Making friends with God

No friend, no lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. And by burdening others with these divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often only partially aware, we might inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other.

— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

There are truths we believe but we don’t really understand.

Henri Nouwen’s words have been marked in my book since the first time I read them several years ago. But I have been coming to understand them more deeply since last September. Mostly what I have been coming to understand is how much I have directed my “cravings for unity and wholeness” toward others and how they treat me and speak to me. I have discovered holes in myself that I had been trying to fill with the uncertain kindness and love of others.

Failing that, I turned to a sense – an artificial one – of self-importance and accomplishment, which is just another kind of chasing after praise. I believed that — as Augustine says — our hearts are restless until we find rest in God, but I did not really understand it.

The requirement with finding that sense of unity and wholeness in God is that you have to be well-acquainted with God, which means time devoted to silence and prayer and disciplines of the Spirit. It is not something you can rush through. Ten minutes – or five – with today’s devotion in the Upper Room is not doing it. It is the spiritual equivalent of sending someone a Happy Birthday post on Facebook. You did it. There is even evidence that you thought of the other person. But your life is no deeper for having done it.

As Eugene Peterson has written more than once, pastors of all people are prone to confusing being busy about God-talk and church work with spending actual time with God. Preparing sermons and praying in public and making pastoral calls are good, honest religious work, but they are all on the clock. Friendship with God develops before and after you punch the time clock.

This morning, I was pondering a passage from 1 John when Nouwen’s words came to me.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

The apostle’s words are not as gentle or even speaking to the same exact point as Nouwen’s. He is issuing a warning, but the ground is similar, I think. John also speaks to us of the ultimate inadequacy of misdirected love. The love is misdirected because it aims toward the wrong thing, and it is misdirected because it is that clinging, needful thing that we often call love because our words are imprecise and we are so good a lying about our own intentions.

I think I am coming to understand this truth more fully. I have much more to learn and much more to do. God is a good friend. He waits patiently for me. I am grateful for that.

Who are you, my God?

I love Augustine’s struggle to name God fully in the opening book of The Confessions:

Who then are you, my God? What, I ask, but God who is Lord? For ‘who is the Lord but the Lord,’ or ‘who is God but our God?’ (Ps. 17:32). Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9:5, old Latin version); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Luke 15:7); you are never avaricious, yet you require interest (Matt. 25:27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does not belong to you? (I Cor. 4:7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss. But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say.

The poetry of this is pleasing to me, but so is the ending where Augustine both acknowledges that all our words cannot adequately describe God and warns us not to let that stop of from speaking.

As a preacher, I am grateful for both parts of that word.

God is not cuddly

Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:8)

There seems to be a thing these days in condemning the Book of Joshua as sub-biblical. The violence of the book repels many people. It strikes them as out of character with the portrait of Jesus they carry around in their heads. The idea that God would sanction and command the slaughter of an entire people horrifies people.

I share the horror.

But I don’t understand why we are so quick to clear the name of God by explaining away the Book of Joshua. I don’t understand it because it is not like Joshua is the only book in the Bible that is violent.

Take Exodus, for example. Consider for just a moment what happened at Passover.

So Moses said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.'” (Exodus 11:4-6)

How cuddly is this God?

Why is it that we cannot tolerate an image of God that terrifies us? Why do we try to shove him into a Care Bear’s costume when the Bible clearly does not. You can rip out Joshua, but you can’t escape the revelation of God as a “consuming fire.”

Why is this so hard for us?

You are not a rhubarb pie

I really don’t understand this.

A fellow pastor posted on his Facebook page this blog post from a self-identified progressive Christian blogger and ordained Presbyterian minister. My fellow pastor lauded the post as providing great food for thought.

The point of the post, if you don’t want to read it, is that Jesus never said he was God in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so worshiping Jesus as God should not be a requirement for calling ourselves Christians. The writer informs us that he calls himself a Christian because Jesus is the best teacher he knows about “this god thing.” The title of the blog post does not beat around the bush: Jesus Is Not My God.

As I say, I don’t understand this.

I’m not terribly familiar with the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I assume somewhere in there it talks about Jesus being God. I feel fairly confident about this because this has been a more or less settled question for 1,700 years. What I read of John Calvin and what I’ve read about John Knox suggests to me that they took the whole Jesus is God thing pretty seriously, too.

The blog writer says he is not trying to say orthodox Christians are wrong (I’m allowed to use orthodox in this case, right Via Media?). He just wants to be free to call himself a Christian even though he openly denies that Jesus is God.

Of course, it is a free country. If he wants to call himself a rhubarb pie, he can do so. But the rest of us are still allowed to tell him he is wrong.

Right? Could we still do that if he were a United Methodist?

God will repay

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:6-8, NIV)

The larger context of this passage is that God’s response to good and evil ignores the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but we should not let the distinction that Paul feels he has to make a case for obscure from our vision the claims about God that Paul feels no need to defend because everyone agrees, namely that God punishes those who do evil and rewards those who persist in doing good.

This is so fundamental to biblical religion that we render the Bible incomprehensible if we suppress this fundamental claim about God.

The old Methodist teaching took this for granted. And it equally took for granted that we are no able to do the persistent good that Paul writes about. We might do good here or there, but we cannot form a life grounded in persistent goodness out of our own resources. And we cannot erase the crippling stain of sin by our own good deeds. We cannot, in other words, deserve the reward.

This old Methodist message has many detractors in United Methodism, but what I have find even more perplexing is the resistance to the fundamental biblical claim about God rewards those who do good and punishes those who do evil.

 

I see a broken world

This week, I listened to a presentation that included as one of its main points the argument that the Western tradition has gone terribly wrong because it is too focused on fixing problems. The concern is that this puts an emphasis on seeing people as broken or fallen in need of saving rather than as whole and healthy in need of — well, not much really except encouragement.

As  I listened, I recalled the opening pages of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In my presentation and in much of contemporary theology — so far as I can tell — the fact that human beings are radically out of alignment with God simply does not register. Awareness of this fact — which Chesterton memorably calls the only part of Christian theology that can be empirically proven — is described as a kind of morbid negativity about humanity.

I have a hard time reflecting over the arc of Scripture — Torah, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, and revelation — and finding much foothold for the notion that we — when left to ourselves — are well-grounded and responsive to God’s will for our lives.

I have a hard time looking at the world — especially beyond the little bubble of security that we all try to hard to wrap around ourselves — and seeing that people are generally happy, joyful, peaceful, just, merciful, and righteous.

I have a hard time looking in my own heart and seeing the image of Christ stamped there without any blemish or blot.

I’ve been accused of being a gloomy Gus many times in my life, so I’m aware that there may be people with a much more positive theology running around. But I don’t see the world looking much like the Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.

The world looks like a place that needs God to me, not just for some encouragement on the way but for rescue, healing, and salvation. God, of course, is at work already. All good comes from God. But the work is not done. The world is broken in need of healing. It is fallen in need of lifting up. It is captive in need of liberation.

This is how it looks to me. If I am wrong, God help me to see rightly.