“Don’t Talk Religion!”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” — Exodus 3:14, RSV

You know “the rules.” Don’t talk politics. Don’t talk religion. Don’t talk sport (for some of us). For someone like me, though, these rules suck. I am bad at small talk. I don’t care what the weather is like or who won the high school football game on Friday. I want to know what you think about important stuff. I would also like to be able to share how I feel about said important stuff, and introverts like me are crippled by such nonsensical regulation.

GAH!

Anyway, there is a very serious reason I want to discuss these rules, especially the idea of not discussing religion. First of all, I understand. We are passionate about the things we believe, and any perceived criticism can come across as criticism of us if one is not careful. With that said, there is a word for the inability to discuss religion and spirituality.

Idolatry.

God is asked for His name in Exodus 3, and He instead tells Moses, “I am who I am” (3:14). When the Ten Words are offered in Exodus 20, the second word instructs:

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them…”

We all know of the obvious, surface-level implication of this teaching. Don’t carve and worship rocks or pieces of wood and call it “God.” Looking deeper, though, we find why our inability to lovingly and civilly discuss our faith with those who are different might be a violation of God’s instruction.

When discussing religion, we get angry. Why? Because our beliefs about God are being challenged. Notice what I said. Our beliefs about God are being challenged. God is not being challenged, only how we perceive Him.

God is a big Deity. He can take care of Himself.

God can also be a She. God can be whatever God wants to be, and He says as much in Exodus 3, remember? I use a masculine rendering for God because it is what I am used to, but I know I shouldn’t fly off the handle when someone discusses God in feminine terms, because, ultimately, what do I know?

Likewise, when we find ourselves being challenged on the topic of religion, and when we find ourselves interacting on a basis other than love and mutual respect, we are guilty of letting our images of God get in the way of treating our neighbor in the manner God asks of us. For all we know, God could have a powerful lesson waiting for us in the midst of a difficult conversation, and we could be spitting on it by being too enamored with our own ideas to be silent and listen.

This same teaching holds true for any of our “causes for stumbling.” Many can’t talk politics because their ideas have become idols that cannot be challenged, and that is not okay. We have become a society that cannot communicate because our own perceptions have become our gods. We cannot act righteously because we carry our idols with us everywhere we go, and we will do anything to keep them sacred.

My prayer for all of us is that we can set down our idols and turn to the One Who Is. In doing so, our hearts will become open and we can finally talk about the things that really matter. We should be talking about our beliefs, our thoughts, our feelings, and our concerns. We should be listening respectfully and carefully to perceptions of others, and we should all be looking for a way forward together.

The Most Important Decision

Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them.Psalm 135:18, NRSV

Everybody worships something. It may not be God, and most often, sadly, it isn’t. Our idols include celebrities, information, politics, institutions (including religious ones), our nations, families, work, money and others.

There are many things we worship, and, as the Psalmist points out in 135:15-18, our lives reflect this. We treat each other in accordance with our idols, and such things hardly cause us to treat one another well. When we fail to honor the One who is known for His compassion and justice (135:14), we also fail to exhibit those traits as a rule. Instead, our love for our neighbor depends on how they relate to the power, wealth, and desires that actually govern us.

For me, Sundays are a day to decide. I worship because I am grateful for my life. Further, I want to renew my commitment to live and love according to my example in Jesus Christ, rather than allowing the many false gods of our time to dictate my thoughts, words, and actions. I may fail at times throughout the week (duh), but I always come back to my center that I may be empowered by God’s grace to try again.

I don’t know where you’re at or what your idols may be. We all have them. I just want to issue an encouragement to make a different choice.

As my Old Testament professor once said, “You become what you worship.” So let’s examine what drives us, and let’s decide to live according to the image of love, for such life has the power to change everything for the better.

Peace be with you!

You Can’t “Have” God

…and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.” — Leviticus 16:2, RSVCE

I was in seminary, seated in a class we called “Systematics.” This was the infamous course in which two professors with different theological stances (who wouldn’t kill each other) co-taught on the different aspects of Christian belief. At the end of this course, the students were to write a thirty page paper that detailed their constructed theology based on the conflicting perspectives they received from professors, along with their own independent studies.

ANYWAY, in one of these seminars, a class discussion was being had over the nature of God and His relationship with humans. Now, I am a fairly relaxed guy. If you refer to God as “Mother” or “the Divine,” I understand that. There are arguments for that. “Father” is just easier and more comfortable for me. On this particular day, though, somebody took it just a little too far.

I had just wrapped up about my view of God as the most mysterious, distant, yet intimate reality that could possibly be conceived. I see God as the One who offers no real name to Moses in Exodus 3, precisely because this is a God that cannot be boxed or neatly categorized. In response, an older woman in the class interjected, “I mean, I understand that, but to me He is just family, I mean that’s ‘Daddy,’ know what I mean?”

Rest assured, I kept my reaction in check. Sure, my skin felt like it was crawling off of my body while my soul wanted to launch itself into sweet oblivion, but I was fine. You might be wondering why this bothered me so much, so let’s look at this text from Leviticus.

The context of this passage is a situation in which Aaron has lost two sons (Leviticus 10:1-3) because they did not behave in a holy way toward their charge. Because holiness and unholiness cannot abide together, especially in Leviticus, God’s very presence lashes out and consumes Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. These are two members of the chosen line of Levi, the clan of Israel perpetually assigned to be priests before God on behalf of the nation… and they were consumed by God for being lax in their duties.

Just because people are chosen and loved by God doesn’t mean that they possess God. God loves us all as His children and desires a relationship with us, but that doesn’t mean that God is “in our pocket.” We still have responsibilities, and we are still dealing with something that cannot be contained, boxed, packaged, or defined. While God has made revelations of Himself to us in Jesus Christ, even the Incarnation is not what was expected (living a poor, nomadic life that culminates in being featured in a public execution, for example).

So my problem with the idea that “God is my Daddy, Buddy, Divine Pal,” and the like is that we somehow seem to forget that God isn’t always on our side the way we might think. This is a Presence that first and foremost is the I AM of Exodus 3. When we live lives of selfishness and lack compassion, it doesn’t matter if we pray to “Daddy God” every night. God will not be pleased, and we will eventually know it. God’s love is always there, the relationship is always possible, but in no way does that mean we are at a level of intimacy that puts us on God’s level. In no way are we not accountable for what we think, do, and say. This puts some fear in me, and I’m sure it does in you. Now you know what it is to have the “fear of God.” It’s not abject terror, but it is recognizing that you are still dealing with something that is totally “other,” something that is beyond us but chooses to be near to us. That is both an encouraging and humbling thought, yes?

So what am I getting at here? I don’t think this particular student was being idolatrous or silly, but I do think there is some reverence lost when we over-familiarize ourselves with God. Further, we become dangerous. When we feel God always has our back no matter what, we lose the ability to self-examine and recognize our need to change and grow into a more accurate depiction of Christ. On the large scale, religious terrorists feel that God is theirs and theirs alone, and they are fueled by the misconception that He will ultimately sanction whatever action they take in His name. They are wrong. Sometimes, God’s idea of “having our back” is giving us a swift kick in the butt to let us know we got off track… And that is okay.

For today, let’s take a moment to be in awe of the great Mystery that has revealed Itself to us. Let’s marvel at the all-inclusive Whole of reality, the Source of all Being, who chose to reveal Himself to us throughout history, and most especially in Jesus Christ. How about we take a moment to be utterly humbled that THAT is what went to the cross for us? I hope that, like me, you will find yourself challenged, encouraged, and feeling as loved as you really are.

Peace be with you!