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RETHINKING GOD: From Out There to In Here

 

RE-THINKING GOD:

FROM OUT THERE TO IN HERE

Copyright 2016 Roger F. Miller

Shakespir Edition

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1—From Out There to In Here

 

Chapter 2—Where is God?

 

Chapter 3—About Jesus

 

Chapter 4—The Holy Spirit

 

Chapter 5—The Bible I

 

Chapter 6—Sin, Guilt and Forgiveness

 

Chapter 7—The Bible II

 

Chapter 8—Prayer

 

Chapter 9—The Church

 

Chapter 10—So What?

 

Acknowledgments

 

About the Author

What Others are Saying

“Rethinking God” is written by a preacher, but is not “preachy.” Roger Miller approaches theology with an open mind and a sense of humor encouraging the reader to ask questions without fear while sharing his personal journey for answers.                 Darci Edgington

 

In “Rethinking God” Roger Miller creatively lays out a systemic theology of the God within. He weaves together storytelling, song, scripture and personal experience to make a compelling argument for the power and presence of the Divine at work in each of us, even and especially those we might consider enemies. With beautiful imagery like “light wheels that used to shine on aluminum Christmas trees…” raw honesty, and vulnerability Roger invites us into his personal faith journey.

Rev. Debbie Griffin, Church Planter and Pastor of Downtown Disciples: Unapologetically Progressive, Des Moines, IA

[+ CHAPTER 1+]

[+ FROM OUT THERE TO IN HERE+]

A young man comes home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday. As he gathers with the rest of his family around the dining room table, specially set with fine china and good silver, and laden with food, the young man’s head remains unbowed as his father says the blessing over the meal.

As the food is passed around from hand to hand, Little Brother makes the announcement that, contrary to family tradition and custom, the young man, his older brother, did not bow his head when all others had bowed theirs (This begs the question, How would Little Brother know?)

Upon being questioned about this, the young man, in a tone of voice that mixes “matter of fact” with “defiance,” tells his family that he is now an Atheist.

It is as if someone turned the volume off in the room. The parents are aghast. The brother and sister are mystified. The young man had gone to college after a lifetime of being taken to church and attending Sunday school, worship service and youth fellowship groups. Traditional religion was an ingrained part of his life.

That day, Thanksgiving dinner was a much-subdued affair. It is as if someone sucked all the air out of the room. How could this happen after only three months away from home?

“How could this happen?” Mom asked Dad as they prepared for their night’s sleep.

There are several dynamics working here, not necessarily separately. First, the dynamic of being away from the insulated, church-involved culture of the young man’s home and family, and living and studying with students from many different cultures and belief systems. Second, hearing views that were never encouraged or expressed at home, views by professors, views that seem to make sense, and talking about those views with other students, in late-night bull sessions. Then, it could be that the young man’s profession of atheism was the spreading of his wings after leaving home, his transformation from child to young adult, his breaking away of the belief systems with which we grew up as a child, until he graduated and left home to be on his own at college. Most importantly, the young man grew up in the scientific age, the age that produced specific answers to questions and phenomena that were heretofore ascribed to “magic,” or miracle, or God.

I did not spread my wings so much when I went off to college. I was raised by a church-going family, a mixed marriage of Lutheran/Methodist preferences. On the one hand (my Dad’s), it was “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and on the other hand (my Mom’s), it was “There is Power in the Blood of the Lamb.”

Eventually, they sought middle ground in what is now the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the denomination to which I still belong today.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the first denomination founded on American soil. Coming from both Baptist and Presbyterian roots, followers of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. The two movements away from the parochialism of the denominations of their origins were joined in 1832 when Campbell (Presbyterian) and Stone (Baptist) shook hands and agreed to merge their respective followers into one non-creedal group. An early saying by which the group lived and practiced their faith was, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” Another was, “In essential things Unity, in Non-essential things Charity, in all things, Love.” Since the 1830’s, the group has split twice and the main group became The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1968, by a vote of the General Assembly of the Christian Church, which was attended by clergy and lay representatives of congregations all over this country, as well as many foreign countries. The three levels of the church are local, where each congregation is responsible for its own governance; Regional, in which the ministers provide care to the congregations and pastors with each region, and General, which provides an overall care and responsibility for all the of congregations within the United States and Canada. There is no upper-level church official, no “pope” or bishops to provide oversite for the congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Theological orientation runs from ultra conservative to ultra liberal, from “All are welcome, and all means all.” To, “only like-minded and like-living people need apply.” Some congregations and pastors endorse equ’al marriage, and some don’t. We participate actively with other denomination. We find our common basic roots in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, also called communion weekly. Other traditions know this as the Eucarist.

As I grew up and my father entered the ministry, I gained the reputation of the people in the congregation Dad served as a “Fine Young Man.” I was the church’s “good boy,” living by all the rules of home and community. All the older ladies in the church loved me. But inside, in my mind, I harbored questions that seemed unseemly to ask. At the Sunday school class I attended at my dad’s student church, our teacher was an older woman who meticulously prepared each week’s lesson. She brought her week’s preparation on multiple sheets of paper, each page dense with her handwritten notes. Whenever anyone in the class, me included, asked her a question that didn’t fit exactly what she believed, say about the illogic portrayed in the scripture text, compared with what we were learning in science class, in what was then Junior High, she would burst into tears, and class for that day would be effectively over. We would spend the rest of the Sunday school hour talking among ourselves about anything but the Sunday school lesson. Fortunately, as my Dad completed his daily classwork at seminary and then came home evenings when the classes were finished for the day, he would share his daily learnings with us. I was dumbfounded. Not only did it seem as if asking the questions I had kept to myself was an okay thing to do, but his sharing of that new information sparked whole new questions that I would ask in time. The notion that one could even ask questions about God or the Bible was completely novel to me, and it kindled in me a renewed interest in religion.

So, I asked him to do something about our Sunday school teacher. Nothing happened. I asked him to bring it to the Education committee. Nothing happened there, either. Finally, I asked him to bring it before the church board, with few hopes of anything happening there, either, since the majority of the board members were related to the Sunday school teacher. I was about to write letters to the President, members of Congress and the Supreme Court, but we moved away at that time, and I figured she wasn’t my problem anymore.

A book that impacted me at an early age was Your God is Too Small by J. B. Phillips. I ran across this book among my dad’s assigned reading material while he was a seminary student. I was intrigued by the title, and picked it up. Once I picked it up. I could not put it down until I had completely finished it. I didn’t understand it all, but I understood enough of it to resonate with what Phillips had to say. This happened at the expense of the reading I was supposed to have done as part of my school homework!

In Your God is Too Small, Phillips has identified several types of “boxes” that people tend to put God in, for instance, “Resident Policeman,” “Parental Hangover,” “Grand Old Man,” and others. In these times, I would add “Cosmic Santa Clause” to the list (Think about it….”You better watch out/you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why/ Santa Clause (or God) is coming to town/He’s making a list/and checkin’ it twice/gonna find out who’s naughty and nice/Santa Clause (or God) is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping/ he knows when you’re awake/ He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake”…).

What I did not read back in the day was the Introduction. I read it recently, and this is was I found. Please remember, this was published in 1952, over six decades ago)

“The trouble with many people is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the concept of God. That exists in the mind of a child of Sunday school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by a great effort of will, he does do this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.”^^1^^

I did not read this the first time I picked up the book, because at the age of 13, who reads introductions, anyway? When I re-read the book recently, including the Introduction this time, I experienced the joy of finding someone else who gave me mental and spiritual permission to feel uncomfortable as I did with traditional constructs of God.

Phillips went on to say:

It often appears to those outside the Churches that this is precisely the attitude of Christian people. If they are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible, or inside the four walls of a Church. Therefore, to join in with the worship of a Church would be to become a party to a piece of mass hypocrisy and to buy a sense of security at the price of the sense of truth, and many men of goodwill will not consent to such a transaction.^^2^^

It was this book which planted the seeds in my mind, or God as an inner presence in every person.

I went to college at an institution that was three hours from home…far enough away so I could be on my own, and be somewhat independent, but close enough so that I could get home without much trouble if I had to. On the same campus was the divinity school (seminary) from which my dad earned a B.D. degree (Bachelor of Divinity degree, roughly equivalent to an M.Div degree, offered through seminaries now). The thing is, once we were on the way home, and the car was going too fast for me to bail out of it, my Mom would say very casually, “Oh, and by the way, we made you a dentist appointment for when you get home!” I spent the rest of the 3-hour trip clinging to the back window of the car, like Garfield the comic page cat. I wound up not going home much.

At college, I was subjected to the same opinions from fellow students, and presentations from Philosophy professors as that young man, all with irrefutable proofs that God does not exist, as well as the historical arguments for the existence of God. But I hung tough, relied on my faith and my training I received from my parents, and spent years and years of my life (I squeezed four years of college into five) trying to reconcile what I was hearing at college with the beliefs I had been raised with at home. I even sought out a Disciples of Christ congregation to attend while I was away at school. I wound up telling myself that my professors were just giving an historical overview of philosophers down through the ages, finally, just dismissing them by saying to myself, “Awwww, what do they know?” A very intelligent and mature attitude, wouldn’t you say?

But still questions kept popping up in my mind. The classic philosophical conundrum kept coming back to me: “If God is so powerful, can He make a rock so big He can’t lift it?”

