On Loving God (Part III)

Jesus and Peter

“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks.

Peter gulps. He’s been put on the spot, he’s got cards in his hand but he has to play them. Either he’s dead on and he’s talking to the climax of history, he’s allying himself with the right hand of Yahweh himself…or he’s going to an insane asylum when the lunatic he puts his faith in makes a break out of town. Either way, the cards are in his hand and he’s got to play them. He takes a deep breath, and looks him in the eye: “I think you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus nods, and smiles, just a little- like all the mountains and all the hills were a mustard seed Peter had planted. Like the words “good and faithful servant” exist solely for the purpose of describing Peter. Jesus, the Messiah, The I AM That Is And Was, looks at him and says: “Blessed are you.

“Blessed are you”, the words rang with the grace for eternity! The grace for the next moment, when…

Then Jesus turns, and pauses for a moment. “So,” Jesus continues, speaking to the rest of them, “Now we must go to Jerusalem. Just a heads up, I’m going to suffer quite a bit at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes.”

Peter squints, confused.

“And they will kill me,” Jesus finishes and the rest of his disciples gasp a little. They look scared. Betrayed. Confused. But Peter’s not confused- Jesus is making a mistake. And he doesn’t realize it! He keeps going: “Though on the third day I wi-“

Jesus feels a hand take his arm, grab him, and pull him away halfway through his sentence. Peter turns Jesus to face him. “What do you think you’re doing?” He asks him. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying? God help us, have you read the Torah? Have you taken a moment to consider the oppression these people are facing? We need liberation, not someone to come along and get killed with us! Did you come to add to our misery? To add to our confusion? Far be it from you!!” He takes a deep breath. “If you’re God then start acting like him!”

Jesus does not react physically, his jaw doesn’t even quench. But the fire of an eternal rebellion, his hatred for Lucifer and all the armies of evil He’s about to conquer, burn deep within them and Peter’s hand loses it’s power and falls from Christ’s arm to his side.

“Who,” Jesus says, in a whisper so low it cuts through all the normal words of life and burns into Peter’s memory.

“Who in all of hell,” Jesus says, “ Do you think you are… that you might presume to tell God who He is.” Jesus turns and redirects himself to the crowd, not before uttering an unforgettable phrase to Peter’s befuddled and bleeding ears: “Get behind me Satan!”

Until we realize we are all idolaters, we have no hope of seeing past our idols, contrived beliefs and perceptions of God so we can actually begin to glimpse God passing behind the storm cloud. We have no hope of seeing the God disappearing in the fog; of glimpsing the only part of him we can still glimpse and possibly survive long enough to comprehend. Until we learn to call God by another name, or better yet no name, to hear the phrase “Allah” and realize it’s our English “God” just in a foreign tongue, until we can promote ourselves to seeing God as the Divine, the Great Healer and Judge, until we un-name God and in doing so smash our golden calves, we are just the Israelites balking at our golden calf and wondering where the hell Moses has gotten too.

There’s a reason the Orthodox Church holds strongly to the mystery of God, to the unknowing aspects of God. Rather than utter what God is, and risk heresy, they proclaim what God is not. There’s a reason the Israelites refused to spell out God’s name, a reason they quivered upon hearing it, and a reason that his many names throughout the Old Testament range from “I AM” to “God of Jacob, Isaac…” to “The Lord Your God The Lord Is One”. The reason is because none of these names contain the Divine. None of them begin to describe him. They’re just words attached to an object and given to us, because without a name attached to something, our minds cannot comprehend that something exists. We cannot grasp the unnamed potential of eternity.

Love God, I boldly and adamantly declare. This is the foundation of who I am and how I live. I am not a believer in inclusivism or universalism, but I am a believer in Mystery. I am not a believer in pluralism, in anything goes, in being so open minded that your mind itself falls out. But I am a believer in the existence of relative experiences. I am a believer in relative experiences which point to the absolute truth of the Universal, the Universal I Am, the Universal Beyond Words, The One Who Is And Am And Will.

I am a believer in stepping back from my golden calf and contemplating that perhaps this isn’t the best way to melt the gold. I’m a believer in pausing when I write an essay on anti-abortion, in reflecting on my stance on social justice, homosexuality, tattoos and binge drinking, pausing while I take a hymnal out of the church pew and proceed to sing the words in a worshipful manner because it’s the best way I know how.

