Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Theology as Poetry: a brief introduction and beginning

Theology as poetry.

“The church could use more pastors who care about poetry,” Rita Dove said to me at a dinner for the University of Arizona Poetry House back in 2003.  My response was that “our thinking about God could use more poetry and less prose.”  It was one of those moments when I was articulate at the right moment, but as I began to really work out what that could mean over the last twelve years, I have begun to believe I should be writing about it.  This should probably be in a book, but here goes.

Poetry as a word goes back to the Greek word ποίησις which means “to make.” It seems anathema to many in the field of theology that we might make theology.  It is a received thing, right?  Revelation is the only way to know God?  As I have read online time and time again, the questions in theology have right and wrong answers, usually followed by a single verse or two almost always completely out of context.  The problem with this is that theology is assumed to be this spreadsheet of data about God revealed in the Bible that we can check off like the bills I send in every month.  Believe in Trinity as coequal and coeternal? Check.  Traverse City Light and Power paid? Check.

Theology is always contextual and revealed.  It is like the balance in poetry between content and form.  Shakespeare is the master of the sonnet.  Fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter in one of two major patterns of rhyme scheme and meaning.  The sonnet has particular rules which you can find almost anywhere, and which are so well known they actually still teach it in high school.  (If they don’t I may lose faith in the Western World.)  But Shakespeare is always pushing and pulling on those rules.  He adds a different stress pattern in to emphasize different words or ideas, uses near rhyme and line breaks to pull the reader along.  He presses the romantic ideal with struggles of constancy and betrayal.  The content pushes on the form creating a dynamic tension.  There is no pure sonnet that is really great that I can think of.

So what role does the form play in writing?  It is the framework of meaning and expectation that guides the writer and also sets up the rules that the reader can expect and expect the writer to work within and against to create that dynamic tension.  In theology the revelation can serve as our form, or some portion of Scripture.  The writer then sets out to place content and revelation in a dynamic tension that results in something far more interesting than a book of forms.

The classical writers know this tension.  It is why we still read Calvin even if we are not Calvinists.  Calvin’s actual work, rather than the blather others have written about him, puts ideas and situations into a context that pushes against his accepted rules.  Often he works himself into a blind corner, where the only thing to do is point to the cup-de-sac and say, Blessed be God, Amen.  Read the Institutes of Religion as an adult and you will see poetry in the making.  But like Shakespeare, Calvin often gets read too early and then later we skip Calvin and read commentaries.

The same thing is true of Aquinas and Richard Hooker.  We read these great thinkers as they tinker and push and pull within accepted forms.  Aquinas was working through theology with Aristotle as a base rather than Plato, which is fascinating to read as an adult thinker.  How do you move the basic categories of thinking about accepted forms of faith and revelation without destroying those forms?  It is like Billy Collins bringing his wry humor and relaxed, informal tone to the forms of poetry.  Hooker was arguing for the ability to trust a redeemed reason against the more extreme Puritanical forces on the fringes of Anglicanism, who saw the total depravity as unredeemed and therefore untrustworthy.  He argues from within an Anglican reformed tradition but pushes against the form to the extent that he created whole new spaces within our theology of church.

Poetry is about creating spaces or experiences.  In the mid-1990’s I walked into a terrarium garden outside the public library in Glendale, Arizona.  The area around the library was a busy suburban intersection with heavy traffic and multiple use playgrounds and ballfields nearby, but all of the chaos and noise of the area disappeared as I stepped down into a micro-environment that put me in the Sonoran Desert for maybe a dozen steps.  It was a revelatory moment when I began to conceive of the job of communication as a poet as one of creating spaces to enter rather than simply telling an audience about something.  The hope is to create a space to enter and explore.

A poetic theology is about creating the space to experience the presence of God and to explore what that may mean with a partner rather than simply to hear what God is like.  It is generally accepted in theology that all of our understanding of God is analogical.  We have to talk about what God is “like” because we cannot speak directly of God outside of sense experience, because God is Spirit.  To understand that for a moment, it is not to say that God is only spiritually understood or non-existent, but rather that we only experience God through the tools we have.  I would argue against modernity that we have spiritual understanding, but that spiritual understanding still has to be communicated in the experiential language, therefore language of analogy, our experience of God’s presence is like our experience of light or darkness.

