrestling and saying “You idiot! I made that so clear!” I think that he gives us space to wrestle and engage with him. I think that he’s not a theology professor bent on giving us a failing grade if we fail to subscribe to the correct view of the atonement. He’ll work with us where we are at as long as we want to know him more.

That’s pretty much what God has done all throughout history. He’s related to people through their culture in ways that they could understand him. He’s the God of four thousand years ago, the God of two thousand years ago, and the God of today. He is more ancient than we could imagine, and more present in the NOW than we could possibly hope for. He’s the God of Moses, the God of Esther, the God of Israel in exile, the God of Peter, the God of Mary Magdalene, the God of Martin Luther, the God of Pope Francis, and the God of that middle-aged woman living just down the street who isn’t quite sure what she’s making for supper. 

He’s a God who isn’t afraid of a mess. He’ll let us paint our portraits of him, and I think he looks with delight on each one, whether they are finely honed photorealism, impressionism, or finger-painted abstract portraits that put an eyeball where a chin should be and use purple when he really should have been green. I used to think that God wanted me to paint the perfect portrait of him, but now I think that just maybe the point of it all isn’t who paints the best portrait, but who’s willing to sit with the subject long enough to try.

Sometimes an author comes around who just so completely captures the struggles and joys of living out our faith that I want to drink in and linger on every word. Sarah Bessey is one of those authors. She loves Jesus with a passion that makes me want to know him more. I planned my entire Tuesday around a trip to the bookstore to pick up her new book on its release date. Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith is a book where Jesus sings off of every page, even in the midst of questions. Sometimes I want to read it quickly in big gulps, like water when I'm parched. Other times I want to sit and sip the words slowly, letting them warm me and chase away the chill. I'm linking up this post today to her synchroblog celebrating the release of her book, and prompting us to consider the statement "I used to think _________ but now I think _______."

Monday, November 2, 2015

Work of art

Your hands,
I don’t think that I can get them right;
The carpentry worn creases and callouses,
The way they mold mud, restore sight.
These hands touch untouchables
Raise up the lowest,
Lift children,
Wash dust and dung from disciples’ feet.
Pigment and canvas don’t capture
The way they speak
When you talk,
Shaping stories
Scratching dirt.
These hands resurrected
They are contradiction,
Breaking bread and braiding whip,
Messiah pierced,
Divine and human,
Reaching low and raising dead.
Your hands,
They are a bent that draws me ever closer
Beckoning to paint your story,
A tale of royal line still best avowed
Through servant hands and bended knee.

Photo by Smoochi via Flickr Creative Commons License

Friday, September 25, 2015

On Owl Queens and Monsters

Over Labor Day weekend we moved the boys into separate bedrooms. We did this for the peace of the world, or at least for the peace of our home. In general it was a great idea, the kind that leaves us patting ourselves on the back and preening over our stellar parenting skills.



Despite the cool glow of his lava lamp and the assurances that we are Right There if he needs us, the almost-11-year-old is certain that monsters lurk in hidden spots in his bedroom. I can't really fault him; I'm not sure how old I was before I stopped believing that there was a bear hiding behind my bedroom door.

The other night was different, though.

It began with the squeak of a doorknob turning, and then there he was, standing in his darkened room. "Mom? Is today the day that the planes flew into the towers?"

"Yes. Yes, it is."


He shifted into talking about monsters and I thought the planes were forgotten. We talked about ways to calm our fears of things unseen, of verses that comfort, of a God who watches. He doesn't get it. How is God supposed to be a comfort when he can't see him, can't hear him, can't feel him? To be honest, I'm left without answers, because there is something in the easy comfort answers that doesn't always ring true to me either.

Then he asks the question. "Mom? Why did the owl queens do that?" For a moment I don't understand. "Do what?" "You know. The planes." It hits me, then, that we have circled back around to the first topic, that the owl queens are his way of making sense of a name that is as unfamiliar to him as it was to most of us fourteen years ago.

I think I understand what he is really asking. Sometimes there are monsters, and sometimes those monsters aren't just in our imagination. How do we walk through life, how do we sleep in peace when we don't know when the monsters will strike? How do we sleep when we don't know if our monsters are real or imagined?

Photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Flickr Creative Commons

We Christians in America, we like our bedtime prayers, don't we? We ask God to keep us safe, we claim hedges of protection and deliverance from our enemies. We are raised on stories of Daniel in the lion's den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, the disciples in the storm-tossed boat. And somehow this always translates out the same; God keeps his people safe. He always comes through. Always rescues. Always protects.


Sometimes he doesn't.

Often he doesn't.

Sometimes owl queens strike. What do we tell our children then? What do we say to the fears hiding in the shadows?

My son and I lay curled up in his bed that night and we talked about monsters, fear, and faith. There were no easy answers, because I have no need to present him with a faith that I have securely packed into a box, wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. My faith is messy and the box is wobbly and the packaging keeps exploding out everywhere in a mess of shredded paper. It looks, sometimes, like a third grader did the wrapping, lopsided bow and all. This is the faith, the antidote to fear, that I have to offer him.

Oh, but can I tell you what is in that messy, wobbly package with the lopsided bow? There, in the center of all of the mess and tangle is one bright, shining jewel. That jewel is Jesus. When everything else falls away, when the world is dark and hurtful and full of monsters, I have this one truth that I can hold in my hands.

Jesus came. He came to redeem the world. He came to show us the very image of God, and in doing so he gave us the model for what we are supposed to look like. Because HE loved, we can love. (1 John 4:19) First, foremost and always, Jesus looks like love. Perfect love, the kind that drives out fear.

This, I think, is how we fight fear, by living like the kingdom that Jesus came teaching. This crazy, upside-down kingdom in which we love our enemies, and in which we offer them clothing and shelter even when they are mistreating us. The one in which we walk second miles, turn the other cheek, give someone our shirt when they take our coat. (Luke 6:27-36)

At its root, isn't fear so often focused on ourselves? Isn't love for others the antithesis to that?

I don't expect a child to always understand that.

I DO expect us to get it.

We've been loved so very much; loving others isn't optional. Otherwise, we become the monsters that we fear.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Stumbling towards mercy

Some days I feel like I'm nothing but contradictions.

I am selfish.
I want to live with open hands.

I am envious.
I want to be at peace with where I am.

I am judgmental.
I want to see the best in people.

I am petty.
I want to exercise patience and grace.

Blessed are the merciful.
And still I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

I see the pictures going around, the tiny body washed up on the beach, the hundreds of faces crammed into barely sea-worthy boats like so much cargo and yet valued less than even the most careless merchant would treat his cargo, with a desire to see it reach its destination whole, undamaged. I see the faces and read their stories, stories of despair and risking death because death seems the more palatable option. I read heartfelt pleas and my soul wants to reach out and help. And then I think "Yes, it's easy to want to help this one. But what about when one becomes one hundred and then one thousand and then one hundred thousand?" What then?

Am I willing to give up every illusion of security that I have to place hope into the heart of a refugee?

Am I willing to concede that inviting the widow, the orphan and the immigrant into my life may just not always be comfortable? Am I willing to let it involve risk?

Risk of sharing our nation and our economic fortune?
Risk of embracing the presence of other cultures, because when someone flees from the wasteland that was their home, do we get to insist that they give up every aspect that ties them to the memory of a place they still must love?
Risk of the awkwardness of learning how to communicate with someone from a vastly different background, language, or religion?

I know that there are people who run towards mercy. People who cannot stop their tears from flowing or their hearts from breaking for the marginalized, the stranger, the broken. People who mobilize and act before the story even breaks.

I want to be a person who runs towards mercy, but I must confess that at best I am a person who stumbles towards it. Counting the cost with each step I take. So overwhelmed at the vast sea of broken lives that it becomes almost easier to ignore them all than to choose just one. Confused by the voices who argue against mercy. Uncertain about 'best practices' and the fiscal responsibility of charitable organizations and misguided good intentions and all of the other things that can make the good we thought we were doing less than good.

I can only stumble towards mercy with empty hands. Trusting that somehow even hands that feel empty will hold enough to bind up the broken pieces of this crazy, stupid, hurting world.