If God can lift anything, then God can’t make anything God can’t lift, therefore, God can’t do everything. If God can’t make a big rock, or lift the big rock, then God can’t do everything. In seminary, I heard about the qualities of God that the ancient Greeks called “Omniscient” (All-knowing), “Omnipotent” (All-powerful) and “Omnipresent” (Basically, everywhere at once). Furthermore, if God can heal all diseases, why does God heal some people and let other people die? That fact of life gives the lie to “Omnipotent.” The simplistic answer I heard from other people who were more of a literalistic bent was the same answer one of Job’s friends gave to Job after he had lost his farm, his family and his health: “Because you must have done something to make God mad.” And as I grew up, I read the old story about God walking around the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam, who was hiding from God because he and his clothes were in two different places. So much for God being “Omniscient!” And if God was walking around the Garden of Eden, who was minding the store, or the heavens and the earth, while God was taking God’s field trip. That gave rise to a whole new set of philosophical and logical problems in my mind. It was truly a burden on the spirit. I was being prepared to preach and work from a position in which I did not, or could not, wholly believe. As I was growing up, I was as curious as any other kid, and my favorite words were “How” and “Why.” I didn’t doubt God existed because all the adults around me said He did. As I grew up, I took an interest in science, and lately realized that the task of science is to tell us “How” and “Why,” and there isn’t any real conflict between science and religion. God is the answer to the question, “Who?”

Because of an early childhood surgery I had, I developed a strong interest in medicine, which expanded into an interest in general science, with a special interest in healing. I even gave up several Saturday mornings of play with my friends and watching cartoons to be a part of a special science class that was offered at my grade school. I learned all about how rocks were made and other phenomena of life in our world, but still believed the “party line” which was contained in the Bible. I learned to live with the contradiction about God and rocks by completely ignoring it. I didn’t even think about the question of why there were no dinosaurs on the ark. That was when I was a kid.

After college, I entered seminary and followed my dad into the ministry. As I served my congregations, I always felt a twinge when I talked about a Bible passage as if it was literally true. There were too many contradictions in the Scriptures, not only with the natural world, but also with other scripture readings themselves. However, the existing beliefs were too deeply entrenched in the minds of the people to enable me to show them a different way to think about who God is and how God works. Plus, at the early stages of my ministry, I did not think of God in any other way besides the way that has been tradition for generations. Their firmly-entrenched belief system didn’t seem to allow me to “reach” them. Let me emphasize that this was the case, not among all the members of the church, but rather in this small group of members.

For instance, the Bible is riddled with repetitions and contradictions, things that many would be quick to point out in anything that they want to criticize. For instance, Genesis 1 and 2 disagree about the order in which things are created, and how satisfied God is about the results of his labors. The flood story is really two interwoven stories that contradict each other on how many of each kind of animal are to be brought into the Ark—is it one pair each or seven pairs each of the “clean” ones? The Gospel of John disagrees with the other three Gospels on the activities of Jesus Christ (how long had he stayed in Jerusalem—a couple of days or a whole year?) and all four Gospels contradict each other on the details of Jesus Christ’s last moments and resurrection. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contradict each other on the genealogy of Jesus Christ’s father; though both agree that Joseph was not his real father. Repetitions and contradictions are understandable for a hodgepodge collection of documents, but not for some carefully constructed treatise, reflecting a well-thought-out plan.

One of the first home visits I made as a newly graduated and ordained pastor drove it home to me. I saw a sign posted outside the door of the home which said, “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, and That Settles It.” I walked on eggshells during the entire visit. I always felt a twinge of conscience during the Christmas season and at Easter. In seminary, I learned that the birth narratives of Jesus were among the last things added to the gospels, and “Christmas” was instituted to replace a wide-spread pagan holiday throughout the known world at that time.

The couple I visited was part of a group that met regularly, to listen to cassette tapes (remember them? I’ve still got some, as well as a player to play them on!) and talk about them, the speakers on tape, and the group who listened to them, seemed to think of God as a specific being who is active in history, and in human life “down here” from “out there,” even in this post-scientific age. The speaker on the tape talked about how God worked in her life. She referred to herself as “Little Old Me,” and inferred that she wasn’t worth God’s time. Those stories, to me, were just a little too fantastic to believe. I visited that group only once, though I made many visits in later years to the couple that hosted the group.

Years and years later, I became acquainted with the writings of the Rev. John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey. I read several of his books, including, “How to Rescue the Bible from Fundamentalism” and “Why the Church Must Change or Die,” and, “A New Church for a New Age,” as well as “Here I Stand,” the account of his early life, and how he came to be “the believer in exile” he proclaims himself to be today. After I read them and meditated on them, in the language of the Bible, “the scales fell away from my eyes.” Spong’s writings gave me the opportunity of being able to believe in God, but not according to the terms of tradition. His writings challenged me to think about God in the 20th and 21st centuries and beyond. He said in his books much about which I already thought I believed. Spong’s writings gave my beliefs validation. He made me feel “okay” about being a religious liberal. For that, I count him as one of my heroes, and even though he is still living, I place him in the “great cloud of witnesses” that travels with me on my journey of faith.

In his book, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” Spong coins the term, “Believer in exile.” He refers to these believers as people who believe in God, but not according to traditional depictions of God, Jesus, or Scripture. It is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile the findings of science with the biblical story. I count myself a believer in exile, but until now, I could not figure out how to reconcile the terms, “Believer” and “Exile.” You either believe, I thought, or you don’t. I am now proud to call myself a Believer in Exile.

And that brings us to this book. The purpose of this book is to tell you how I have reconciled my belief in God with life in the scientific age. Let me be clear: I find no contradiction between science and religion. My seminary training and my growing wisdom has taught me to look at the scriptures as works which are largely written in symbolism, using the best worldviews of those days when they were written, but still useful as a guide for living one’s life with God as a part of it.

I am not trying to change anyone’s mind about how to think about God, although I invite you to go ahead and begin the process of changing your mind, if you wish. I give my permission to you if that is what you need, even as I wrestle with the question, “Who am I, to give anyone permission?” This is not my personal crusade. I guess it is the same kind of permission that Bishop Spong gave me when I read his books.

Re-Thinking God is my own attempt to reconcile a belief in God with life in the post-scientific age within myself, my own religious beliefs. It is a summarization of my feelings and beliefs about God and how God relates to us as we live in the modern world. However, please feel free to digest the material in this book, and adopt what you want into your own belief system, as of the time of this writing. I am pretty easy to get along with! I do not put this book out there with the admonition that if you don’t believe just exactly as I do, you are going to hell, or have a bad life or something.

Not only that, but as I grow older and, hopefully, wiser, the beliefs I have set down in this book may change; not likely, but possibly. Over the past 15 years, my thinking and beliefs have evolved into what I believe as I write this book. Where I am right now is this:

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe that God exists.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe God is present God’s creation, for example every person.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe there is no need for salvation, because we are born “saved.”

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe God is active in human history through the works of individuals.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe that “sin” consists of anything that dims or completely buries the inner Divine Spark, which is God, in every person. The dimming, burying agent is, as my friend and seminary professor Loren Broadus called it, “The Crust of Enculturation.”

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe that God is not “out there,” but “in here.” That is, God is not an external entity who moves people and things of the world around, like pieces on a chessboard, but rather is a living spirit in every person, no matter if they call themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Shriners or Kiwanis Club members.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe Jesus, as he is portrayed in the gospels, was a depiction of what God, which is that inner spirit, wants for everyone to be. Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, was radically obedient to God’s prompting in his life. No matter what we call our religion, we should all be so radically obedient.

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Bible, as someone once said, is ”the Word of God, not the words of God.” One should be very careful if he or she takes it literally; otherwise they can get tangled up in contradictions, and/or fueled by scientific knowledge that was unavailable to the writers of the Bible.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe God has no gender. God is not he or she; God is God. God is the “Umph!” the creative force in the universe who continues to create, even in the present time. Science exists to explain how the creative force works. In other words, God is the Who; science is the Why/How.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe that while Scripture does not necessarily give an accurate depiction of God’s form, Scripture does give an accurate depiction of God’s nature. Scripture still has value for people of faith.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe that Scripture was written with the best knowledge of the world and the working of nature that was available at the time, but the message of the Bible is not contained in the words alone, but requires study about the form of the scripture passage, the meanings of the original words, the situation that prompted the writing, and other elements to get the true meaning of the scripture passage.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe that after death, the spirit inside each person survives and inhabits another person, therefore, we are all connected with each other around the planet and throughout time.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe that some people drive Fords, other people drive Volkswagens, and still other people drive Nissans. Just so, whether the Infinite Being is called God, Allah or Yahweh, all those names refer to the same being.

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p<>{color:#000;}. I believe prayer is a process of getting back in touch with the “God in Here” and uncovering the qualities of personhood that make God visible to the world. Jesus was real good at this.

And there you have it, the basic material which I will explain in subsequent chapters of this book. Notice that my beliefs consist of a combination of religions all over the world. My beliefs have been shaped, in part, by worshipping with the Society of Friends (Quakers), and the time my wife and I spent worshipping in Community with the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Please remember that I said no one must believe the way I believe exactly, “Or Else.” I am cognizant of the fact that anywhere one goes, his or her religion is influenced by the culture in which it is set. One of the things God gave each of us was a brain and intellect. It’s okay to think for oneself. I believe that God never expected us to check our brains and banks of human experience at the door when we enter a church. But…I also believe that many people lack the drive to figure out things by themselves, and want to be told what to believe, no matter what the consequences of that decision might be.

One of my favorite poems is by John Godfrey Saxe about the six blind men of Indostan who felt an elephant for the first time.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The poem goes on to say that the men took place around the elephant, each of them feeling a part of the elephant’s body. Each blind man felt a different part of the elephant’s body and concluded that the elephant looked like the part he felt (for instance, the man who felt the elephants side concluded that the elephant was like a wall; the man who felt the elephant’s ear concluded that the elephant was like a leaf; the man who felt the elephant’s tail asserted that the elephant was like a rope, etc.). The point of the poem was that each of the blind men of Indostan had a part of the truth, but none of them had the whole truth. The last verse says,

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

One of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Bible is the story where Jacob spends the night wrestling with an angel on the bank of the Jabbok River (Genesis 32:22-32). Because of various circumstances, Jacob finds himself alone at the Jabbok, waiting for his brother Esau to catch up with him and kill him. Here is the story

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. ^[_ ][_After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.] [_ ][_So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.] When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. [_ ][_Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”]

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

^ ^The man asked him, “What is your name?”