I would go farther to say that most of us have the kind of direct experiences of God that we read and know in the Bible, but that we simply do not have the categories to experience them.  But in any case the language we have ends up being analogical, metaphorical, and referential to experience.  But it is a dull thing to simply be told about something in abstractions.

At the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, I once listened to a lecture on the Psalms with a friend by a professor who had co-written a book on the subject that was quite good.  The lecture though was abysmal.  It was a theology on tap event, like ones I had hosted in bars working with the Episcopal Diocese of California and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, so it was expected to be engaging and fun.   It was painful though, and it was only after the first hour of lecture that I realized the lecturer was talking all about the Psalms without using any metaphors!  When he got to the chapter of the book written by his co-writer, The Psalms a Mirror of the Soul, he added like, so it was only a simile in the end.  I walked out at that point.

Our speech about God is always analogical, so it becomes necessary to speak in metaphors, and every metaphor is wrong.  By definition a metaphor is always using an unalike thing to show what another thing is like.  Love is an oven.  Of course, love is not an oven, so the metaphor is useful and beautiful and interesting and also a lie.  This is what makes it work.  And our theology is always like that.  Our metaphors for God and our experience of God is always a lie, but can our lies also be truthful and interesting and beautiful?  And can we speak about God honestly admitting along the way that we are always not speaking directly?  There is a wonderful book by the Islamic scholar Michael Sells called Mystical Languages of Unsaying that I bought just for the title and only later got the wisdom of how wonderful it is.

Our language can never give someone a direct understanding of our experience of God.  Perhaps this explains the prohibition against graven images.  It is always easy to take the explanation for the important thing.  Modern theology made this mistake again and again, saying that acceptance of beliefs, by which we meant statements about God, was salvific. We still make this mistake today when we ask someone if they believe some particular thing, usually a statement.  The problem is that there are beliefs that define us as Christians as opposed to Unitarians or Muslims.  There are statements that sort of set the rails against which we insist you not lean too much because of the implications of false interpretations.  Love may be compared to an oven, but it is not rape or murder.

So we again run into forms and content.  There is a point, say fifteen lines, when you are no longer writing a sonnet.  It may still be a poem, but it isn’t a sonnet.  This is important in our theological making.  We have to recognize that if we are to make something that is truly Christian,  there are rules to the making.  This is hard for Baby Boomer to accept.  We have whole generations who just want to make up whatever rules they want and have the rest of us just agree because you “believe” in those rules.  The source of authority becomes the self, and the self as we have seen is fickle.  There is no orthodoxy except human rights, civil rights, and the autonomy of the individual.

Poetry has rules to each form.  They define the game, and if you want to be a part of that particular game, you have to play by those rules.  The interesting question is what makes Christian thought Christian?  Can I reject substitutionary atonement and still be a Christian?

What is the form that defines Christianity?

Psalms are Hebrew poetry, and they are written within a framework of Hebrew thought that is deeply analogical, describing the world and emotion in beautiful images from the natural world.  They make meaning by repetition and change.  We looked at Psalm 96 recently in a class at Grace, and as we followed the writer through the repetitions new meanings began to unfold.  The writer feels unstable because of assaults by enemies who have almost overcome him or her, but the writer trusts that God is stable, secure, like a fortress on a rock.  But the writer seems when you follow the poem to be tempted to reach out for stability by stealing or robbery, but knows that God is just and this would violate that justice, so he encourages his soul to trust God and not money for security.  I had not caught any of that just reading the poem in prayer and worship for these last forty years.  But there it was beautifully born out in repetition and change line to line, verse to verse.