I’m a believer in rethinking the ways in which I build my Babeling Towers of intellect and critical thinking. In contemplating such, I hope to realize that the tower I’m building is itself a horrible idea, that the golden calf before me isn’t just a little off kilter, but is actually nothing more than culture’s idea of what and who God should be meanwhile the real Divine is a moment away from mixing up our languages and truly befuddling the hell out of us. His goal is not just to confuse us- per say, though that is a comedic and retributive side effect, but to give us a shot at expressing ourselves in a thousand different manners and hopefully this time finally figuring out how to express the idea of God. Of course, thousands of years later, we still haven’t gotten it right. We still attach God with political parties, personal agendas and individual moralities. Our towers still stand, still fall, and are still rebuilt day after day.

If we are to love God, then we must do just that. We must love God more than just our idea of God, more than our preconceived notions of God, more than the impulse to tell our Savior “what the hell do you think you’re doing? This isn’t how you’re supposed to act”. If we have a chance of accomplishing this, then perhaps we have to start with unthinking our ideas of God. Perhaps we have to start with disbanding cultural platitudes and seeking the Mystery afresh and anew. Perhaps we have to start not with just our hearts, just our heads and just our hands, but with all of them at the same time. Perhaps we have to start with realizing that grace surrounds us every moment, that conclusions are okay as long as they are not golden calves set in stone. Perhaps we have to start with the realization that loving God requires loving God above all else, above our hopes for God, our hopes for salvation, our hopes for redemption, morality and all the liberation the world might find. We have to start with loving God above our holy and sacred ideas of God.

Perhaps what this really means that we have to start with unstarting, as T.S. Eliot penned, arriving at the place we began and truly knowing it for the first time. It means we have to find ourselves bowed over in humility, laying at the foot of a wooden cross, the most despicable and humiliating form of execution on which the Atoning Sacrifice was hung. It means we have to face each day with a mind that is open to the possibilities of lives that are not our own and a plan for redemption stretches beyond us and out to the entire cosmos. Perhaps it means we have to start everything in prostrate prayer, fists clenched, begging, crying over and over again: “I believe, open my eyes so I can see! Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Help my unbelief!”

Yes, perhaps we have to start there.

If you liked this then you may also like:

On Loving God (Part I)

On Loving God (Part II) 

On Loving God (Part II)

the-adoration-of-the-golden-calf

Moses had been gone for several days. Aaron scratched his beard and couldn’t help but worry about him. Maybe he’d gotten lost, he told himself for the millionth time. Maybe he’s tripped and fallen, or an animal came upon him and he needs our help. But no, no that can’t be. Moses has spent enough nights in the wilderness to know his way around, to take care of himself. Aaron knew that much.

He glanced out his window, up the face of the mountain. The summit was hidden and cold, shrouded in a cloud so desolate and bitter it was easy to imagine things had finally gone sour. Moses had a tendency for talking back; he had a tendency to doubt and question. Did he go too far this time? “But Lord, I am…”Strike of lightning. A whirlwind. All the power and rage of the sea that had been parted, in a single moment crashing down on the man who dared to question Him who controlled it all. Aaron could hear his brother say it now, heard it as much as it broke Aaron’s heart to hear it. Maybe Moses really was gone.

The visitors didn’t help.

“Where is he?” They asked him in the morning.

“Have you heard from him?” They asked at dinner, around the water circle and during their meetings.

“What’s become of him?” They asked him the callousness of self-preservation delivering their words with a sting. What’s become of him and what’s to become of us?

What has become of him, indeed. Every day, Aaron awoke and walked around camp, bearing not only the weight of potential grief but with it the weight of potential responsibility. If Moses was gone, that left…him. Him to answer questions, Him to lead the people, Him to appease the angry god who had taken his brother and left him. Him.

