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    Entries in god (4)


    Person, Not Thing

    Over the course of my seminary studies I heard classmates say that God had become “homework,” the focus of a task or assignment given by professors.

    The result was discouragement, a waning love for God, a tepid Christian spirituality, or all of the above. God had become something to look at, not someone to look to.

    Ministers are prone to the same malady, reading the Bible only in preparation for a sermon or class, praying only when called upon to serve as a religious functionary, etc. “God” becomes associated with the tasks of ministry, rather than the calling of the minister.

    I suppose this is a potential pitfall for any congregant. Established routines of devotion become stale, and reliable ways of engaging the Bible, serving others, or practicing prayer no longer warm affections for God as they once did. Bewilderment and confusion follow.

    Reframing might help. In the case of the seminarian, the minister, and the congregant the practice of completing assignments about God or tasks for God can replace being in relationship with God. God becomes an object rather than a subject.

    But if we can remember that the God revealed in Scripture is always personal and always working, it becomes increasingly difficult to relegate God to the domain of an assignment, a task, or a religious duty. God is not something we can control. God is someone we serve.

    If we remember that God is God and we are mortal, we will cease our efforts to control God through the machinations of achievement, duty, or piety. Our most skillfully argued thesis, our most diligently prepared sermon, or our most consistent practices of devotion are given as a free response to God rather than a means by which we might define, distribute, or control God.

    We can also remember that God, being a person and not a task, may feel distant despite being near. This happens often in human relationships. It is often the case that in these seasons, we learn new ways to love. We also discover new things about ourselves.

    We remain with those to whom we have pledged our steadfast love. We carry out our duties and remain within our routines. We maintain attentiveness and offer the gift of presence. We help and provide.

    Passions can wax and wane in all relationships, yet steadfastness binds us one to another, and the fruit borne is in keeping with love. All the while, we do not fulfill our tasks and duties in order to receive a feeling, a positive affirmation, or a grade. Instead, we continue to act in keeping with our commitment to relationship as an evidence of our love.

    And because God has loved us first, and called us first, and claimed us first, and redeemed us first, we can be confident that God has not abandoned us or removed his presence from us. Perhaps, instead, God has given us the distance we need to grow, to learn new ways of loving, and to discover new things about ourselves. Good parents give their children room to breathe. God is no different.

    God has given us the gift of time, wherein we may discover our own selfishness and wrong-headed assumptions. God has given us the opportunity to long for the experience of God’s presence and the overflow of divine love. God has also given us the opportunity to repent, and to ask for the grace we need if we are to ever become all that God has created us to be.

    Any attempt to depersonalize God leads to idolatry and works-righteousness. God is not an assignment, a duty, or a feeling. God is Trinity, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Person, not thing.

    Subject, not object.


    Book Review :: Yawning at Tigers by Drew Dyck

    Next time you sit down for a conversation with a friend, old or new, ask them what they think about God. You'll likely hear that God is loving and forgiving, though you might also hear about God's wrath or anger. Maybe your friend thinks that God is distant and disengaged from our lives, if they believe God exists at all. There's a range of opinions about God.

    Within my tribe, however, the popular view of God is a bit fuzzy. God loves us, and it is a syrupy sweet kind of love. We mess up, sure, but God is right there to pick us up, dust us off, pat us on the butt, and urge us on. God wants us to have our best life, and if we spend time in the Word and claim the promises found therein, this loving, sweet God will deliver us everything we desire. God is here to wait on us, or to push the right buttons when we need things to fall our way.

    But that's not how God works, or is.

    Drew Dyck, in his book Yawning at Tigers: You Can't Tame God, So Stop Trying, challenges this soft notion of God. He claims that our deepest desire is to "know and love a transcendent God," and to encounter a God worth worshipping. Dyck has caught on to the fact that our polar swing away from distorted depictions of God majoring on judgment and wrath have led to a different form of misrepresentation--a God we can control and confine to a cage.

    I happen to really like Dyck's approach and overall tone, not only in YaT, but in his work at Leadership Journal and in Christianity Today. He's open and honest, inquisitive and opinionated, and has a deep concern for the world. That's why I was excited to read this book. In his acknowledgements, Dyck concedes the immensity of the challenge of writing anything about God, and candidly admits that he has never felt so out of his depth. This spirit shines through in YaT. Claims about God are made with confidence and humility. That kind of attitude, I think, give testimony to a knowledge of the true God.

    YaT explores God's person, human beings, and how the two have been brought together in Christ. Dyck challenges us through story, the examination of Scripture, and through the work of astute theologians, pastors, and scholars like Eugene Peterson, Matt Chandler, Miroslav Volf, and many others. He launches salvos toward those flippant in prayer or shallow in their representations of the Christian way, and calls us toward holiness. Dyck's thoughts on holiness, woven throughout the book, were particularly encouraging to me. We are called to be holy because God is holy (a truth woven throughout the Scripture), yet many today seem content with a lax spirituality that is as boring as it is feckless, a far cry from the eternal type of life Jesus has made possible.