That repetition defines Hebrew poetry and thought.  If you want to understand Hebrew thought and poetry you have to follow out those repetitions.  I am constantly surprised that people do not know the basics of theology or how they work.  So many Christian writers make fundamental mistakes that violate the one rule that would seem to be agreeable to all of our tens of thousands of denominations: Jesus of Nazareth reveals and exegetes God for us.  If Jesus says something about God then that would seem to be unquestionable to Christian writers, yet I have read time and time again as I have gone looking for basic books on theology for my congregation that emphasize the wrath of God against all humanity, and even God’s unforgiveness without sacrifice.  These statements come from derivative theology, thoughts about God derived from other thoughts about the Bible.  They are not really supportable from Scripture when you begin with Jesus.

But again we have walked into a bind.  We use the Bible as a whole to understand Jesus, but like Calvin we end up reading about Jesus rather than reading Jesus.  Jesus speaks analogically often.  He uses metaphor, parable, and analogy so much so that it defines his teachings.  If we are unwilling to experience and explore his teachings like rooms we enter rather than direct statements, we will completely miss the experience he is offering us of his Abba.

This analogy is my favorite, so much that I probably overdo the comparison because of my enthusiasm for my own experience of being both son and father.  But Jesus is not using the analogy of Abba for God indiscriminately; he emphasizes God’s rule and compassion, desire for his children and to provide for them.  Yet often I have used and heard this analogy used to talk about God’s wrath and limits.  To follow Jesus on this is to follow his repetitions around the image of God as Abba.  Jesus tells us repeatedly to be like God, mature, complete in our compassion, as God is.

We are also to be like God in our creativity.  We are makers in creation.  We get to make new things.  As we engage theology as poetry we get to make new connections and new analogies, new rooms of meaning in the mansions of the church’s thoughts.  Explore and experience the newness of God in this moment amidst the chaos and noise of this moment.

*A final note on the analogy of Abba.  To say that Jesus is abba, or to address God as Daddy is a metaphor.  God is not a biological father because being a father requires a mother to procreate.  God is the source of life as we understand the creation as Biblical Christians.  So Abba is necessarily a metaphor, so why call it an analogy?  Because it cascades meaning and metaphors down into a complex web of meanings and implications, it becomes more than a one-to-one meaning association.  It really is a analogy as used in the Gospels.

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Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Why Study Theology as a non-Specialist?

Theology is not popular.  It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends.  I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated.  I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements.  I was wrong.

But you should care about theology; you have one.  A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear.  You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it.  The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.”  Logos is one of those helpful words to know.  It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger.  It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding.  The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”

A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy.  After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese.  It is the way that makes the walker.

An example is coffee to the connoisseur.  The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it.  He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup.  He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe.  He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea.  Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing.  That thing is a logos.  It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.

So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God.  In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.

So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now.  The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.

For example, God is often understood as “father.”  This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential.  It was true in Jesus’ day.  When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically.  To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology.  We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God.  Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore.  We could spend years on this one topic.

There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have.  I am a runner and a physical person.  I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs.  I have opinions.  Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology.  I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God.  I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body.  Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God.  I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God.  In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.

Finally opinions.  I have opinions about lots of things.  My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature.  You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey.  My opinions do not change things.  They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it.  They are rarely really important.  The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree.  Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit.  Theology is not about having more opinions.

We learn theology.  In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God.  We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way.  Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.

But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling.  I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.

That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not?  To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice.  To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?

I love theology like I love poetry.  They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.

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Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Je ne suis pas Charlie!

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay

Je ne suis pas Charlie!  I am not Charlie.  But I am learning to love him while disagreeing with everything he stands for.

After the horrific events in the last week, I saw a number of Christian leaders and social commentaries lead with the French slogan “I am Charlie” or Je suis Charlie.  This strikes me as extremely shortsighted.  I know the impulse.  There is a victim, and we want to identify, empathize, and support victims.  We fear terrorism too.  We value freedom of the press.  We are love the French, sort of, in America.