Jacob,” he answered.

^ ^Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

^ ^Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

^ ^So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. ^[_ ][_Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon near the hip. (Genesis 32:22-32 NIV)]

While he is still alone, an angel shows up and spends the entire night, wrestling with Jacob, (whose name means supplanter; a “supplanter” is like someone who shoves in front of you as you stand on line to ride the roller coaster at Tons of Fun theme park) winning the wrestling match only when he makes Jacob unable to wrestle any more. Contrary to popular belief, not all angels are good and pure. The story tells of the angel hitting Jacob “in the hollow of his thigh.” Does that mean that the angel disabled Jacob by hitting Jacob below the belt? A word about angels in the Bible: Angels are not beings in long white robes with harps and halos. In the Bible, angels are messengers, sent by God to deliver an important message to the recipient of the message. An angel could be, or look like, anyone. Notice in the New International Version of the Bible I used to recount the story here, Jacob’s opponent is referred to as a “man.”

I am convinced that the angel that spent the night wrestling with Jacob was not a physical bring; rather, the passage describes the wrestling match that takes place in Jacob’s mind, his conscience, if you will; a wrestling with himself, as it were, about his very life, and the nature of it. When Jacob gives up the fight and the angel wins, that signifies a life-change—if you read the entire Jacob saga, it becomes apparent that Jacob is a pretty skeevy character. In the early parts of the story, Jacob is known by the names that, translated, means supplanter. It starts at his birth. We are told that Jacob, twin brother of Esau, was born, hanging onto Esau’s heel. As the story unfolds, we find out that Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, is no “angel,” either. It so happens that each parent, Isaac and Rebekah, have different favorite sons. Isaac prefers Esau “because he was fond of game,” and Esau was a hunter, while Jacob, one could say, was a “momma’s boy,” according to the scripture story. Later on, Jacob sells the family birthright to Esau for some lentil soup and bread, Esau being a ,an of ;large appettites when he came in from a day’s work. Esau being “a hairy man” and Jacob not being so hairy, Jacob puts animal hair on his arms and receives the blessing duly accorded to the oldest son because he fooled his blind father into believing that he, Jacob, was Esau. And so goes his life, pretty much up until the wrestling match on the bank of the Jabbok. Following the wrestling match, Jacob is given a new name, Israel. And his life changes.

This book is an account of my own wrestling match “on the bank of the Jabbok.” It is the sum total of lots and lots of rounds, wrestled not over night, but over years. My name is the same as it was, but what has changed is my understanding of God, and how God works in the world, and its implications in individual life. And my own spirit has grown much more at peace.

See, if I were to talk with that young man at the Thanksgiving table, I would tell him that it is okay to be an atheist. It is perfectly acceptable to think and ask questions and work out inconsistencies to one’s satisfaction, or, for that matter it is okay to live with inconsistencies. I would tell him that I consider myself an atheist, if being an atheist means rejecting outmoded images and theistic ways of thinking about God. BUT, I still believe in God. Since I have come to the positions I have stated in the list above, it does not bother me to do God’s work in daily life, and to do what we can, wherever we can, and to practice the qualities of being Christ-like in today’s world, which has become more and more complex and confusing as time has moved forward.

The purposes of this book are two: One is to “systematize” my thoughts and feelings about God and all thing related to God as I have moved away from the traditional conceptions of God that have become outmoded with the coming and growth of scientific knowledge. Call this a “Systematic Theology for Everyone, Or, At Least, For Me.” But, please don’t be put off by the term “Systematic Theology!” As you can see, this is not a long book. That is intentional, because I want people to read it and think about it, (and discuss it) including but not limited to, theologians and seminary students. What good is a 700-page book on theology if no one reads it? I remember seeing a book once, written by the Catholic theologian Hans Kung. I did not pick it up because it looked like one of those 700-pagers. I was a seminary student, for crying out loud, and I was disinclined to read it! Now, I see value in the book because it got Kung’s thoughts and feelings in order.

The second is to invite any readers of this book to consider God, or reconsider God, and God’s nature in a way that does away with as many of the logical inconsistencies as possible. That way, they have the possibility of integrating a lively, working faith into their modern-day lives.

On my Facebook page, there are several posts from self-identified Atheists. The recurring theme is, “You can’t prove God’s existence,” and offer science as an alternative to faith. Sort of an “either/or” deal. The sum total of my reflections has resulted in a “both/and” way of thinking that includes both science and faith. Yes, by definition science and faith are two distinct things. But, living with this conception of “God in Here” makes room for having both science and faith in my life. Through my inclusion of science and faith, like Jacob on the bank of the Jabbok, I have received a blessing.

And I am much more comfortable in my own skin, my own mind and my own spirit.

[+ Chapter 2+]

[+ Where is God?+]

Our Father, who art in…heaven?”

The late blind guitar wizard Doc Watson told a story at his concerts about two little boys who were called to the preacher’s study after badly misbehaving in church one Sunday, raising all kinds of distraction and not exhibiting the reverence that is due in a worship service. The preacher called in one boy at a time.

The preacher’s bushy grey hair, thick grey eyebrows, and stern visage made it easy to imagine that the little miscreant boy was looking into the face of God, Himself.

“WHERE IS GOD?” the preacher thundered, and the boy quailed at his fury.

“WHERE IS GOD???” The preacher asked again, louder, and the boy trembled all the more.

On leaving the pastor’s study, the little boy saw the friend with whom he had misbehaved during church, sitting on a chair outside the study door.

“Ohhhhh, Jimmy, we’re really in trouble now,” said the boy who had just exited the study. “God’s missing and they think we had something to do with it!”

Where is God? In the time in which the books of the Bible was written, people were absolutely sure where God lived—in heaven, or above the heavens, the upper layer of God’s creation. “Out There.” The Old Testament mind conceived the world as consisting of three layers: the earth, where everything (except God) lived, and which was flat; the firmament, which was like a pie plate turned upside down which separated earth from heaven; and, the heavens themselves. Stars were believed to be the light of heaven shining through holes in the firmament. It was believed that God, when God was not walking around the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, lived in heaven above the firmament. The earliest references to God call God “El-Shaddai,” the Lord of the mountains, presumably because while people could not see heaven from where they were, but they could see mountains, looming in the distance.

Over time, the remote “God of the mountains” became “Yahweh,” the God of the Hebrews. By the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus referred to God as “Abba,” which, loosely translated, means “Daddy.” So, as in the age of Yahweh, God became more and more personal, and less remote. One of the earliest departures of this conventional wisdom about God is found in the Hebrew Bible of I Kings. The story concerns the prophet Elijah. Prophets were never popular dinner-party guests back in Elijah’s day. They were not prognosticators, such as, “Next Tuesday, you will meet a man with a red flower in his lapel and he will give you a major amount of money.” Instead, they were social critics, speaking out against the abuses of kings and oppressions of the poor. Their messages were also directed at the common people of Israel, urging them to turn away from the distractions that take their attention away from God, and Godly ways as they were understood in their contemporary times. In the middle of the story about the prophet Elijah, we find our hero has had a rough time. Nothing he could do seemed right. Despite his defeat of the prophets of Baal; the people he was trying to reach weren’t inclined to listen to him and his message; he was out of cash, his shoes needed shining (my addition…sorry. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention!), he had eaten all his food, all he had left was a few packages of Ramen noodles (Sorry. My addition again), and was hiding in caves, because the King had sent out a search party for Elijah and wanted him killed. Elijah, at that point of the story was on the lam. This passage seems significant:

[_He said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” _][
_And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; _][
_and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. _][
_And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” _][
He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”]

(I Kings 19:11-14 NRSV)

Notice that? Earth (quake), Wind and Fire….sounds like a cool name for a musical group, yeah? Commentators of this passage use it show that God is present in unexpected places. The take-away I get from this passage is that God is an inner presence, the divine spark, in every person, discernable to those who listen for that inner voice. And that is where I find God…inside each and every person on this earth, as well as in nature. As beautiful as the old hymn is, we are not “Children of the Heavenly Father,” But rather, we are carriers of the “God in Here” wherever we go.

This is crucially important when we think about the way we live our lives. God in Here has ramifications for us as we consider the way we treat other people, the way we share our resources, the way we forgive and the way we deal with enemies, among others.

If God is in each and every one of us, why doesn’t every person reflect God in his or her daily living, their motivations and actions? Why are there “good” people and “bad” people? I would submit that the “divine spark” within every person can be covered over with what a seminary professor and my friend, Loren Broadus, called “the Crust of Enculturation.” Sort of like barnacles that attached to the bottoms of the ships we sail through life. The way this happens is that our attention is distracted by much of the stuff we have to put up with as we live our lives. “He who dies with the most toys wins,” in other words. Or, “You want to be happy? Buy this fancy-schmancy car/ suit/dress/house/you name it, or “Vote for Me! and you will achieve inner peace and satisfaction for the rest of your life.” Or, “Power is good; give ME all the power!” But you know what? Once you buy that fancy-schmancy car/suit/dress/house or you name it, you find that thought come into your head. “Well, I’ve got it…now what?” And you find yourself experiencing the sense of disappointment known as “Is that all there is?” I should have learned this lesson earlier. When I was in my teens, record albums cost $3.99 and 45 rpm singles cost .99. I could seldom afford the albums, so I bought the singles, always with the expectation that if I had a favorite song I could play at will on my phonograph (I know, this dates me!), my life would be complete. But after purchasing the record of my latest favorite song, I would find myself feeling empty inside and thinking, “Is that all there is?”

