God is not my buddy. God is not my pal. God is not my chum. God is not my friend. Those are human relational functions and designations that pertain only to human beings in relationship to certain other human beings. As far as that goes, neither is God my father or my mother--though Jesus may have favored the “Daddy” metaphor when speaking to God in prayer.
God is my Creator in the sense that God created the intricate parts of the world that would evolve over long periods of time into mountains and bodies of water and plants and animals and human beings. I can buy into the notion, as did the tellers and writers of the Genesis creation stories, that God the Creator remained intimately connected to what God had created, or I can buy into the deistic notion, held by many of the founders of this nation, which holds that God did, indeed, create the earth and the skies along with plant and animal and human life, but then went away to some undisclosed location and left it up to humans to use their brains to keep the world healthy and keep it functioning.
God is spirit. Among other things, this means that God is invisible to the human eye and that God has no hands or feet or a voice audible to human ears. No one has ever seen God, except maybe for Eve and Adam who in the mind of the ancient storyteller must have seen God when God came to them to confront them for their refusal to obey the one rule of Eden and Moses who, because of a strange turn of events, was allowed to see God’s hindquarters. There were those, however, who saw God in their dreams and visions, but certainly not in the normal course of everyday life.
This biblical principal is largely ignored by Hollywood filmmakers who have occasionally made God visible and given God a voice. The Hollywood God, George Burns and Morgan Freeman and Jim Carey notwithstanding, is usually a blurred humanoid, often larger than life, who speaks audibly, typically in a voice that is louder than it needs to be, singsong quality, basso--I’ve never heard God portrayed as having a tenor voice, and is given to hyper-enunciation. “I am thy God and will surely give thee aid.”
I believe that the ancient people who first told stories about those who audibly heard God speaking and those who heard these stories knew that God wasn’t speaking audibly. Only in ages where people believed or believe that truth is captive to literalism did some of them, many of them try to literalize stories where God has distinct human qualities including a long white beard even though we have no reason to think of an eternal God as having grown to look like an older man instead of a younger man with a voice audible to the human ear. My suspicion is that if there were a time machine that took some of today’s biblical literalists back to the ancient Hebrew era, the Hebrews they’d meet would laugh at them for believing that God who is spirit actually looks like humans and speaks like humans.
Unfortunately, many folks who believe that a relationship with God is a possibility tie what they believe and what they teach others to believe to a God who has been thoroughly anthropomorphized--that is to say, humanized. This is even more complicated and dangerous when we give God human emotions and a human personality--prone to anger and revenge as some of us sadly are.
Many of you know that I taught as a guest professor at the Baptist Seminary in Switzerland a quarter of a century ago and that they asked me to join the faculty permanently. This required the approval of the Foreign Mission Board who owned the property on which the seminary sat and paid the salaries of the Americans who made up about half of the small faculty. The fundamentalists who were taking over the Southern Baptist Convention at that time and who eventually did so completely had some problems with my theology as you might well imagine, and they started throwing roadblocks to permanent appointment in our pathway. One of their tactics was to bring my wife and me back to Richmond, Virginia, where they were headquartered and require us to see the Board psychiatrist a second time. We had to see him the first time before we could go to even our one semester appointment; obviously, we passed, or we wouldn’t have been able to do the job we did in the first place. A second psychiatric review, however, might reveal some compelling reason to designate us as unfit to serve from a psychiatric point of view. That would be the easiest way for them to refuse to appoint us permanently and not have to get into a debate with the Rueschlikon faculty who’d already asked me to come back to stay and who found no problems with psyche or my theology.
The Board psychiatrist was a really nice man and a very cool guy. He said to us, “Look, the fundamentalists don’t want the bad PR in the eyes of the European Baptists who also help support the seminary so they aren’t going to tell you flat out that you can’t go back, but they are going to keep finding reasons to discourage you and slow down the process until you give up in frustration. As much as you want to go back and as much as the seminary wants you to come back, you should exercise your autonomy and reclaim your dignity and voluntarily withdraw from the appointment process. No matter what you do, they are never again going to allow a non-literalist to teach there as long as their dollars are supporting the place.”