But, I am a little horrified too.  I am familiar with Charlie Hebdo.  I have read the magazine and seen the comics over the years.  And I have to say, “No.  I am not that.”  And I don’t think Christians should be so quick to claim something that is not good, may even be evil, either in the name of empathy or freedom.  Charlie was and is a source of horrific themes of misogyny, racial and religious stereotypes, and sexual and gender ridicule.  We cover these things politically. We allow them as a matter of social order.  I am not going to argue for censorship.  But as a Christian, I have found this magazine to be offensive at a level that would make Alfred P. Newman blush with shame.

We have to be more discerning than Je suis Charlie.  We don’t have to become neonazis to stop on the side of the road and change their tire.  We don’t have to become prostitutes to care for them in the hospital.  And we don’t have to think every kind of speech or action is okay, even if we allow it politically.

My fear is that the United States is losing its ethics.  We are losing our ability to think and reason beyond the soundbite.  And this is incredibly dangerous.  The tendency to think thin thoughts that are not centered in a way of being that is deeper than the current context is not simply a symptom of our age; it is a loss of an internal moral compass.  It hearkens to 1935.

We see this everywhere in media.  The bad guy does bad things, so we do bad things to the bad guy and cheer.  We torture our enemies.  We murder their children.  We hate them.  We call them names.  We ridicule them.  We kill them and anyone around them out of the clear blue sky.  And we call it good.

But we are not Americans first or French.  We are Christians.  And our Lord has told us how to respond when someone hits us, when someone calls us names, when someone hates us.  He showed us on the cross.  And those commands are not conditional demands.  They come before the pledge.

I do not condone the violence done in Paris this week.  No one should.  It was evil.  The people who were shot were human beings who were loved by God and us.  We, as Christians, must love them and do.  All of them.

This is the brutal end of our Gospel.  It may cost us our very lives, but we even then we have nothing to fear.  We are a people of love.  Charlie Hebdo did not represent that.  Neither did the terrorists.  Neither do our drones.  We must find a new way forward.

I am not Charlie, but I love him, even if he hates me.  But I don’t have to pretend like he is right, either.  I can love my enemy and bandage his wounds.

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Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Going after the Omni’s – Seeking a God who is more than All That

Why go after the omni’s?

In a great deal of the pop theology of the church, we live with this trinitarian phrase description of God as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present.  This phrase as a phrase is a frustrating one for me as a pastor and coffeeshop theologian.  It is TBV: true but vapid.

It is frustrating as a pastor because it is unbiblical and completely devoid of creativity and relationship.  It says true things in a way that brings in a constellation of meaning that is untrue, or at least unrelated to the God of the Bible and Jesus.  It brings us a whole lot closer to the question, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” than to Jesus’ statement to Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

As a coffeeshop theologian it is frustrating because it is sort of true.  God is powerful and knowing and present in a complete way, but that statement of absolute power, knowledge, and presence is presented out of a distant god as force way of thinking. I have often been tempted and even subscribed to this way of thinking.  It is not necessarily pantheism or panentheism as a classically defined.  I could draw some lines around it, but it was very much a god as Force, as in May the Force be with You.  Over time, I have been converted by the Bible to a more personal view of God, not as in my-god kind of personal, but in a view of God as person who is involved in the narrative of creation and life, a God on the hillside and mountainside bargaining with Abraham and arguing with Moses and on the cross.  A God of love rather than a force of love.

It has become a justice issue for me.  I am using that term on purpose because everything is a justice issue these days.  Justice for women and gays and blacks has us scrambling to figure out language and relationships both real and imagined.  It has us waving banners and posting online, but I don’t think much is at stake for most of us right now if we are honest.  The civil rights movement in the 1960’s was violent because the stakes were life and death, poverty and wealth.  Right now the stakes where I live are comfort and conscience, wealth and its distribution.  These things are important, but they are not causing the pillars to shake, are they?

No, I think this language about God puts our meaning of justice at stake, and this issue then risks some more nuanced and possibly dangerous earthquakes.  If God is a force of love, then everything is equal and should be equally applied, which gives you and me an awful lot of freedom to decide what is important right now.  We look at the field and choose.  Our vision is not pure, however, because we are really shaped by the local culture and media.  This is not evil, but it is not necessarily Christian either, even when the culture claims to be Christian.