And there is that voice again, next season saying, “You want to be happy? Buy this year’s model of fancy-schmancy car/suit/dress/house/after shave/you name it…” and the cycle of disappointment goes round and round again. Writer Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, David and Goliath, conducted research and found that there is a diminishing return to the ratio of happiness/wealth. That is to say that there comes a point at which the more money one has does not bring more happiness. This is not to mention the other things that contribute to that crust of enculturation…the “me-first-ness,” the greed, the willful ignorance, the selfishness, xenophobia (the walling oneself off from other humans for whatever reason). Racism, classism, ageism, homophobia—certainly, but not just those things. I just read a study that shows that partisanship—right versus left, Democrat versus Republican, Fox news versus MSNBC—is now more prevalent than any other “ism” that divides Americans in these present days. I receive a lot of posts on my Facebook timeline that are just plain mean to people of the other political party, the one to which I don’t belong. I must admit, sometimes they make me grin and other times they make me a little sad. Partisanism can be just as dividing among people of God as anything else, just as it was divisive to the people of the first century Christian church (see I Corinthians 3:22). The thing is, one side seems to think of God as being “Out There,” working for justice and to defeat the minions and wiles of “the Evil One,” (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, the Devil, call it what you will), while the other side seems to experience God as an inner presence in each human. “In Here.” At this point in time during our history as a country, the “Out Theres” seem to outnumber the “In Heres” greatly.

This notion of “God in Here” is not by any means, new with me! The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) observe “unplanned worship” services, depending on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also called The Inner Light, to move various attendees to stand up an extemporize on the subject of the day as they are led by the inspiration of God.

Being a “God-carrier” places a great responsibility on each of us, even as it simplifies our thinking and reconciles our faith and our world views, as those worldviews have and will continue to be, shaped by science. It is much more difficult for some than it is to think about God somewhere else, being busy with other people or planning a new mountain range or something. Maybe they secretly think that if God is busy somewhere else, they can do what they please until God gets around to them, and apologize for it later. The concept of “God in Here” causes us to rethink the way we act in our daily lives. When things are working as they are supposed to, our outer lives should be a reflection of “God in Here.” And that means getting messy with life. Personal comfort and a sense of well-being are not enough. A reflection of the God in Here means a repudiation of many things valued by us as members of our society. It means feeding the hungry. It means being true friends to the friendless. It means putting up with people one heretofore couldn’t stand. It means forgiving oneself, and asking for forgiveness of others. It means admitting that NO ONE is a lesser person than you, or I.

I think that perhaps the idea that God is “Out There” has been, in part, perpetuated by our hymnody—the songs we sing during worship services. We retain many of the old hymns, perhaps because they remind us of going to church and sitting as a little kid in the pew beside Grandma, or other family members. They stir in our minds “Precious Memories.” Not that anything is wrong with that! But many of the old hymns perpetuate the “God Out There” paradigm. There is nothing at all wrong with remembering and honoring various family members who have “gone on before.” But in doing that, we unwittingly reinforce old conceptions and images of God that have little if any relevance today.

Having said that, there are several hymns that still work when we think of God in Here. “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” is a prime example. Think of that hymn, read the words if you must, as calling all people into a community, where “The God in Me meets the God in You.” One of my personal favorites is “God of Grace and God of Glory” which contains a prayer in the line, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” Looking through your own church’s hymnals, you can find other hymns that work with the concept of God in Here.

It’s funny how sometimes things work out. Last Sunday was the Sunday we celebrated our country’s Independence Day in church. The day before, we had spent watching parades, sharing time with families and watching spectacular fireworks shows. Usually the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” moved me deeply. I sang it in High School as a part of the Iowa All-State choir. But it was in church as we sang the closing hymn of the service, that the power of “God in Here” hit me with an almost-physical force, and brought tears to my eyes. That song always gave me chills whenever I would sing it. As long as I didn’t pay attention to the words. Now I can sing it in full voice, and still get chills while paying attention to the lyrics. The new words go:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

You will find God (italics mine) sowing seeds of love where grapes of wrath once poured.

May we, two or three together, raise God’s justice high once more:

God’s truth still marches on.

 

Refrain:

Glory, glory Hallelujah,

Glory, glory Hallelujah,

Glory, glory Hallelujah,

God’s truth still marches on.

 

I have read a fiery gospel of unmitigated love,

Of a Christ who is within, without, below, around, above.

Let me be the one who turns my cheek when push has come to shove

God’s truth still marches on.

 

Refrain

 

Christ has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat

Bidding each of us to sit and serve at one another’s feet.

Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer, see the Christ in all I meet:

God’s truth still marches on.

 

Refrain

 

 

I was never a fan of terrible swift swords and the war-like words written in the original version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, once I understood what those words meant. The “tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” never appealed to me, either. But Sunday, as our going out hymn, we sang some lyrics to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The words were re-written by Heidi Blythe, Director of Music at University United Church of Christ in Seattle, Washington. God bless her! The stirring, warlike song has been transformed from a song of war into a song of peace and inclusion through her words.

Another hymn that makes me crazy is “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War.” Its martial tune and its recurring theme of “marching as to war,” makes it, sadly, very un-Christian to those who see the way of Christ as the way of peace, love and brotherhood/sisterhood.

There is a reason for this. Here’s the deal: much of what the Hebrew Bible teaches us about God can be applied to the inner presence of God…sometimes with greater effect than it applies to the God “Out There.” But it will take a great effort of will to think differently from the centuries upon centuries of previous thinking about God, plus having that “God Out There” mindset reinforced weekly by the hymns we sing. It is sort of like moving a big rock. It takes a great effort of will at first. If you, who are reading this book, choose to make that effort and succeed, you will get animosity, maybe called ugly names, discounted, disowned and other unpleasant things from your families and erstwhile friends. The gospels of Jesus even warn his followers of that. You might even be told you are going to hell (I can hear you now. “Oh, Boy, sign me up for that fun!”) In return, you will receive lots of other benefits in your life, including a release from the inner tension that comes with “playing along” with the prevailing attitudes and paradigms, and ignoring the facts of life we see all around us today, or the evidence about how the way our bodies work or the way nature works that a study of science provides.

If God is the “divine spark” inside each of us, where, exactly, is that divine spark? The heart? The head? The gut? I am not sure. For myself, God is welcome to my whole body, such as it is. The divine spark can live wherever it wants. My friend Gary Gesaman and I enjoy great lunches together at our favorite Cajun restaurant weekly or bi-weekly. Gary is a cool guy. We share many of the same interests, and we became ukulele-playing buddies, once I discovered that one of his hobbies is buying and restoring old ukes. During one of our soul-nourishing discussions, over gumbo and po’ boy sandwiches, we talked about this whole issue. Gary said he had conceived of God as “Umph!,” a creative force in the universe that goes above and beyond the traditional perceptions of God as we know them, along with no gender, should have no name. I found myself agreeing with him. And yet Gary left me with questions about how his concept could be reconciled with mine. I thank him for that…it kept me thinking about my own position, and, I think, growing. If God is the Inner Spirit within each person, perhaps God created the universe through something like the Big Bang theory and then came to inhabit all the beings in the galaxy, sort of “built the house and then moved in,” so to speak. That was my first impression; I still have some thinking to do about that. Maybe the “Umph!” of which my friend Gary speaks IS the Holy Spirit. OR, maybe God is both In Here and Out There…

What happens when we die? I have read and heard of many instances in which doctors have reported seeing the souls (the God within) leave the body. I am not sure where they go. Having been in attendance with families as they gathered around the beds of loved one, I have found that there is a distinct, discernable time of death, when the soul parts company with the body. I know that I believe when those souls leave the body, they do not go to heaven with its golden streets and pearly gates. Nor do they go down to hell with its fire and brimstone. They become a part of the vast storehouse in which the Inner Presence waits until it is placed in another living being. And the Inner Presence lives in everyone in the world. Call it what you wish: God, Allah, Yahweh or any other term you choose to name it; it is all the same thing and it lives inside every person on this earth, and who knows, every other place where there is human, or human-like life.

I am not so arrogant as to believe that of all the billions of planets and stars in space, planet earth is the only place that supports life of any kind. We just haven’t found other life-forms, yet. As I write this book, I am as amazed as anyone that astronomers have found another celestial body very similar to earth, out beyond the planet Pluto. It is bigger than earth, and has a larger gravitational pull, but measurements and observations indicate that its atmosphere is very similar to planet earth, and thus could conceivably support life (as we know it). In the “wishful thinking drawer” of my mind, I hope that that natural universe is not as chaotic and as full of the crust of enculturation as ours is.

God, the Inner Presence, can do wonderful things. I believe God is the source of ingenuity and creativity, which leads to an expansion of the world’s knowledge. Having said that, I remember as a college student hearing others stand up and say “God wrote this next song.” They sang sincerely, but I went away thinking that God may be able to do all things, but songwriting was not God’s strong suit. It would be doubtful to me to see God on stage accepting a Grammy! I believe God works through people like health care professionals and others to control or reverse human disease. I believe God works through professionals like social workers and people in general to alleviate the sufferings of others. I believe the Inner Presence of God transforms humanity from puppets that are moved around like chess pieces on a board of life.

Last spring, on a weekend retreat with some other men of my church, men with whom I have become good friends, we watched and discussed the movie “42,” the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first man of color who was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers. It stars Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman (who also does a mean portrayal of singer James Brown—see the movie “Get on Up”) I had seen “42” before, but it struck me as I watched it this time that when we act and speak toward others in a demeaning, uncivil way, we participate in a denial of God in that person, or “those people” (that particular phrase makes my head explode whenever I hear it!). If that is the case, we deny God, Godself; we diminish God. If we base our judgments of people because of the ethnicity or their sexual orientation, or their socio-economic class, or their nationality or anything else, then we deny the presence of God in “those people.” I don’t believe that is right. I haven’t always thought that way. I suffer inner agony over the times I made hurtful comments, laughed at jokes about other ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, or held a dismissive attitude toward anyone, for any reason. I find, at times, that I am still working on this. More about forgiveness in a later chapter.