We sadly took Dr. Holland’s advice. We took the rest of our allotted time already paid for by the Foreign Mission Board to chat with Dr. Holland, who regularly attended the River Road Church and whose aunt was the professor of missions at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. What the fundamentalists wanted by the time we came along were missionary appointees who believed the Bible literally in every respect, but who had never heard God speaking to them audibly. If they told Dr. Holland that they’d heard God speaking audibly to them, especially that God had spoken to them telling them that they were being sent to serve on a foreign mission field then they were marked off the list of possible appointees. It’s always been interesting how those who claim to believe the Bible from cover to cover still only recognize those parts of the Bible that suit their causes.
For example, biblical literalists typically suffer from hermeneutical or interpretive schizophrenia. They can affirm and preach a God whom they say loves the whole world, but at the same time can lead people into war and the both promote and applaud killing of the humans that the same Bible said that God Godself created. “This does not compute,” as the Robot from “Lost in Space” used to say.
If I say what I just said to you to a biblical literalist, she or he will say that human beings were never intended to understand the ways of God and/or that my faith in God is lacking. My trying to argue theology with a literalist is about as worthwhile as trying to get Mike Castle to endorse Christine O’Donnell for the U.S. Senate.
The fact is, however, that God doesn’t sign off on God’s work. Trying to ascertain what God has done and what has come about because of or through some other force is guesswork. God is not trying, I think, to be so tough for us to understand or to follow, that all of us are in the dark on God-matters most of the time. Still it is the nature of God, as spirit, to be out of direct view of human beings. This means that some speculating about the function and the ways of God is a required part of human experience. Living with some uncertainty about God goes with the territory for all who dare to think and wonder about God at all.
God is not human, and is not static. Another frustration. We can’t get God all figured out some day and then count on God never to change or be any different from the way we understand God that day. Someone has said that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That is true in the sense that God is love, but how that love is expressed or lived out may be very different in a new situation, and while God isn’t going to become hatred and evil at work in the world, neither can finite self-centered humans be able to say what God is doing or going to do in every new life challenge or episode in human history.
Those who read the Bible seriously, if not literally, and take the insights of some of the writers as on target if not as certain as the behavior of a human being whose actions we have observed first-hand, can see that God is changing before our readers’ eyes. God is not static. Neither is God shaped by human preferences, demands, or wishes; although, God is affected by human choices and behavior.
At the moment, I have three major changes in how God acted during the time that what we now call Hebrew scripture was being written and compiled. One is related to God and covenants; one has to do with the lesson learned that God is not limited by space or time; and the other has to do with how God’s presence may be discerned.
One of the realizations about the God of the Hebrews once they’d settled on the idea that there is only one God--not many deities and not one dominant god or goddess in the company of numerous lesser gods and goddesses was that each clan or tribe doesn’t have its own god; there is only one God. This is the God who created the ground and the skies, the God in whom we live and move and have our being. This God is a God of covenants; this is a covenant-making God, and in these numerous covenants that God makes with numerous individuals and the Hebrew people as a whole, God makes some promises about what God will do with and for these people contingent on their faithfulness, their obedience to God.
There’s a covenant God makes with Noah. God saves Noah’s family from the great flood, the only humans to survive by God’s design. In gratitude and obedience, they are supposed to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth that is nearly devoid of humans. If they do their part, and covenants are clearly conditional, then God promises never to destroy all or most of the human race by flooding. God decides to remind Godself of this covenant by having a rainbow appear in the sky after each rainfall.
God makes a covenant with Abraham, and what God will do for Abraham is to reward him with many descendants--enough, in fact, that they will all become a great nation that will inherit a Promised Land. Furthermore if everybody’s on board with honoring God, then all other other nations will be blessed through him, Abraham, and his descendants.
In the Ten Commandments, God makes a covenant with Moses and the Israelites in which they are asked to affirm monotheism. In exchange for their affirmation, God promises to be their God.
There’s a covenant when the Temple in Jerusalem is initially built. King Solomon builds the Temple, and God promises that if God’s people worship there God will establish a royal dynasty that will last forever. King David’s descendants through Solomon and beyond will form this lasting dynasty.