If our starting point for understanding God is personal, our Lord God*, who created the world, loves the creation, and made us to be emissaries and caretakers, image-bearers or name-bearers, then our sense of justice is very much at stake because we have to take into account what that personal God cares about and names.  We have to look at what we can know about God, what has been revealed, and how we submit to the cares and loves of God.  I think that puts us in a pretty terrible position culturally.  Love as a force is pretty great.  Love as submission to a loving God is pretty demanding.

So let’s set some stakes that are biblical.  God created the world and loves it, placed humanity in the world to bear God’s image, and even when humanity went awry came to us time and time again to reveal God’s ways and intentions.  Ultimately, God came to form a covenant with the Israelites that they would bear his image and name in a particular way in how they lived with God, each other, and the land, especially the land of Canaan.  They failed often, but God continued to be faithful to them and to the promise that one day there would arise one who would restore the place of the Israelites as the savior people, the image bearing people set free and a place of knowing God for all the nations.

This promise was kept in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe as Christians, who bore the image of God without sin and chose to face the powers of death that constantly bound both the people through sin but also through the institutional sins of rule and religion.  In Jesus, God was revealed, we believe, as incarnate and loving, forgiving and merciful, just and holy.  The order is important.

God loves the creation and human beings.  God is protective of the least, as is often repeated in the Scriptures, the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  I would add barren women and wanderers, the dispossessed and the oppressed.  This is not a surprise in Jesus, somehow over-against his Hebrew faith.  It is the natural shape of the landscape of the Torah described by the prophets.  Jesus “gives meat” to the God revealed in the Law and prophets, writings and histories of the Hebrew people.  The God who created human beings cares for them, especially when they are vulnerable, oppressed, and crushed. The God whose love often turns from wrath to mercy.  The God who relents from destruction time and time again.  Not always, but often.

God’s wrath has to be understood in the context of God’s love.  It is not, as the Reformed tradition has sometimes claimed, that God is holy and therefore offended.  That frankly doesn’t hold very well with the Bible.  God is holy, but that holiness is loving.  God loves and is therefore just.  God’s love is a creator’s love and therefore whole and holy.  We are incapable of directly apprehending God because we are limited.  We are called to be God’s stewards in the house of creation, despite our limitations and lack of apprehension.  We are to care for people and things, order people and things, and to do so in God’s name as an act of worship and love of God.

Okay, so let us return to our original formula through justice.  Justice in God’s house has to be based on who God is, what God is like, what God cares about, and who God wants us to be.

God as creator of the world gives us some pretty immediate theology.  God is outside the creation, as must be true to create it. God is not a part of the creation and so is not bound by it or its limitations.

Is God therefore all-powerful?  We have to say “yes,” and Jesus says, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  But God works in and through the creation and humanity.  Does God ever “break the rules”?  There are certainly miracles, but they always involve humanity and creation.  I would point rather to God as Creator than God as All-Powerful because the claims of the Bible are typically creative claims.  I would say with Paul in Romans 4:17 “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” ESV  God is Almighty because God is creator and holds all life and being itself in love.

Is God all-knowing?  There are lots of Scriptures that indicate that God knows the future, though usually “plans”, and that God knows human beings and even in some places “all things.”  I would not argue that God does not know all things, but rather that there are many indications in the Scriptures that God interacts with creation in a way that indicates real dialogue and open-ended possibility.  He asks Adam and Eve where they are and what happened.  He calls Moses and bargains with him.  Does God’s plan change for Aaron when Moses says he cannot speak?  I would say, yes, out of deference for the way of God in the Bible.  Jesus even asks God to let the cup of crucifixion pass from him.  If he, God-incarnate, did not believe that it could be otherwise, why pray it?  So while I would say God is all-knowing, it is pulled back in relationship with humanity.  This points to that great rabbinic idea of zim-zum where God pulls back to make creation, allowing creation the space to exist and humanity the room to have freedom within his will.  So maybe I would say God knows all the possibilities and is able to see where all outcomes lead, even be able to weave all outcomes to one, the bringing to completion the will of God in the day of completion, resurrection, judgement, and justice and peace.

