Tag Archive for God

How do you picture God?

Your picture of God determines how you perceive yourself and others. Many of us have a picture of God other than the merciful Father who “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Bad theology through the millennia has created images of cultural deities that support humanity’s worst characteristics.

A God of wrath and vengeance
Some picture a God of wrath and vengeance who demands “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus challenged misrepresentations of God’s character found in some of the culturally bound images in the Old Testament. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for example, talk about marriage violations. If a woman did not satisfy her husband that she was by proof a virgin on the night of their marriage, she was to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:21).

How radically different was the love that Jesus showed the woman caught in the act of adultery when the men of her village were ready to commit the same murderous act. Jesus intervened, saying, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Jesus reveals God as a loving father who comes into the world not to condemn but to save sinners!

An ancient white male
Other people view God as an ancient white male, as portrayed in medieval European paintings. All kinds of atrocities have emerged from this distortion: racism and the injustices committed in the name of ethnic superiority, as well as sexist discrimination, continuing in some religious circles, that excludes women from leadership. By contrast, early first-century Jesus followers discovered the miraculous, unifying love of God in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

A tribal God
The current rabid division in U.S. politics, as well as in much of the Christian church, can result from a picture of a God who is tribal, a god who is “for us and against the people we are against.” As author Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume that you created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you hate.”

God of the nation-state
Closely related to the god of the tribe is the god of the nation-state. Constantine, who ruled the Roman Empire in A.D. 306–337, saw how the strength of the early Christian movement could unify and legitimize Rome’s dominance as the global power. It’s pretty safe to assume that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity had a deep, underlying political motive, uniting the flag of Rome with the symbol of Christ.

The god of the nation-state holds one nation favored above all others. Millennia of wars have been fought in the name of God. Even Israel forgot that its chosen status, described in Exodus 19:6, was not for privilege but for priesthood. “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.” We must never forget “that God so loved the world”!

Why Jesus?
As we follow Jesus’ life and teaching, we experience God’s true identity. In Jesus, we experience God who values human relationships over legalistic doctrines and people over ideologies. The Bible is inspired for faith and life practice. But, we must never idolize the Scriptures (written word) over Jesus’ authority (Living Word). The totality of God’s revelation cannot be limited to the 1,113 pages in the bible. It can be fully discovered in the miraculous transforming love of God revealed in Jesus.

Who can enter the Kingdom? How? Why?

What is the “kingdom of God?” For many it means the same thing as heaven, after we die. Eternal salvation. Who will be in and who will be out. The everlasting acceptance of God. But this misses the kingdom of God as Jesus always talks about it — life with “God with us”. The disciples make this same mistake. Still not getting it that God’s economy is a place where deserving is not even on the list of qualifications for entrance, like whining children, they rise to the ever-popular and effective “it’s not fair” argument and begin telling Jesus all the things they’ve walked away from in order to follow him. Surely, at least they are deserving of a place in the kingdom of God.

And Jesus, with compassion and gentleness, answers that there is nobody who has left “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life”.

We work really hard not to need others, and certainly not to need God. The worst thing on earth for some of us would be to appear to need saving! We’re not unlike the rich young ruler, coming to Jesus and saying, “What must I do, oh good one, to be guaranteed security for all eternity? To check off the boxes and know I’ve arrived for good?”

But Jesus, looking at the man, loves him, and then answers with just about the worst thing the poor guy could hear, just about the only thing he isn’t willing to do: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And the grieving man turns and walks away, because what Jesus is asking him to do feels impossible.

But what Jesus is asking for is the dismantling of illusion. The illusion that your wealth will save you, or your goodness — no one is good but God alone! — or your retirement fund, or how well you follow all of God’s commands, or your community service hours or fleetingly great health, or the admirable behaviour of your offspring, or any of the other thousand things we grasp at to be saved.

Jesus is asking us to let go of all of that. To see it all for what it is — part of the experience of living, a source of joy and gratitude, or grief and sadness, and often all of these things mixed up together — valuable, yes, but also unable to make us real or whole or complete or alive.