When one of these covenants was made it must have been written down, but by the time of the Prophet Jeremiah, God says that God will make a new covenant with all Jews and, by inference, all those who honor God. The details of this new covenant follow the covenants that preceded it, but there was one HUGE change. This covenant would be written not on papyrus scrolls or stone tablets, but only on the hearts of people seeking to know and honor God. This was also a major transition in that those seeking to understand God began to learn to look inward rather than outward. Sad to say that many people today who think they know God are transfixed on a collection of writings and a belief that God dwells outside human experience and must be sought in prayer as separated from human beings.
The Prophet Jonah believed that God was calling him to preach in Nineveh, and he flat didn’t want to go to Nineveh so he tried to run away from both God and Nineveh. What he finds out is that God is not geographically limited. God isn’t tied to a holy city, or a holy shrine, or a holy nation; rather, God comes to us and stays with us wherever we may find ourselves. We cannot run from God though we may well live as if God does not live. God lures us toward the divine love, but God does not force Godself upon us. God does take, “No,” for an answer, but God remains close at hand; in fact, as we’ve said, much of what we can know of God is God within us.
Last week, the choir sang a song whose words were penned originally in the sixteenth century, and I think this simple, though beautiful song, gets at the whereabouts of God:
God be in my head, and in my understanding
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking
God be in my mouth and in my speaking
God be in my heart, and in my thinking
God be at mine end, and at my departing.
I have always loved the story of Elijah--not that I agree with all of its theological teachings. For example, when he won a rather silly contest over the prophets of the god Baal, there was no need to have those prophets slaughtered in order to prove that he and his God were on the right side of the debate or exercise. His queen was a Baalite, and Elijah’s act of violence upon the prophets of her religion put Jezebel in the mood to bring bout some violence of her own; she sent out members of her special ops forces to find this Elijah and kill him on sight.
Once highly respected among his people, now--because of a pagan queen, he thought--a man of his stature and dignity was literally running for his life, and the King, King Ahab, who shared Elijah’s religion and not his wife’s, did nothing to try to stop her dirty work. This prophet was used to the nicer things of life, and here he was running into the wilderness as the only place he could think of where he might go undetected by Jezebel’s henchmen. In that desert, God provided water and nourishment for him, not an unusual thing for God to do according to a handful of desert stories.
Elijah eventually makes his way to a cave where his fear subsides a little bit; it doesn’t completely go away. In that somewhat more protected space, in compared to the wide open desert, Elijah begins to sulk and feel sorry for himself. He found out what Jonah wouldn’t discover until many years after Elijah; he’d outrun Jezebel’s would-be killers, but he hadn’t been able to outrun God.
God comes to Elijah in that cave and asks him what is already evident: why is he there? Well, Elijah talks about all he’d done for God and God’s people and, thus, how unfair it was for him to have to live in fear of a pagan queen when God could put a stop to Jezebel and her evil in a heartbeat. Then, Elijah talks about how to find God during those times when God hasn’t sought you out, and in one of the most stirring of all the monologues attributed to God in Hebrew scripture, God gives Elijah some profound advice. In answer to Elijah’s questioning about how one is supposed to know where to find God, God says to Elijah:
“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
That is such a powerful reality. We want God in the drama, in our big lotto winnings, and at the war room desks when our enemies are formally giving up their attacks and calling us the winners. You’re looking in the wrong places entirely if that is where you’re looking, God said to Elijah. Try the silent, barely noticeable, places in your life, the places where there is no fanfare and no spectator. There, in the sheer silence, you may well find God.
Jesus invested in brief public ministry, his ministerial career, trying to get across two points to religious seekers. 1) God is love, and God’s love is unconditional. 2) A connection to God is not about rules, but about relationship. Keeping all the rules doesn’t get us to God or keep us near God. Keeping all the rules doesn’t acquaint us with God. True religion is about, not rules, but a relationship.
Some of you scoff at how anthropomorphic that sounds, as if to undo all else I’ve said today. Well that is certainly not my intent or my belief. “Relationship” is another one of those words that we are pushed to use metaphorically because the Mystery that is God cannot be fully known or apprehended. But “relationship” signifies that it is possible to have a connection with this Creator God who is unconditional love.