I wonder, when the books of the Bible were written, that the people who wrote them and the people who read them were not aware of their “inner” lives, their “God in Here.” Now that I think about it, some, at least, must have been, at least unconsciously, or subconsciously… The passage from I Kings about Elijah and Jesus saying that “God is spirit…”They saw and reported mostly on what they could see in the world around them, and based their reportage on their understandings of the way the world worked at the time. Several books of the Hebrew Testament record various persons feeling joy or sadness, and even the New Testament records emotions and feelings, to an extent. One of my favorite verses of the Bible is “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35 KJV) It is short and easy for a fourth-grader, as I was when I learned it, to memorize.

But we, in this modern age, have become very aware that there may be as much going on inside us, as in the world, which we can experience through our senses, modern medicine and other relatively recent discoveries and advancements. Thanks to Eastern religious influences, many have adopted meditation, a concentration on the inner self in these days and times, which may make it easier for us to picture and experience God as an Inner Presence, even in a limited way.

If we experience God as “In Here” rather than “Out There,” Our experience has ramifications for every other object of faith and behavior in our lives. Once I grasped this notion, I had the feeling of taking God seriously for the first time, in my life, and in the world. In the following chapters, we will see what this looks like when we consider Jesus the Christ, Sin, Prayer, sayings of scripture such as “The body is a temple,” responsibility to others, whether we know those others personally, Worship, health, miracles, respect for others who see God differently than we do and the church.

Buckle up, because here we go!

[+ CHAPTER 3+]

[+ ABOUT JESUS+]

“Tell me the stories of Jesus I long to hear…” An old Sunday School Song

The common belief that has grown up around Jesus is that he is a miracle worker who can do anything (walk on water, leap tall mountains in a single bound, move around faster than a speeding bullet and so forth; that he has chosen to do all the things he underwent for the great purpose of saving all souls from before the time of Jesus forward to today and beyond. I once heard a radio preacher solicit the story of a woman who was in dire financial straits, until she prayed to Jesus in a carefully prescribed way, and gave a “generous” donation to the radio preacher’s ministry. The result? The lady was able to appear on the radio preacher’s program, and she told the audience that she got “a new (Chevy) Monte Carlo.” I found myself wondering if Jesus gave her the money for the car’s upkeep and insurance as well.

Author/Teacher/Theologian Marcus Borg has written:

“Throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period, this image of Jesus as divine savior and Lord dominated Western worship, thought, art, and devotion. Centuries of Christians have taken it for granted that this image depicts what he was like as historical figure. No wonder this image is so deeply rooted in the Christian imagination, as well as in the culture generally. Christians and non-Christians alike share it; what separates them is not the image, but whether or not they believe the image to be true.”

Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote a book called “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” in 2013. He makes a fairly convincing case that Jesus of Nazareth was a Zealot, a radical party of men whose sworn mission was to rid Palestine of the Romans, and turn the land back to God. All of the ascriptions to Jesus, i.e. Savior, Light of the World, the only begotten Son of God, etc. were added to the Jesus story around the time that stories about Jesus were being passed mouth-to-ear in the First Century C.E. along with the miracle accounts, not to mention being reinforced by a council convened by Constantine, after he became a Christian. Called the council of Nicaea, it consisted of discussion, debate, and finally the formulation of what became known as the Nicene Creed, which was a test of faith for Christians after Constantine became emperor, in 325 AD/CE. This was in the first quarter of the 4th Century, AD/CE. The Nicene Creed is used by many churches today as statements of faith and tests of membership by many churches and denominations. The Nicene Creed is as follows:

We (I) believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We (I) believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We (I) believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We (I) believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer (1979)

The denomination to which I belong, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has been, through much of its history, an “anti-creedal Church.” However, ever since about 1968, we have been working with what is called a statement of faith. It goes like this:

As members of the Christian Church,
We confess that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of the living God,
and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.
In Christ’s name and by his grace
we accept our mission of witness
and service to all people.
We rejoice in God,
maker of heaven and earth,
and in God’s covenant of love
which binds us to God and to one another.
Through baptism into Christ
we enter into newness of life
and are made one with the whole people of God.
In the communion of the Holy Spirit
we are joined together in discipleship
and in obedience to Christ.
At the Table of the Lord
we celebrate with thanksgiving
the saving acts and presence of Christ.
Within the universal church
we receive the gift of ministry
and the light of scripture.
In the bonds of Christian faith
we yield ourselves to God
that we may serve the One
whose kingdom has no end.
Blessing, glory, and honor
be to God forever. Amen.

Sounds sort of like a creed to me, but it is not. This statement is more of an identity statement, intended to let people know who we are as we relate to the world-wide and ecumenical church. Another identity statement we have is that we are “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Unlike a creed, it is not a test of fellowship, in other words, people who join with our congregations are not required to repeat the statement of faith and assent to every provision within it.

Now, there are some things we need to remember when we consider Jesus.

First, none of the gospels make any claim to direct quotations . The earliest gospel, Mark, was written around 65-70 CE, so the biblical scholars tell us. That means that Jesus had been crucified about 30 years before the first gospel was written. The other gospels, Matthew, Luke and John, were written up to as much as 75 years later. I challenge anyone living today to remember a saying they heard or a conversation they had, word for word, 30 years ago with 100% accuracy. This means that the stories and sayings of Jesus we read in the Bible are based on recollections, stories, copies from earlier gospels, and the audience and intention of each gospel writer. For instance, the gospel of Matthew was written for a primarily Jewish audience with the intention of showing that audience that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited messiah the Jews have been looking for. The gospel of John was written as John (not necessarily the apostle John) was a political prisoner on the island of Patmos, and was written partly as a reply to the Gnostics, who believed that Jesus was totally spirit, since Jesus “could not suffer,” and therefore did not suffer on the cross, and the way to find communion with Jesus, and therefore God, was to have a special body of knowledge (in Greek, gnosis) that only the Gnostic leaders had to pass on to followers. The gospel of Luke is volume 1 of his larger work that includes the book of Acts (volume 2), which tell the story of how, based on Jesus, Christianity began to spread due to the work of his apostles. Luke was a physician back in the days before health care systems assigned hourly patient quotas to doctors. One of his patients happened to be a man named Paul. Formerly named Saul. Yup, that one. Paul told Luke all about Jesus. The book of Acts is Volume II of Luke’s work, and features the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion, and his missionary trips following his conversion. Bottom line, Luke never saw, heard, or experienced Jesus in the flesh!

Why do the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke resemble each other, and the gospel of John seems totally different from the other three? Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to have used a document called “Q” (for “Quelle”) which has been lost to history as their primary source. The “Q” theory was proposed by Julius Wellhausen two centuries ago, in the early days of Bible scholarship. Each gospel was tailored to fit the purposes of the writers.

Second, the words of Jesus we read are words that have been reported by others, i.e. Matthew, Mark. Luke and John. Think of the old game of “Telephone,” where one person whispers a message into the ear of his or her neighbor, who in turn whispers the message into the other neighbor, and so on around the circle until the message makes its way around to the last person. More often than not, the “message” is completely different than when the first person whispered it into the ear of her neighbor on the immediate left. Before the printing press was invented, the Bible was copied by hand, by monks in religious orders. One book, Misquoting Jesus, asserts that there are upwards of 30,000 misquotations in what became known as the King James Version of the Bible. For instance, there is little difference in the spelling and pronunciation of the words “camel” and “rope.” Wouldn’t it be easier to understand the saying of Jesus, “It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle, thank for a rich man to get into heaven?” (Matthew 10:25)

Third, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were included in the Bible by the vote of a council, which the Emperor Constantine convened in Nicaea in 325 AD, the same council that came up with the Nicene Creed to use as a test of membership and faith. There are other gospels which were not included, the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Phillip, for instance. In addition, different Bibles contain different books; the Bible used by most Protestants is different than the Bible used by Roman Catholics, which uses what is called “the deuterocanonical books,” which is different than the bibles used by people of the Jewish faith (primarily what we of the Christian traditions call the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible).

Even as far back as 1910, over a hundred years ago, the humanitarian Doctor Albert Schweitzer wrote a book entitled “The Search for the Historical Jesus” in which he said that the thrust of the book was to separate the “Jesus of History” from the “Christ of Faith.” The whole point of his book was to show that the things that are reported about Jesus’ teaching and his deeds are wholly separate from Jesus the man, who lived in the Middle East so long ago.

So what can we say about Jesus? Yes, he was God’s son just as you and I are God’s sons or daughters. We can say that, along with the words of Jesus, which indicate the best of what human beings are capable (cf. The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7), the actions of Jesus show us that he was, indeed, human (e.g. the driving of the money-changers out of the Temple on Monday of what has come to be known as Holy Week. Blasting a fig tree for not producing figs, even when it was not supposed to be producing figs, but rather between fig-producing seasons) Or, Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus, John 11:35) The miracles of Jesus, the healings, the walking on water and all the rest, may not have literally happened as they are recorded in the Bible, but rather point readers toward some important teaching of the will of God, or the nature of God, for individuals, classes of people and others. They also underline the notion that God loves everyone regardless of race or social station in life, and shows Godself in everyone.

I was in a worship service once, led by another pastor, in which we studied the passage where Jesus raised Lazarus. Suddenly, totally not to the point of anything in the sermon, it hit me: John’s account of the raising of Lazarus does not recount the eyewitness resurrection of a guy named Lazarus; it is the testament of the power of the Christ to revivify the Christian movement which was considered pretty much dead by the time John wrote his gospel. Lazarus, for all intents and purposes, is us in more modern times.

