We Believe in God the Creator
When I was four or five, I took the annual “Justification” trip with my family to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. What you ask, is a “Justification” trip? It is what every pastor needs after Christmas or Easter…Just-a-vacation. Growing up on the Iron Range of Minnesota’s northland, that largest building we had was either the hospital or the airport. Both of these could probably fit into side by side into a high school gymnasium.
ROUND CLOTHES RACKS
On this trip, I found myself in the largest building I had ever seen, a J.C. Penny outlet store. It also had something really wonderful, round clothes racks. I figured out that if you parted the clothes and ducked inside, there was a little round space where you could hide. And when the time was just right, jump out and scare the stuffing out of your big sister. When that didn’t happen just they way I had planned, I came back out and I noticed that my parents and big sister were gone. Total panic set in. I decided to go back in and wait so that no one would notice me crying. I also decided to say a prayer to God to help me find my parents. It worked. I heard my fathers voice, a bit higher pitched than usual yelling for me. I quickly jumped out, heart racing, and reunited with my long lost family. It was the first time that I realized that God was really real. And, that God could help you out of a jam, kinda like superman only invisible.
Without thinking too hard about it I began the long and winding journey of knowing God. As I grew older and played sports I would pray before each game asking God to help me to play my best. I knew better than to ask God for a win because there were no doubt Christians on the other team that might ask God the same thing and that would put God in a pickle. For the most part my prayers were answered and I grew to trust in God’s goodness and divine providence.
PART OF GOD'S PLAN?
As I went off to college I came face to face with my first real life tragedy. One of my close friends was injured in a diving accident. He was paralyzed from the neck down. I prayed each morning and night for his healing and six weeks later he died. At the funeral someone said it was all part of God's plan. What??? How could this be part of God's plan. I begin to ask, "where was God when Brian was in need?"I had known others who had decided to stop believing in God when "Superman God" didn't deliver the miracle they were so desperately needing. For me it made me want to better understand how God works. What I came to understand was some version of, if you do what God wants you to do, God will do what you want God to do. I lived with this for many years and I turned to systematic theology to aid me in my thinking.
Systematic theology is a way to think systematically about God, using The Bible and reason as a guide. I thought that if I got my thinking right, I could solve the mystery of the universe. A lot of systematic theology sounds really good in explaining how God works in the World just so long as nothing really bad happens. And when it does, there is always the part about "Original Sin" to bail you out. It goes something like this, God created the world and it was good. Adam and Eve screwed it all up and so now we live in a world of sin and the only cure for this condition is believing that Jesus died to save us. The starting point then, for all of us, is that we are worthless sinners in need of a Savior. A bonus is that it also solves that pesky problem of why Jesus, the son of God would be violently, murdered on a Roman cross. See, it is all part of God's plan. I believed this and taught this to hundreds of confirmation students in my life as a youth minister. I no longer do.
I no longer believe that the purpose of Jesus coming into the world was to die so that I might live. It sounds nice, even symmetrical. I just couldn’t get over the hurdle of a loving God not being able to come up with a better plan that to brutally murder Jesus so that God’s own anger could be assuaged. This didn’t sound like a loving God to me nor a God I could put my trust in.
My systematic theology started to unravel when I became a parent. I realized that kids are amazing. When I held my tiny little daughters in my hands in the hospital after their births, I could only see goodness. Even now I find myself quite blind to their short comings. Other peoples kids I can quickly see the flaws but in my own… If I, a mere human being who’s love is imperfect see my own that way I can only imagine how God sees us. In fact it is not until you see your kids struggle that you realize how much you love them.
Another place it unraveled is when I moved into the hood. Living in a neighborhood with empty houses due to foreclosure, drug abuse, alcoholism and intense poverty is a game changer. It is one thing to subscribe to a theology that heaps guilt on middle class Americans with all of our wealth and privilege (still not a good idea). It is another to do it to oppressed people struggling to survive. I saw first hand through the friendships I made, how insidious it is to equate God’s providence with God’s favor.
I can’t recall a single story in the Gospels where Jesus judged those who lived on the margins of society. He often held up a mirror to the wealthy and religious elite and called them to repent, but never did he shame those who struggle for dignity. Jesus actually welcomed them both in to a new way of life. What I came to see in light of my experiences is that Jesus was affirming the humanity in all people.
So I have traded in my Superman God who swoops in to fix things for a God who is present in all people, especially those who struggle. I have also exchanged my dominant metaphor for for understanding God from an angry judge or to a loving parent. God is Love