When I talk about a relationship with God, I’m not talking about God as your buddy or God as your genie. God is not the private possession of any one of us or any one religion. Pam Cummings gave me a bumper sticker that she’d kindly had mounted on fiberboard since she was pretty sure I wouldn’t actually put it on my car. She was right about that, but even though I shy away from bumper stickers this one might have found its way to my car. It reads: “God Is Too Big for One Religion.” Yes, indeed! Too big to be owned by any individual. Too big for any nation or any religious group.
I believe there are ways to be connected to God, in relationship with this God, but this does not mean there’s a special inside track for some people while others are left out. A relationship with God is not a reward for those who keep the rules. Let me stay with that metaphor, “relationship,” for a few minutes, and I want to begin these reflections by saying what a relationship with God is not:
A relationship with God is not in any way appeasement. Our connection to God doesn’t buy God off, doesn’t keep life’s crises away from us, or ridiculous and dangers political candidates off our ballots. God isn’t out to get us if we fail and so does not need to be appeased. So much about the ancient Hebrew religion was precisely about appeasement, trying to keep God happy so God won’t allow bad things to happen to us even when we’ve done wrong. Trying to appease God is as pagan as you can get. Yet, sadly, even after the sacrificial system ended officially, there have remained those monotheists who live and act as if the primary reason to seek to be related to God is to appease God--to store up brownie points in case we really botch it one of these days.
If we have a connection to God it’s not because we’re more special than any other human being. We are privileged to have that connection and privileged to have had fellow seekers in our lives who helped us find our way there, but connection or not God doesn’t extend God’s love more to some people and less to others.
A relationship to God is not a way of earning or guaranteeing material and spiritual rewards in the here and the hereafter. If you were at home right now watching a television preacher instead of here listening to me, you’d be hearing a sermon proclaiming the opposite of what I’m telling you. You’d be hearing sermons that were saying, point blank, to be in good with God is your way to wealth and prestige. Rev. Ike was the first blatantly prosperity gospel preacher I ever heard. A young preacher in the making, I didn’t realize that there were gospels preached away from the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads that were any different from what we were hearing in our church so I’d listen in my youthful ignorance and not catch the conflict with how my pastor preached and how Rev. Ike preached. Ike used to have his Ike’ettes sing, “You can’t lose with the stuff I use; you can’t miss with stuff like this!” Then Ike would preach his visualization gospel. “If you need a car, visualize that car, but don’t visualize a Pinto; visualize a Cadillac. Our God wants God’s people to have the best.” Ike was all wrong, my friends. The maxim may have gotten overused a few years ago, but the truth behind it isn’t dated at all. There really are those out there somewhere who are choosing to live simply so that others may simply live.
A relationship to God is not a direct connection to the divine voice for instant directions like the GPS with a digitized voice telling us every move to make. “Turn left in 7.3 miles onto Harmony Road. Now bear to your right on South Happiness Drive.” There are certainly those who live as if they have God in their hip pockets or in their cellular devices so they can get a direct word from God any time a potentially important decision has to be made such as what shade of lipstick should be chosen or which car to buy. There are those who live like this despite what God told Jeremiah: “Stay focused on sheer silence if you want find me.” And seeking answers to life’s questions that really matter can take us years or a lifetime to find.
Now, a few words about what a relationship with God is.
A relationship with God, a connection to God, is a personal and perhaps communal search for life’s truths. Most of life’s questions that matter are the big ones, the tough ones, and we find ourselves searching all our lives for answers to these questions. We may take on that challenge by ourselves or with a group, such as a church. But what we find very well may be more complex than we anticipated, or much larger than we thought. There may be more than one correct answer to these heavy questions.
A relationship with God is an affirmation of the reality that God is love, and this leads us, hopefully, to self love and love of others--the kind of love that is not nearly so concerned with emotions as with acting out our belief in such love regardless of how we may feel about what love drives us to do.
Closely connected to what I’ve just said, a relationship with God is a way of communing with God as Jesus did in search of inner peace and a sense of whether or not we are using our gifts to their fullest extent to make our world a better place. Some of our members will be walking today in the Delaware AIDS Walk. All of those who walk hope for a cure for this horrid disease, but what makes them care, what allows them to care, what promotes their selflessness, who knows. Some will be out there because of their relationship to God, their love for God.
A relationship with God is a way of sharing God’s kind of life in this world and, if one so chooses, in the next realm as well.
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.