But we don’t really mind being half-dead. We stumble along with all our incredible baggage as though we need it, and we’re missing out on the kingdom of God right here, right now, being with Jesus as he is and where he is — “God with us” — alongside neighbour, friend and stranger in the world with us. God is the one who brings salvation. But, wow, do we have a hard time receiving. We’d so much rather earn!

That brings us to the Sabbath. As a discipline, we’re not so great at it. Many of us bumble through that day unsure what to do with ourselves or why what we’re not doing matters. Most of us can’t quite make it through a day without at least accomplishing some things to feel good about ourselves.

God’s whole human project is about connecting us with God and each other, and our whole sinful project is to cut ourselves off from God and each other. And when we go back to the Ten Commandments and look at the ways God said that life works best, right between how we’re to be connected with God and how we’re to be connected with each other, we find this big, strange Sabbath command, which we’re used to just kind of skipping over but which is a key to the whole thing, because it basically says:

You are going to keep disconnecting from me — the source of your life — and from each other, your sisters and brothers in this life. Instead of wholeness, you will keep choosing brokenness; instead of life, you’ll keep choosing death. You can’t help it. You are going to keep thinking this is all about what you can earn or prove or buy or win, so you’ll keep seeing each other as competition and threat and burden and obstruction. That is the way of fear. The way of sin. The way of slavery and death.

But the reality is, you are free. The reality is, you already belong to me. The reality is, I have all you need; I am all you need. I am a God of abundance and joy, and hope and rest, and peace and enough. And so, because you are going to keep on forgetting this, here’s my big suggestion to help you remember. Ready? Every single week, I want you to stop. Just stop.

For one whole day every seven or so, step off the ride. Stop measuring and comparing and worrying and working. Stop judging and competing and producing and buying and trying to win. Just stop. All of you. Rest. Shut it down. Come back to real life. It’s enough. You are enough. I am enough for you. I am your God. You are my people. This whole world belongs to me, and I am not letting go. Remember that.

And I know that, if you stop, if you rest like I rest, if you celebrate like I celebrate, if you wake up from your angry and hectic stupor and raise your head and see the world, this beautiful world, and if you look at each other truly, without the screen between you and the to-do list in front of you and the wariness within you, and if, instead of the noise of the pressing world and all its violent, vying agendas pounding in your ears, you listen to the silence, and the pause, and the air, and birds and children and heartbeat and tears and laughter and dreams and sighing, you will remember.

You won’t be able to help but remember. You’ll breathe again.You’ll come back into the kingdom of God, back to your home in me. You’ll see again that I am right here. That life is a gift. That instead of living chronically fearful and anxious, there is so much to be thankful for, and so much to delight in. You’ll care for each other and share with each other and be again my people, and I will be your God, because it’s how I’ve made it all to be in the first place, and how it will all be again in the last. This is the reason for Sabbath.

It is one of God’s strategies for helping us come back into the kingdom of God, where we all belong to God and we all belong to each other, where we are not the ones holding the reins — God is.

World AIDS Day – Into the Light

December 1 marks World AIDS Day and the start of this year’s Advent season. “Comfort, yes, comfort my people, says your God,” (Isaiah 40:1).

In the most neglected regions of the world where the HIV epidemic has raged for over 30 years, the reality of this epidemic is evident with its disproportionate impact on children. The number of children affected by the HIV epidemic increases each year almost as if the numbers are simply meant to convey what we already know — that not much is being done to care for those who are orphaned or to slow one of the most neglected complications of the HIV epidemic.

As one looks into the faces of the orphaned children, one wonders what they are thinking as they struggle each day to survive. What is it like, to get up as the sun rises and realize that it is unlikely there will be enough food for the day, or that you will again stand and watch all the other children go to school with their books and uniforms while you remain still and staring. When they look at any visitor, do they see an individual who might, just might, change their daily lives and their future. Or maybe they have gotten so used to visitors from foreign lands who come, look, listen and then never return, that their hopes never reach the level that creates disappointment. These orphans are frequently the most impoverished, and yet, somehow, they manage a smile that breaks through their obvious poverty. It’s moving to see so many orphans in need and to watch individual children jockeying to the front to get a space where they will be more visible to the visitors. It reminds one of the scene in the movie Cider House Rules adapted from the 1985 novel by John Irving, where the orphan children line up waiting to be adopted and shout out to the potential parents, “Look at me, look at me.” Today the HIV orphan epidemic needs to be made visible and needs to be seen as individual children who deserve the love and care that all children long for.