I was in a Bible study group, led by that same pastor. The passage under our consideration was an account of what has come to be known as The Transfiguration of Jesus.(Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36. In these accounts, Jesus and three of his apostles, Peter, James and John, go to a mountain (the Mount of Transfiguration) to pray. On the mountain, according to the scripture passages, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to him and he speaks with them. Jesus is then called “Son” by a voice in the sky, assumed to be God the Father, as in the Baptism of Jesus.

Ever since I first time I heard that story as a kid, I assumed it was God talking to Jesus. But that night at the Bible study, it hit me that God was talking to his disciples, and through them, to us, present-day disciples of Jesus. It is as if the gospel writers were saying to their readers, “God is saying, ‘this Jesus is the real deal; listen to what he says.’”

Take another example, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Scripture tells us that:

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his clothes, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend more, when I come again, I will repay you.

Which now of these three, do you think, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?

And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus to him, Go, and do likewise.

(Luke 10:30-37 NRSV)

Notice these things about the parable: The late Bible scholar and historian William Barclay noted that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in Jesus’ day was a steep walk downhill of about nine miles. It was flanked on each side by boulders which were big enough to hide gangs of thieves, and it was widely regarded as the road not to travel without a measure of personal security. And yet, the man set out by himself, almost as if he was tempting fate. Sure enough, fate couldn’t resist the temptation and he was set on by the thieves, robbed, beaten and left for dead.

Three people pass by. They may have been travelling in a group, or maybe the thieves went home for the day, or maybe Jesus mentioned just these three because they were integral figures in his story. Operative word here is “story.” That’s what a parable is…a story told to teach a lesson.

The first to pass by the man was a priest, but he crossed the road and continued on his way. Presumably, if he didn’t keep his pace, he would be late for church. Also, in case the poor man was dead, the priest would be ritually unclean if he touched the man, and would have to undergo a ritual of purification before he could perform his priestly duties in the Temple.

The second one to pass by the man was a Levite. Levites were men who were dedicated to God by their parents when they were babies and functioned as assistants to the priests in the Temple. Maybe he had the duty at the same service the priest did who passed the man on the road. (remember, this was a parable, a story to illustrate a larger point. Where the priest and the Levite were going does not matter. And does it strike anyone, like it just did me, that it appears as if the priest and the Levite were travelling alone, too? You would think they would know better.)

Now, here: The third man to pass by, also travelling alone in the story, was a Samaritan, part of a group of people that good Jews of Jesus’ day considered inferior and would not interact with in any way. They were considered to be part of the descendants of Ishmael, the “illegitimate” child of Abraham and Hagar, a slave girl. Hagar and Ishmael, the baby, were sent away by Abraham, by order of Abraham’s wife Sarah, because Ishmael was not the son God promised Abraham. They were second-class citizens, according to Hebrew scripture. However, the Samaritan was the one who picked up the injured man, took him to an inn and paid the innkeeper to take care of him. The Samaritan offered to reimburse the innkeeper for any expenses over what the Samaritan gave him at first.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was an infamous road, known by all in the area to be dangerous to travel by oneself. But, according to Jesus, the “second-class” citizen showed himself to be a better, more compassionate human being than the two religious leaders who passed the victim by.

Jesus does not make mention that everyone at that time knew you were not supposed to walk that road alone, the man “got what he deserved.” The fact is, in Jesus’ story, the guy was broken and hurting, desperately needing help.

The surprise in the story is that the “inferior, second-class citizen” is the one who stopped and took responsibility for the beaten man, rather than the assumed “good guys,” who Jesus’ first listeners would assume would render aid. The punchline of the story is that the “neighbor” the third guy could be the one you least expect to be neighborly. In these days and times, I would add that a neighbor is anyone who does a Godly thing for someone else, different as they may be from us. And I would dare say that the neighbor is the one who helps anyone who is hurting and/or broken, regardless of whether or not that hurting and broken person, “got what he deserved” for his action of travelling that road alone, against common sense. Many, many people today seem to dismiss the plights of others with attitudes like, “He/She got what he/she deserved.” Once that attitude sets in, it is relatively easy to go one’s way through life with a “Me and my four, and no more” outlook on life.

To do the Christ-like thing does not have to be a big deal, like paying someone’s motel bill and reimbursing the inn-keeper for the man’s care, though Jesus said in scripture that was a neighborly thing to do.

This afternoon, I was in a McDonald’s restaurant near my house (too darned convenient, in my opinion!). After I had ordered my lunch, the man next in line noticed that I walked with a cane. I have become a recent cane user and I have found that to carry a tray of food with a large soft drink is a bit of a challenge. He offered to carry my tray to my seat, and get my soft drink for me. Then he left me. And he did it cheerfully! Not a big thing, but a neighborly thing; a Christ-like thing. I thank God for that man and his attitude and actions. I don’t know who we was or anything else about him, but I will never forget what he did for me today.

Jesus may have been a zealot, but depictions of him in the gospels and in Acts sure don’t sound as if he was a partisan. He dealt with people with compassion, respect and dignity at several instances in the gospel stories, including Samaritans, Romans, a Syro-Phonoecian woman, and others. This is what puzzles me about people who proclaim that they are members of the “party of Jesus” on the one hand, but display so much hatred towards others who are not like them on the other hand.

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Redemption

A friend was telling me about attending a wedding one weekend in a “beautiful,” newly remodeled church. One of the eye-catcher features of the sanctuary was a life-size crucifix of Jesus hanging on a cross. My friend heard a 5-year old boy who was looking at the sanctuary and at the crucifix, say, “That’s MY fault.”

The common belief about Jesus is that he died for the sins of all humankind. ALL humankind. I find some problems with this.

First, I cannot believe that when Jesus hung on the cross (I DO believe he was crucified), he had all of humankind on his mind, from that day forward, down to the present day generation and beyond. I do not believe that Jesus, during the hours of his physical agony, had Roger F. Miller, born in 1950 CE, on his mind, among all the others. I do believe that Jesus died because of the sins of humankind of his time—-hunger for power, an unwillingness to upset the status quo, an oppression of the poor, the decay of radical obedience to God, a taunting of the prevailing political and religious systems of the time in that part of the world …in short, everything that made up the crust of enculturation of his day. Jesus may have died because of our sins, but I do not believe that, if we say, “I believe in Jesus,” he gives us a free pass to sin all we want to with a clear conscience, after spending our lives before making the assertion of our belief, in a state of automatic damnation..

I do not believe that Jesus died to save humankind, because God already did that…we, all humanity, are “saved,” from the time we are conceived.

I do not believe that Jesus went to the cross because God told him to. Crucifixion was a common form of execution in the time of Jesus. He knew what it was all about, doubtless he had seen crucifixions before,and what kinds of things a person could do to get hung up on a cross. Yet, his radical obedience to God, the same radical obedience that Abraham showed when he heard God say to him, “Pack up everything you have, cancel your cable TV service and your newspaper (again, my addition….sorry) and go to a place which I will show you” The same Abraham who later took his son up the mountain with the intention of killing him as a test of faith, the same radical obedience that drove the Zealots to do whatever it took to get the Romans out of Palestine and the corrupt Temple priesthood, because God told them to. THAT kind of radical obedience led down the path of crucifixion for Jesus and anyone else who tried to upset the prevailing power structures of Rome and the Temple priesthood.

I cannot believe that everybody before Jesus was “condemned to hell,” or any kind of eternal torturous afterlife. Nor do I believe, as the Nicene Creed said, that after his crucifixion, “He descended into hell and rose on the third day (“He’s up!!”) I do believe that “God so loved the world,” that God provided Jesus to show current and future generations what God is like, and how we can and should live in God’s image.

The Mennonite blogger Ted Grimsrud as written about the concept of “Atonement,” and the problems which arise from the traditional understanding of atonement:

“The word ‘atonement’ was coined in English, perhaps very early in the 16th century, as a way to talk about Christian salvation. It was actually created by simply joining together the phrase at-one-ment. It was meant to be used as a way of talking about how human beings are to be reconciled with God. So, atonement does not directly translate any Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word; it is something new. It has been called perhaps the only theological term with an English origin.

“We should note, then, that the very word ‘atonement’ was created around 400 years after the influential medieval theologian and church leader Anselm of Canterbury wrote his classic text that defined Christian salvation theology—the most influential work for both Catholics and Protestants. Anselm’s position articulated in Cur Deus Homo? _](Why Did God Become Human?) established what came to be called the ‘satisfaction’ model as the essential understanding of atonement that shaped western Christianity (it is essential to realize that Anselm’s work came about a century [_after the formal separation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as the two main branches of Christianity—and the view of salvation developed in eastern Christianity was quite different than the western theology; so what follows is a critique only of the western, Anselmian theology).

So when the word ‘atonement’ was coined, the Anselmic satisfaction approach was in mind. So, even though in recent years theologians have argued for a variety of atonement ‘models,’ some based on streams of Christian thought that long predate Anselm, to talk about ‘atonement’ may most accurately be seen as referring to the satisfaction view—most likely that was the view in mind when the word ‘atonement’ was invented…

“The satisfaction view of atonement has dominated western Christianity for close to a millennium now. Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism (which adds a more intense element with the notion of punishment, ‘penal substitution’), and through Calvinism most of Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism all have generally held to some form of the satisfaction view of atonement as the heart of their salvation theology.”

Miracles

A close study of the miracles of Jesus will show that the writers of the gospels we read inserted them to prove a larger point. Turning water to wine, for instance, at the wedding feast in Cana may have been put there to show that Jesus could transform a situation—any situation—from bad to good. The healing of a blind man may have shown not so much that the man could literally see, but rather, that the man could finally understand the truth of a given situation. The account of the feeding of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes  (Matthew 14:15-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:4-13) may have described a large communal sharing of group members’ food with those who had none. It is interesting that five loaves and two fish add up to seven items, seven being the biblical number for completeness, or perfection.