Is God all-present?  Maybe.  There are many examples in the scriptures where God’s presence, especially mediated by the angels, is less or more.  I might argue that within the Biblical world God’s presence is always somewhat mediated, first by angels, then Jesus, and ultimately the Holy Spirit.  The place that Holy Wisdom has in that or the shekinah, we could debate, but the presence of God if it is always there directly is certainly mediated to humanity and through creation and humanity.

So while you can say God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, that is a pretty thin statement in a Biblical faith.  It isn’t that it isn’t true, so much as that it is vapid.  It does not offer the creativity and relationality of God-in-Jesus revealed in the Bible.

So let me turn finally to justice.

The Rule of God: we are to be a people who live in the world as God’s emissaries and stewards.  But if we are to do that our very desires and the shape of our thinking have to be subject to God.  If we are to be just, it must be God’s justice.  As we return to women and gays and blacks, to put it bluntly even grossly, or more broadly to humanity and issues of our day, we cannot be for injustice, and we cannot not love any human being.  We have to love even our enemies and bless those who curse us.  Sounds self-sacrificial, doesn’t it?  But this is God’s will, that we should love people and care for the creation.

But we also have to subject ourselves as followers of Jesus to allow God’s will be my will, God’s justice be my justice, God’s love be my love.  It is a lot easier to say God is love, so when I love I am being like God.  The truth is there, but the order is wrong.  I must seek God’s love to be my love, so that I don’t distort it.

I must care for the creation and love human beings, all of them.  I cannot make them subject to God; I can only love them and proclaim what I know.  I can order my life to reflect God’s will, justice, and love.  This means trying to live the grace that God has for me.  I don’t deserve God’s love, and other people don’t have to deserve mine.  I will be merciful and just no matter what.

This may be the heart of the new reformation we are in.  As in the former reformations we argued over the definitions of grace as a commodity given, an object, in our current age we are coming to understand that grace is not a commodity but the nature of God, and the arguments are over the demands that “giving meat” to that grace places on us.  I am to be grace, but that gets complicated quickly.

If grace is love then I have to love humanity, but what do I do when humanity is unloving?  What do I do with someone who refuses to be transformed by God’s grace?  Do I stop loving them? Do I try to destroy them?  Do I continue to do my work and ignore their sins?  I think the answers are in the sermon on the mount and the parables and teachings of Jesus, but I don’t like them very much, because my fleshly self wants this to be about me and me being right and safe.

I would like it if God were just a force like gravity so that I could tip my wings and fly, bending and using God like the forces of nature, but God is beyond all that, alive and personal.  I am not called to fly but to walk with God, to know God and be transformed by God, to be like God towards other people and God’s creation.

As an aside, I fail at this all the time, every day, right now.  My failure doesn’t start in my actions, but rather in my heart and mind.  I want to order and shape things for myself, like some Ayn Rand disciple rather than Jesus’ disciple.  That ignores my true nature; it even destroys it over time.  I have to be converted in the heart while I am learning to do as God would have me do.  I fail at this in my marriage and my family, in my church and in my world.  I am getting better, but thank God I am following Jesus and have the Holy Spirit dwelling in my very being, working to change me and redeem me, to set me free from the accumulation of all those other decisions and selfish habits.  I  am being redeemed.  I have been forgiven.  I will probably need more of both tomorrow.

So, as a pastor and a coffeeshop theologian, as a human being, I want more God than the all-that one.

*The objections for Lord are well known and acknowledged.  While I do not claim that God is gendered and acknowledge that the word Lord is, I don’t have a gender-neutral word in English for one whom we submit to that is understood in the same way.  I am trying in my limited way to get to a more open language of God that is still faithful to the revelation of the Word and the Scriptures.

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