    Dyck's writing in YaT will draw you to reconsider your own notions about God. You may find yourself disagreeing with some of his claims. But don't miss his message. God is wild and free, far grander than we have imagined. But God has also revealed himself to be trustworthy, wise, and good. God is love, and is loving, of course. But the meaning of that love is more earth-shattering and awe-inspiring than we have let on.

    Through relationship to this God, you will find that life is a grand adventure, lived in the company of the Redeemer of all things, who brings about his purposes through his people. Once you have beheld God, revealed in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you won't even be tempted to yawn. You might find your mouth agape, oh yes, but for far different reasons. It will be due to the glory you encounter, a glory that is yet to be fully revealed.

    Read this book, find encouragement, and recheck your theology.

    Set God in your sights, and worship.


    God and Moses by Simon Rich

    If you're in need of a good laugh, check out this bit of sacrilege from Simon Rich. I stumbled upon this brilliant bit when listening to a year-end podcast from 2010, which for some reason was still on one of my iPods.

    The embedded audio is below.

    I doubt this was intentional, but this bit uncovers our own bent towards idolatry via irony: even the Almighty could be so taken by his own creation as to create an exception clause within the covenant made with Israel. God also speaks of things to come which Moses has no capacity to understand, as though an all-knowing and all-powerful being would not foresee that a finite, human creature might have some difficulty processing the unique talents of Prince. Christians and Jews often take Moses' receiving of divine revelation on Sinai as so commonplace as to lose the wonder. We often conceive of God as he is presented in this comedy bit--just a buddy to Moses who happens to have some particular rules, not a Being so other and beyond that his disclosure was so earth-shattering as to invoke awe, fear, worship, allegiance, and adoration. We can laugh because if the biblical accounts are to be taken at face, we know God is nothing like this. But we laugh at ourselves because we know, deep inside, that we act as though God is like this, and that his commands are to be taken lightly, because God really can't be all that serious.

    Anyway, have a listen, and a laugh.

    HT: Maximum Fun: Comedy: Simon Rich: God and Moses with Paul Scheer and Seth Morris


    Book Review :: Sarah Sentilles' Breaking Up With God

    Sarah Sentilles’ memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, is an honest, forthright, and forceful account of one woman’s spiritual journey.  Sentilles chronicles her beginnings in the Catholic church, attending worship and being discipled as the daughter of a Catholic father and displaced Episcopalian mother, who taught her how to question and doubt.  Very early, Sentilles had questions that did not find satisfying answers, whether it be in her conversations with a priest, a family member, or a Sunday school teacher.  As she continued to grow and mature, Sentilles struggled with an eating disorder.  Her quest to find acceptance before god is placed alongside her difficulties in accepting herself--her perception of her own body was always lacking in some way.  As she learned self care and self acceptance, overcoming her temptations to starve her own body, she moved on to college at Yale.  While in school, she faced another type of abuse, this time at the hands of a boyfriend she calls “Canada.”  Sentilles willingness to explore this element of her past is admirable.  After first seeking self acceptance through thinness, Sentilles then seeks to establish her identity in her dating relationships; a strategy that also leads to self destruction.

    After her time at Yale, Sentilles enters the Teach for America program, eventually landing in Los Angeles.  She did so to appear brave and generous, another attempt to earn acceptance of others and of god.  After this admission, she identifies herself in a short prayer as a “doer of good deeds.”  It is no longer thinness or a relationship that will be the basis of her acceptance of self, for now it is career.  And what she finds in Los Angeles is disturbing--the system she has benefited from is incredibly unjust, and there are young people in our inner cities who are deprived of even the opportunity to succeed.  During this time in her life, Sentilles discovers a church that feeds her soul, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena.  She discovers art and writing and her own capacity for creativity. She also discovers a calling while at All Saints, explores a vocation as an Episcopal priest, and eventually leaves the west coast for Harvard Divinity School.  Her decision to pursue this vocation affirmed her sense of self.  Sentilles writes, “I wore my self on the outside, dressing it up for people to see and admire.  Saying, I’m going to be a priest was part of this costume, a badge, a mask.  Just being me wasn’t enough.  I needed props.”

    Sentilles time at Harvard Divinity School was formative, for in that context she was exposed to people of other religions or no religion, other sexualities, and other theological and philosophical perspectives.  During this time she did not attend church, but she did think, study, live and breath god every day.  Through Gordan Kaufman and other mentors, Sentilles began to discover her own theological method, and her beliefs about god began to solidify.  During this period, Sentilles began to see that religion was a tool to confront injustice.  It is something we create for our own purposes.  There is no revelation; there is no truth.  The task of theology, according to Sentilles, is to craft a narrative, or a world, wherein we can confront “injustice and environmental degradation and poverty and racism and sexism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.”  In response to these problems, Sentilles says, “I can create a version of God that can respond to this.”  This leads to some strange assertions, such as “If you admit your understanding of God is a construction, then you won’t be willing to kill anyone over it.”  My response is simply, “Says who?”