Resurrection

The preacher was preaching a funeral service for a gentleman well-known to all the community. The church was full.

“He is not dead,” said the preacher. “He is only sleeping.”

A voice from the back of the church could be heard.

“I’ve got twenty dollars in my pocket that says he don’t wake up.”

Of all the Jesus stories I have read or heard or studied over the course of my life, I find the bodily resurrection of Jesus the hardest to accept. It wasn’t so bad when the cowboys shot the Indians, or each other on the TV shows I watched as a kid. Once the show was over, the cowboys and Indians got up from where they lay, cleaned off all make-up and went home to dinner. As I grew, I had a dawning awareness that the people I knew and loved were not, once they died, coming back anytime soon. For the present, they were gone and I would miss them. The first time I had that awareness was when I was in the hospital at the age of six. I was in the isolation unit of the hospital, and my mother got to know the mother of a little girl down the hall, who had leukemia. I did not knpw what lieukemia is at that time, and all I got from my mom and dad were evasive non-answers. The little girl’s mother asked if she could bring her daughter my in a wheelchair to look at me through the window if it was okay. So, for weeks, that mom would wheel her little girl by, and we would wave at each other through the window.. Until one day she didn’t. My mother told me that Carrie (I think that was the little girl’s name) had died and she would not be coming around to see me anymore. My mom’s explanation for her absence was, “she has gone to be with the angels.” I felt a twinge of what I would learn later in my life as the pain of loss, or, grief.

The second time I felt that pain was when a boy named Mike, a next door neighbor and a couple of years older than I, was hit by a car and killed as he rode is bike home from a Cub Scout meeting. He would not be playing with us anymore. Gradually, I became aware of the knowledge that death does not mean washing the make-up off and going home to dinner.

In college, I heard about a new procedure called cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) consisting of chest compressions and air forced into the lungs, either by mouth from another person, or by machine at the hospital, which could bring back to life a person who was clinically dead (no pulse or respiration). It was an accepted medical procedure in the event of cardiac arrests. It so happened that while I was in college, a got a job as an orderly in a large Des Moines hospital. One of my duties as an orderly was to go to the scene of a cardiac arrest and act as the “pumper,” giving chest compressions to the patient as the rest of the medical team did what they needed to do to bring the patient back to life (A word of advice: don’t believe what you see on TV. Giving chest compressions is hard work. Several of us orderlies had to switch off many times during a single event).

Years later, as I was just finished performing a graveside committal service (by then I was a minister), a relative standing with the crowd at the graveside collapsed.

As several of us surrounded the collapsed guy, my CPR training kicked in and we delivered chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the ambulance could get to the cemetery and take him to the hospital. A few days later, I called on the bereaved family, and, lo and behold, sitting in the living room, was the man who had collapsed at the graveside who had been in town for the funeral. When we were introduced, he thanked me for saving his life.

For years I wondered what happened that Saturday in the tomb of Jesus. None of the gospel writers we read in our Bibles provide us with specifics, although Matthew recounts every detail of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness following his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11). Mark also mentions the incident, though not in as much detail (Mark 1:12, 13). Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation is similar to Matthew’s (Luke 4:1-12).

I always wondered why these gospel writers, who were careful to write about Jesus’ temptation at the beginning of his ministry in so much detail, ignored any details of his bodily resurrection, though they mentioned that Jesus rose…they don’t provide any specifics.

Many years later, after I had retired from ministry, an article appeared in one of our denominational magazines by Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, now a professor at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. The article explained what the resurrection story meant to Christians, and how that story is still relevant today.

Brock says that, despite all efforts to stamp out the influence of Jesus by the Romans and others who were against him, Christianity has survived and grown over the centuries. Despite the ignominy of crucifixion and death on a cross (The ancient Romans executed thousands this way, borrowing the practice of crucifixion from the Syrians, but finally gave up the practice in the 5th century AD/CE because it was “inhumane.”), Christians today glorify the cross as a symbol of the supposed death of Christianity and, in fact, its survival and spread across the entire world. Christians held up and displayed the empty cross as a sort of “in your face” gesture to all those who would seek to stamp out and render extinct the teachings and work of Jesus.

In her article “Can we embrace the cross without claiming crucifixion saved us?” an article Nakashima Brock wrote for the “Disciples World” magazine, she said: “… It is important to distinguish the cross from the crucifixion. The earliest images of the cross—dating back to the fourth century—symbolize resurrection, the tree of life, victory over death, and the transfiguration of the world by the Spirit, not sacrifice or debt repayment. The crucifixion was not shown in images until the year 950. To reject atonement theology is not to reject the crucifixion or the cross, but to understand their meaning and the purposes of God differently.

“Telling the story of the crucifixion is crucial to authentic Christianity. It must be told because of our commitment to the saving power of community, of lamentation, of remembrance, and of love stronger than terror, torture or death. We must tell it to affirm the incarnation of God in human flesh, salvation through resurrection and the incarnation of the Spirit in all creation. Telling it affirms divine love and resistance to the powers of empire and death.”

So, the bottom line of what I believe is, do I believe Jesus was crucified? Yes Do I believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus? Probably not. Do I believe that the spirit of Jesus lives on, influencing people to continue his work in his name? YES!

Today, as he is depicted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus serves as an example of a truly God-like life, as well as a radical obedience to God. In the midst of all the crust of enculturation with which we live, that is not always easy, not even most of the time. But it IS possible.

Chapter 4

[+ The Holy Spirit+]

I think of the Holy Spirit as that piece of God—that Spirit—that is inside each person. God is the Divine Spark. It is the way God manifests Godself in the world, through people. If I were to be asked, I would say that God is the Holy Spirit, working through people who are sensitive to the leadings and impulses of that spirit. In the gospel of John, the gospel writer says, “God is spirit and those who worship [God] must worship [God] in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24) Science has led us to understand how God created the mountains and the lakes, and even human beings. We have pretty much figured that out.

But, have you ever tried to figure people out? Have you determined whether people are essentially good, or essentially evil? It is a task that is nigh impossible. I believe that since every person has the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit inside him or her, that people are essentially good. I don’t know this for sure, but I think it is because many people, in general, have covered over the Inner God with what I call “the crust of enculturation.” I think of babies that I have seen. I have never seen a “bad” baby. Fussy, yes. Behaviorally out of control, yes. But not “Bad.” As a baby grows into a child, and from there through the rest of the stages of life, she or he acquires a crust of enculturation through many sources. Cultural norms and practices, learning from the modeling others do, a desensitization of the things in society that turn us away, whether we like it or not, from the goodness that we are born to as possessors, vessels, of the Holy Spirit. Others might call it sin. ..Still others might call it mental illness or demonic possession. BUT…sin is not a matter of breaking the rules. Sin is, instead, thoughts or behaviors that keep God from showing Godself through the individual person. We will discuss this further in a later chapter.

For now, let us say in Hebrew Bible times, sin was thought of as a corporate situation. In other words, because of the sin of just one man in a society, that meant that all of that society was “sinful,” and the consequences of his sin would continue down to the third and fourth generation of his descendants. This is to be distinguished from individual sin, which is the way most of us think of sin today. Many religious rituals were formed in order to cleanse the whole society from its sin and return to devotion to God. Many examples of the Hebrews turning from godliness to sinfulness abound, the most blatant being the worship of the golden calf when Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. The Prophets of the Hebrew Bible warned that the sins of the parents would be visited on the children “to the third and fourth generation.” What goes around, comes around.

Another example of the attempt to cleanse the community of its corporate sin was the use of the scapegoat (find it in Leviticus 16: 8, 10, 26). Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the community would choose a live goat and ritualistically place the sins of the people on a goat, which would then be sent out of the community and into the unknown wilderness, carrying the sins of the people. That would enable the community to start fresh for another year, until the time came around again to send out another scapegoat. The modern use of the term “scapegoat” comes from this biblical account.

It is the Holy Spirit which drives each of us and causes us to make right choices in our lives, as we live our lives and as we relate to others. Some people call this inner presence the soul. I just saw a quote by C.S. Lewis: “You don’t have a soul; you are a soul. You have a body.” This would make it fairly easy for us to relate to other people who look or act different than we do, or who occupy a different (usually lower, we feel) station in life by reminding ourselves that God is present in them as much as God is present in us. In other words, “The God in me meets the God in you.” To dismiss a person mentally, socially or emotionally is to dismiss or deny the presence of God which is in them. That is the basis of the notion that every person we encounter deserves respect and dignity. To dismiss a person from our consideration, respect or dignity is to dismiss God. So, the choice is ours, to dismiss or discount another person thereby dismissing the God that is in each us, or to respect that person’s experiences, talents and self-hood, thereby respecting God, the giver of all life.

It’s like another seminary professor of mine, the late “Fig” Newton Fowler used to say often, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.” And that reminds me. Now it’s time for another caveat: As I said before, this is a journal which tells of where I have been and where I am now. You are welcome to join me on this journey, but you will not be estranged from me if you choose not to join me. This book is my account of how I am able to make sense of the “God-thing” as a whole. I thank you for giving my thoughts your attention, whether you agree with them or not. Recently, I commented on a conversation thread on an Atheist discussion page on Facebook. I asked them not to judge all Christians by the worst examples of us. I respectfully requested that they respect my belief in God, just as much as I respected their unbelief.

WOW!! Did I stir up a nest of hornets! Every response I got indicated that they didn’t need my respect, nor did they want it, and included all the arguments against the existence of God. The tone of their responses was sometimes fearful; they indicated that they were being attacked by my mere appearance on their conversational thread. I learned that those Atheists on that discussion page were as dogmatic and intolerant as some “Christians” can be.