Finally, after another day of agonizing grief, Aaron awoke and looked in the mirror. His brother was gone, for all intents and purposes Moses was not coming back. Aaron wept. He wept and when he was done he splashed water onto his face, and rubbed the red from his eyes. He took a deep breath and blew his nose. He talked into the mirror, listening to his voice, searching for any morsel of sadness, weakness or hesitancy within. He’d been talking for Moses for a while now, speaking the words of Moses and the words of God, but now he had to speak his own words. Moses was gone which meant God must be angry. Something had to be done.

He stepped out of his tent. “Take off the rings of gold,” he said and people turned. They stopped from their chores and mothers stepped outside of their tents appealing “shh! shh!” to the crying infants in their hands. Aaron was speaking. We must listen, listen for hope.

“Take all the gold rings,” he said, “the ones that are in the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them too me.” Slowly but surely a pile of gold appeared at Aaron’s feet.

“I’m a blacksmith,” one man said, “you’re going to melt this, I presume?”

Aaron nodded and more gold accumulated. Another man volunteered his skills as a sculptor, another as a carpenter. Aaron needed them all, he glanced up at the mountain, shrouded in mystery, darkness and fear. He needed them all.

And throughout the day the gold continued to accumulate and they melted everything they had into one glob. Aaron thought of his time at the university, of his time studying other cultures, the tribes all around him. What could he do to appease an angry God? He was no priest, but he was earnest and he was a learned man.

And so the story goes: they crafted a golden calf. From his experience, from his worldly wisdom, intuition and good intentions, Aaron crafted a golden calf to represent the God who had taken his brother from him. He made a golden calf unto the Lord, hoping, praying, muttering and worrying through all the night that this might possibly appease the anger of a powerful God, that whatever Moses might have done to prompt this anger might be appeased by his leading of the people before god as they knew him.

And he called the calf “Pro-Life,” “Peace”, “Social Justice” and “Love”. He called the calf “God”, and “Jesus”, called the calf by a western name, called the calf by the declarations of what Aaron could say, staring out of his tent up onto the mountain top clouded in mystery. “God is…” he said, and built the calf to represent “God is…” staring up into the mystery of “I AM”. He named the calf “god”.

And then Aaron declared there would be a feast, a potluck, and oh, was there ever a grand one. The finest calves were slaughtered, the most delicious casseroles were made, the ripest fruits gathered, and the favorite grandmother in the church baked her world famous key lime pie. There was singing of hymns and the youth group worship band gathered their instruments on the lawn and led the people in song after song. And there was dancing, swing dancing and smiles and people falling prostrate before their god. And there was sacrifice, a tithe bucket passed around time and time again, animal upon animal slaughtered, sign up sheets on clip boards for local ministries asking for an hour on Wednesday night to help care for the poor and burnt offerings sent up to god. Through his grief, Aaron led the Israelites to the hope of a religion that looks exactly what religion ought to look like, banners waving and propagandas staked into the lawn of the church in the center of town. He lead them to the God he knew, and told them it was God. Aaron sat in a chair and opened a can of soda. He took a deep breath, and all the hidden tears and grief and questions that welled up inside of him, for a moment, felt at peace as he looked out onto the people worshiping and happy, with a tangible god standing motionless before them.

And then something shattered. Aaron jumped. It sounded like a window- perhaps one of the kids had thrown a baseball through? No, it was heavier than a window, stronger, more powerful. The music stopped and everyone looked. There, in the parking lot with the mountain looming in the background was Moses, with what looked like a shattered tombstone at his feet. Aaron started towards him, until he saw the betrayal, anger and rage on Moses face.

We are Aaron. We are the people of Israel standing in front of our golden calves, our perceptions of God, dancing around and singing gleefully of the wonders of our intellect, our ability to craft an image of God when all hope was lost. This image did not come easy for us; we sacrificed sweat, tears, golden rings and days in the soup kitchens and seminary libraries to conceive our idea of God that we could bow down and worship. But we did it! We built our golden calf and now we set it up so we can look at it, and not at the mountain top standing behind it, shrouded in cloud, mystery, wonder, fear and the unknown.

And then Moses reappears on the scene. Happy to have him back, we say “I think God is…” and wave to him. “Look what we’ve made!” We yell at him! “Look at God! We’ve finally got him figured out!” And Moses smashes the tablets. He smashes the words we’ve violated without a second thought. His smashes the tablets on the ground that has been the platform for defiling the mystery of God, for taking His name in vain. And on those tablets, unbeknownst to us, were the words of mystery and comedy, the unexpected and wondrous, commanding us: “You cannot craft an image of me. So stop trying. It looks ridiculous.”