    After Harvard Divinity, Sentilles moved to the local church, finding a position at a church just outside Boston where she would continue to pursue her vocation while aware that her sense of calling was fading.  But she needed a job. And others expected her to be a priest.  She moved in to the role, working with the church youth group, preaching inflammatory sermons, and becoming annoyed by the day to day operations of ministry.  Sentilles found that people didn’t want to talk about God.  They only wanted to be part of a group.  She says, “God was almost incidental to the whole enterprise, background noise.”  Distressed by the lack of god-talk in the congregation, Sentilles returns to the doctoral program at Harvard Divinity.

    Sentilles continues telling her story, moving from the death of a close friend, Charlie, who died young of stomach cancer.  She stops praying.  She becomes increasingly disillusioned by the church, and drops out of the discernment process.  She finds love with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity named Eric.  She is disgusted by what has taken place at Abu Ghraib prison, and becomes determined to write her dissertation on the photographs that emerged from that place of oppression.  She discovers more ethical eating practices, in part through the witness of Eric.  She moves to Idaho.  She and Eric marry.  She moves from belief in god to saying, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us." 

    Sentilles is the hero of her own story.  She admits as much, noting the moment in her own life when she began to view herself as the protagonist in her narrative.  This is significant for many reasons, but, considering this memoir primarily concerns the progressive unfolding of her understanding of and relationship to the divine, this admission marks a profound shift.  No longer does Sentilles look to something transcendent, or rely on some concept of Providence.  

    Sentilles looks to herself as the arbiter of morality, of purpose, and of truth.  She determines what is right and what is wrong, notably with regard to food related ethics and sexuality.  She asserts what can and cannot be known about god, suggesting that god is a useful construction, and, that if god exists at all, we cannot know what that god is like.  Any description of god we offer is something for which we must be held accountable, for none of us can speak for god.  Revelation does not exist.  Therefore, we only speak for ourselves.  Anyone who claims to speak a word from god, or on behalf of god, only does so in an effort to increase and leverage their own power.  Yet, employing such Foucauldian tactics not only serves to disarm those in power, but establishes a form of power of its own.  The oppressed become the new oppressors, as those who are able to recognize social constructions elevate themselves to a position where they, and they alone, are able to identity, establish, and create reality.

    There is a great irony throughout Sentilles’ memoir that she does not seem to recognize, that being, she decries the version of dogmatism she perceives that is present in much of modern Christianity yet, in its place, she produces a dogmatism of her own.  As someone who has jettisoned her idea of god, she replaces that concept with a god of her own making.  Jesus is a revolutionary and a political activist, not a cosmic Savior or Redeeming sacrifice.  Sentilles, too, is a revolutionary and a political activist, thus, the way of salvation is not rooted in the historical reality of the cross, but is accomplished through the denouncing of oppressive government policies and those who vocally oppose the legitimization of same-sex relationships (among other causes).  The God of her upbringing was male, demanding of human submission, and a stern judge, expecting his children (foremost here is Sentilles) to earn his acceptance through obedience to his divine commands or through expressions of righteousness.  Sentilles is a feminist, a libertine, and, ironically, a stern judge, expecting her fellow human beings to live in accordance with her standards, and therefore earning her acceptance and approval.  In order to avoid being called a bigot, you must be righteous as Sentilles is righteous.  “You must be holy, because I, the Lord, am holy.”  Not everything about the god of her childhood, it seems, was worthy of leaving behind.

    I happen to think that Sentilles' memoir is gripping and engaging.  I did spend a day with it, reading every page, every word, wrestling with her a/theological assertions, sympathizing with her journey, and identifying with her rage toward the Christian church that often appears to stand for one thing yet do another.  I appreciated, quite deeply, her engagement with highly intelligent and important scholars of theology and religion and philosophy.  She is more knowledgeable in such areas than many pastors, which I admit with some sadness.  I also think that Sentilles is honest during a time where there is much duplicity, both overt and covert.  There are many who are afraid to voice their own doubts and struggles for fear of being rejected, and thus the intellectual and emotional concerns that plague us are never brought in to the light to be faced down, dealt with, and moved past.

    In that respect, I can recommend this book.  But as a guide, I cannot recommend Sentilles.  I believe her ideas about god are quite wrong, and her characterizations of both the church, theology, the Bible, conservatives of all stripes, epistemology, method, and more should not be followed.  This, of course, is my informed opinion, one that is worthy of vigorous debate.  The ideas I have just listed are no small matter.  They are the stuff of life.  Just as Sentilles has the right to assert her own thoughts, and to justify those through argumentation, so too do those who disagree with her, yet, for Christians that might read her story and find her too bombastic or abrasive, it should be remembered that the Bible that Sentilles deconstructs commands us to provide an answer for what is believed with “gentleness and respect.”