On this year’s World AIDS Day we continue to worry more than ever about the HIV orphan epidemic. Perhaps we shouldn’t. Maybe some big international organization or some large non-government organization or a benevolent government will take up the cause. But in reality there are too many orphans and so someone’s got to worry, and in fact, a lot more people need to be moved to worry. We all need to recognize that there is an entire generation of children orphaned by the HIV epidemic that are in desperate need of being rescued. Just as Jesus recognized the potential of the children who sat at his feet and refused to send them away as his disciples urged, we need to acknowledge that orphans are also welcomed inhabitants into the kingdom of heaven.

In 2013 the orphan crisis looms large. So large, in fact, that many will turn their eyes away, overwhelmed by the enormity of the need. Currently it is estimated that there are over 16 million orphans worldwide, with 6 million added to that number each year. Fewer than 20% of the orphans are infected with HIV. The majority have escaped HIV infection but not orphanhood. In two to three years there will be more orphans as a result of the HIV epidemic than there are adults living with HIV.

Every life is important, but over the last decades the priorities for the HIV epidemic have been to provide education to adults to help them to protect themselves from getting HIV infection, or if they are already infected, to provide them with drugs to control their infection so that they will have a normal life expectancy. All this is extremely important. But the orphan crisis is a direct consequence of placing their needs at an unacceptably low priority. Children do not choose to become orphans of the epidemic, nor is there a magic medicine that will erase their orphan status.

Worrying is the beginning. There’s a lot that we can and should do. Women need to be protected from unwanted HIV infection that destroys their lives and that of their family. If infected, they need access to life-saving medicines to keep them healthy so that they can provide for their children and prevent them from becoming orphans in the first place. Pregnant women can also be given medicines to keep the virus from being transmitted to their infants. Advocacy is required to protect women from physical violence, the major source of unwanted HIV infection. Donations will help provide medicines to keep mothers healthy and prevent children from becoming infected. Donations can also purchase food to provide severely malnourished children with nutrition so that the medicines work. This can be done for one orphan, or for two, or for five, or for 10, or even for 100 children, providing orphans with the comfort that there are individuals who believe that they have a responsibility to care for the widows and the orphans of this world.

The severity of the orphan crisis may not be on the radar screen of all of the big organizations or for that matter most Christians. Orphans need advocates because they cannot advocate for themselves. Any new direction will not come from inside the political process. Politicians love to make speeches about families and children, but when they get back to Ottawa and budget battles, kids are the last to cross their minds. Kids don’t vote. And political leaders respond to three things: threats to their re-election, potential embarrassment in the media, and the promise of campaign contributions. Children don’t make campaign contributions, and many of their parents are too busy struggling to make ends meet to get involved in campaigns. If change is to come, it will happen because people like you respond in an aggressive, sustained, and even outraged way.

We are in good company when we advocate for orphans. We join with God, the prophets and Jesus in urging the Christian community to care for the widows and the orphans of this present world. It will be a tragedy if the Christian community looks back years from now and says that more should been done to rescue the oppressed.

In Isaiah chapter 40:11 we read, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” In the flock I see not just individuals, couples and families. I also see widows and orphans. God has given us the privilege of gathering them together and bringing them close to his heart. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27.

  

ABOUT THE LIGHT

It’s always been about the light with you,

hasn’t it, Jesus?

Magi, braving distance and desert to find you,

and bewildered shepherds, compelled by an angel’s invitation,

allowed light to be their guide,

And it is still the light that calls us to you;

the light of beauty that whispers its truth

in surprising ways and places;

the light of compassion that kneels,

and washes road-soiled, life-battered feet;

the light of joy that glows

even in the darkness of grief and suffering;

the light that seeks to shine within us,

and through us into the dark corners of our world.

It’s always been about the light with you, Jesus;

and its always about the light for us.

Please lead us, now and always, out of darkness

and into your marvellous light.

                  … John van de Laar