We are idolaters at heart, with every inch of our being we yearn for things to worship. “Love God!” we declare and we pay more homage to our reflection in the mirror or a piece of propaganda than we do the actual mystery of God. If I thought I had answers to my questions on God, Marilynne Robinson declares through one of her characters, I’d be a fool. God is unlimited, David James Duncan proclaims, but thought and language are limited. “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?” Job records.

Who am I?  I am a well-meaning idolater, a pagan with the best intentions and narrowest of heart. An idolater nonetheless. And I quake like Job in the whirlwind.

Then Jesus asks me the same question…

 

 

 

 

If you liked this post, you might also like: On Loving God (Part I)

On Loving God (Part I)

Christ teaching in the synagogueA new preacher is in town. He doesn’t preach sermons in a church after the mandatory hymns and worship songs have been completed and he doesn’t stand behind a pulpit with a wireless microphone clinging to his ear. He doesn’t have the gelled hair, Greek tattoos up and down his arm, nor does he don a suit and tie with respectably marshaled grey hairs. He doesn’t wear any sort of provocative clothing attempting to raise our social awareness. In fact, he wears the most unbecoming of clothes possible, the type of outfit one might put on in the hopes of slipping in and out of a room completely unnoticed, even though he never does. He wears clothes that look as though he went to a thrift shop and tried to find whatever fit him best for the least price. Sometimes it’s a brand-named polo, other times it’s a stained button-up.

He did not come to make friends, he says, though ironically many people do befriend him. He’s seen lingering outside strip clubs, in the parking lots late at night where all the deals go down. People spot him emerging from the homes of the desperate housewives of the neighborhood, the women who seem to live out the stereotype without the comedy. One of his best friends is an IRS agent; one of them is a fundamentalist known for screaming about the judgment of God coming upon the country, another works in the fishing canneries one town over and swears like he’s getting paid for it. The preacher’s company does not speak highly of his standing.

He teaches in high school cafeterias and local restaurants after church. Sometimes he appears clean-shaven, crisp and clean, other times it appears as though he’s let it slide for a few days. Everything he says is divisive while simultaneously unifying, like applying a band-aid to a wound he just created. The Conservatives of the town despise him because he preaches more about social issues than those of morality; abortion and gay marriage don’t seem to concern him nearly as much as taking care of the poor. Liberals who listen to his words find him repulsively narrow-minded; he makes definitive statements that no one has the right to make. He has an answer for every question, and though he has no office with a framed diploma hanging over his head, he appears to be more knowledgeable than the best on both sides. He speaks as one who has authority though no one has given it to him. In this he manages to unify leaders in the town on both sides under mutual despise.

So they attempt to trap him. You’ve read the story; you know how it goes. The brightest minds from the town assemble together in the hopes of debunking him once and for all. Doctors and lawyers, journalists, priests, pastors, an author and a professor: all the intellectuals of the town brainstorm to find a question that will stump him, that will reveal to everyone he’s just another nobody from nowhere, and his message is nothing.

They consider their options:

“Are you for or against homosexuality?” No, they decide, too relative.

“Where do you come from?” Too open, he could say a lot of different things.

Finally they have it. The light bulb goes on, and they have their question. They turn to the lawyer in the group, a middle aged man with three kids, an ivy-league degree, tax receipts from his local church and a wife who hasn’t felt loved since their second honeymoon in Bermuda on their tenth anniversary.

“You’re good with words,” they say, “you ask him.”

And he does. The next Sunday they find him, talking to a modest crowd on the lawn of the Presbyterian Church, sitting on the grass. They approach him as a group, slowly. The lawyer glances back at them, united on this one front, then steps forward and interrupts:

Teacher,” he says.

The man turns and looks at him, through him.

The lawyer sputters for a moment, but a diploma, six-figure salary and twenty years of experience in a defense court push the words forward: “ What is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

A hush falls on the crowd. The group of leaders looks at each other, smiling not on their faces but with glimmers of vengeful confidence in their eyes. They got him! They know it. He loves to answer in questions, but there’s no question to answer this one. He thinks he knows religion, thinks he knows the Bible but there’s no way he can know this. If he gives them one law, it will make it sound like all the other laws don’t matter; heresy to everyone who hears. And he knows that. He knows his only answer is to say “I don’t know” and in doing so he’ll have been stumped, humiliated and embarrassed in front of all these other people who worship him so.

The man pauses for a moment then looks the lawyer straight in the eye: “The greatest of the commandments,” he says, “is to love the Lord your God with all your heart all your soul and all your mind.”

There’s silence for a moment on the lawn. His gaze doesn’t lift from the lawyer, as if these words were meant in all infinity for this moment, for the lawyer with a wife who was at home wondering in the back of her mind when she would leave him and tell him she’d been seeing their neighbor for two years now. He spoke as if the words were meant in all of time for the young man who dreamt he’d be something more than his parents, who dreamt he’d find a way to “make” something out of himself, and having arrived at the top of the ladder he’d set out to climb, found that his salary, home, reputation and everything he worked for felt like sand in the fingers of desire. And yet, even in speaking these words to this lawyer, he moved his voice in a manner as though he were speaking for the entire cosmos.

“And not that you asked,” he continued, “but here’s the second: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these commands rest all the law and all the prophets.”

There was a hush before he turned and continued what he was saying to the people gathered on the lawn.

And there you have it. Love God. Love others. The mantra of every reformed evangelical who grew up with WWJD bracelets, attended youth group, partied through high school, grabbed cynicism with education, but then came back around after college by finding their way to a church that cares about social issues, hipster culture and seems to have a backbone. We tithe on Sundays, attend “Theology on Tap” on Wednesday nights, vote cynically and listen to Sufjan Stevens and Kanye West as we clean dishes each night. We take our theology with a sip of Chardonnay all the while wondering if the shirt we wear was sown by a poor child living somewhere on the other side, with the other half. We roll our eyes when we read another “progressive” blogger give a “relatable” perspective on some words of Jesus we’ve already heard a million times, but we’re interested so we pull up our Itunes, bring in some Bon Iver and declare that we are not Christians, we are Christ followers. We love God and we love others.

But this, of course, begs the question: what, in all of hell and heaven combined, does it mean to “love God”? This, of course, is the foundation upon which our religious and philosophical worldview is bent: but what does it mean? We all went to elementary school and took vocabulary quizzes, in which we knew that to define a word with the word itself equaled “wrong!”. “No,” our teacher wrote in the margins, “thoughtful does not equate to someone who is full of thoughts” (read: “smartass”).

So why do we now accept the phrase “Love God” as a satisfactory foundation for our faith when our very cultural association illuminates that we haven’t a clue what it means to “love” anything, much less who the object of our love may be.  “What is love?” We scream on the dance floors every Saturday night, we scream in the midst of our broken marriages, the cuts on our wrists and politics on TV. “What is love?” We ask of our siblings that can no longer look us in the eye, of the woman who’s had an abortion and the man on the street corner holding a sign that says “God hates fags”. “What is love?” We cry through the flipping car of a driver who had one too many and lands his Toyota upside down in the ditch, of a memorial service for a man who was somewhat bored, somewhat confused and ended up shooting someone else before himself to prove it. “What is love?” We contemplate through our hymnals and praise songs on Sunday mornings before pondering it into the face of every pornographic advertisement and email from local dating sites our lonely hearts absorb. “What is love?”

If we can possibly find ourselves an answer to this question, if we can settle into our rocking chairs after sixty years of marriage, look at our spouse and see, in one moment, a collage of all the fights, sex, tears, screams, laughter, hatred, despise, hurt and commitment that a lifetime can hold, if we can hold a child in our arms, know they are our flesh and blood and there’s not a thing we wouldn’t do for them, if we can possibly bear the grace to be given a chance to lay down our life for a friend…if we can possibly attain to any sort of moment like this and declare to ourselves that we know what love is…well…then…what/who/how/which is God? If we can grasp the idea of love, but cannot grasp God…then where does that leave us? All filled up on love and nowhere to pour?

The question still eludes us.