Our religious perceptions and understandings are heavily influenced by the culture, or even the sub-culture, in which we live. I saw this first-hand in my own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Iowa urban Disciples’ worship services look and feel completely different from rural Iowan Disciples’ worship services, which in turn look and feel very different from rural Kentucky Disciples’ worship services. And so on.

Now, expand that idea of cultural differences and how they affect the look, feel and shape of religion throughout the world. Some worshippers worship God, some worship Yahweh, some worship Allah, and others worship Hindu deities. My latest edition of the “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” list over 500 recognized religious groups with different names, all worshipping the one God, which, the gospel writer John reminds us, is spirit. No matter what you call God, God is God.

But what about the Trinity, the Big Three-in-One, Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is worshipped by major Christian bodies ever since the creeds were developed? Some of us sing about that…a line in the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” says “God in three persons blessed Trinity.” Others of us now sing “God over all and evermore shall be.” Maybe some day we will sing that hymn with words that go something like. “God who’s in all and ever more shall be.”

Frankly, I never had a problem with that. Three-in-One. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Looking back over my own life, I have been a father, and at the same time, a son. My spirit lives on in many of the campers from the Church camps I directed from 1983 to 1997, or so they tell me, as well as other people I have influenced positively over the course of my adult life. Three different roles in the same one guy.

Now, think of God as the Holy Spirit, and that which showed most brightly through God’s son Jesus. “God the Father” still works for me if we think of each of ourselves as sons or daughters of God, and we all have God’s spirit—the Holy Spirit—as a part of each one of us.

Jesus was, in the words of the cinematic Asian detective Charlie Chan, God’s “number one son.”

I think that the term, “Three in one” is what gets people confused. The tendency of thought is toward this is of a separate person, or being, occupying a different role. Earlier in my life, I had a brief sojourn in the Unitarian Universalist church in my city, which helped me understand that Jesus was not God, only a reflection of God and all that was good about God. The chosen-to-die-for-everyone’s-sin thing is another thing that I don’t buy. Put me firmly in the camp of individual sin, but I don’t see Jesus as the then-now-and- forever scapegoat for the whole human race.

A friend of mine who read the first draft of this book told me that many might consider me blasphemous if they read this book. I understand this, and it is okay if they think I am blasphemous. And it does not bother me. For century upon century, “blasphemous” has been part of the verbal arsenal used to try and bring those who thought or believed differently than the mainstream into line. Done with assuming to know what “blasphemous” means, I actually looked up the word in the dictionary. “Blasphemous” means, “uttering, containing, or exhibiting blasphemy; irreverent; profane.” I went on and looked up “blasphemy” and this is what I found: “impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things.” And/or,”the crime of assuming to oneself the rights or qualities of God.” The dictionary says the word meant what I thought it did.

I don’t know about rights, but assuming the qualities of God sounds like an admirable goal for which to shoot! As a reminder, the whole point of this book is that God is not “Out there” in the void, but rather ”In here,” the divine spark or presence inside each person. To me, assuming the qualities of God as we find them in Jesus is the end goal of the spiritual journey. But, hey, that’s me.

[+ Chapter 5+]

THE BIBLE I

“How do I know, the Bible tells me so” An old song by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans

I must have been in High School or Junior High (Young People of Today: read “Middle School” instead of “Junior High”) when I first heard the term “willful suspension of disbelief” as it applies to watching a play. A willful suspension of disbelief is when the villain pulls a gun out of his pocket during a dramatic production, for example, and says, “This gun is loaded, and I am not afraid to use it!”

As an audience member, you know that the gun is not loaded (the nightly cast changes would be a nightmare!) but your willful suspension of disbelief allows you to think, for the sake of the play, that it is loaded and the air in the theater becomes charged with danger.

Many, many people today read the Bible with a willful suspension of disbelief. The first word that pops to mind when they read of Noah in his ark or Jesus turning water to wine is, “Miracle.” That is fine for those who believe that, but it is not fine for me.

I used to believe in the miracle stories in the Bible. However, I always felt a little uncomfortable when I heard them; I could not willingly suspend that much of my disbelief.

But then I entered seminary. Fortunately, the professors I had did not subscribe to the literalistic interpretation of the Bible. They pointed out a few things to me and my classmates. For instance: Those passages in the Bible that refer to miracles are referred to as such because the writers of the books of the Bible had no way of understanding them otherwise. In this day and age, anything that happens in our world that we cannot explain, some ascribe to “miracles,” with no regard for science. For instance, Dad has a tumor. He undergoes courses of radiation and chemotherapy, which was unheard of back when the Bible books were written. At a later check-up, an X-ray shows that the tumor has shrunk enough to be almost invisible. The delighted patient and his family rejoice in the “miracle” that has taken place—with no regard to modern science which came along after the Bible was written.

The Bible is a statement of how God works in human history, according to the writers of the books that make up the Bible that we read today. And it is worth noting that some of the material we read, for instance the creation story has been borrowed and adapted from creation stories from other cultures.

What makes the Bible useful to us today is the way we apply it to our lives. The Bible is even more relevant to our lives if we believe that God doesn’t work by Godself; God works through people and what we call “science.” The miracle stories of the Bible are useful in reminding us that there is a God who works in history, through people who adopt the spirit of God and make living out that spirit a visible, tangible part of their daily lives.

The Bible makes no claims to direct quotations. In our lives today, we have grown used to a 24-hour news cycle. “Pays your money and takes your choice:” CNN, MSNBC, Fox News (this one is not my personal choice!), and local news….all these organizations have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on video equipment that can record every sound bite as it happens. They have spent thousands more dollars on equipment that can deliver those sound bites to our waiting eyes and ears. Modern technology has even made it possible for people to hear words spoken that were not meant for everyone to hear! No one in the Bible had a news crew with video recorders and microphones following them around. The accuracy of the dialogue in the Bible is open to question.

No one book of the Bible was ever written in a vacuum. Each book was written for a purpose and targeted to the readers who would be best served by that purpose. That is why, as I mentioned before, each of the four gospels is about Jesus, but has a different slant on the story. That is why there is nothing written about the birth of Jesus in the gospels of Mark and John. Some material was inserted, though it was not historically accurate; the birth narratives, for instance. Part of Matthew’s purpose in his message to his Jewish readers was to show that Jesus was a direct descendant of God, and was therefore the Christ. Hence, “the begats” at the beginning of the book.

For me, the Bible has exploded in relevance ever since I began thinking of God as the Inner Spirit, rather than some massive, External Being that sees all, knows all and can do anything. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in God. But I also believe God works the best of Godself out through people. We people have the power to choose how much of God’s inner presence we let out and make itself known to the people around us. We do this best by living in the image and by the teachings of Jesus.

Religion and modern science are not at odds! Modern science has given us the ability to “miraculously” heal diseases that were heretofore terminal and fatal. However, science has also given us the ability to destroy all life and the earth on which it lives. Which uses of science do we choose? Depends on how much each of us, lets the Inner Spirit of God shine through our lives-individual, communal, and world-wide- and become visible in what we do, say and think.

And another thing: How do those who take the Bible literally reconcile the passage in the book of Revelation which says, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.… (Revelation 22:18, 19) with the dozens of Bible translations and paraphrases that have appeared since the original book of the Revelation of John on Patmos was written in Greek? This just occurred to me. After spending years in the ministry, and more years studying the Bible, the question did not occur to me until just now. The only way I can imagine dealing with the passage is to ignore it, not read it, and pretend it is not there. Help me, Literalists! What do you do with this bit of scripture? Just asking. There are more translations and revisions out there than can be counted on the hands of several people.

Far from being a “dead book,” the Bible continues to speak to us with relevancy. I have always been impressed with the artwork of M.C. Escher, whose drawing and prints emphasize the point that there is more than one way of looking at things. Have you seen Escher’s work that depicts two hands drawing, each hand drawing the other hand? Or, the one where stair steps seem to go up and down at the same time around a column or a building? For me, those illustrations symbolize the way we can experience God. Out there, or in here? I believe that God is behind the creation of modern science. To deny science is to deny God’s work, in essence, to give God a failing grade in Creation class. The spirit of God is behind every new creation, and it inhabited in the past and inhabits those in the present who call themselves scientists, or engage in scientific inquiry.

I applaud those who seek to make the Bible accessible and understandable to individuals today. As a part of my seminary training years ago, I called on a hospital patient and his wife at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. The patient had lung cancer and was approaching the end of his life. I asked him if he wanted me to read some words of comfort to him and his wife from the Bible. He eagerly accepted my offer.

“What translation of the Bible would you like me to read from?” I asked him. His answer took me aback.

“The King James Version,” he said. “That is the version that was used by Jesus Christ and his disciples!” I knew the King James Version of the Bible did not exist before 1611 CE/AD, but I did not tell him that. He was dying of lung cancer after all! Instead, I read from both testaments out of the King James version. To be sure, much of the KJV is poetic and pleasant to listen to, if not entirely accurate, when measured against the original languages in which the Bible was written.

Words of comfort and strength, which have sustained individuals and groups down through the ages of the history of the Bible, no matter what version of the Bible they might read.

Browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, I came across an edition of “The Superheroes Bible.” I have not, and probably will not, read it, but if “The Superheroes Bible” can reach young people and people who are into superheroes in ways that other versions of the Bible do not, I say more power to it! AS LONG AS it is based on an accurate translation of original texts.

I have a nephew who is an excellent artist. He uses his talent and training to draw panels for “adult novels,” that is, “comic books.” It is his contention that modern comic books illustrate much of what the Bible says about the conflict between Good and Evil. I stopped reading comics about the time of Porky Pig and Archie and Jughead, but I don’t doubt what my nephew says. And once again, if comics can reach a segment of people that have become turned off by the traditional renditions of the Bible, or what they have been taught the Bible “clearly says,” then I say good deal! The American Bible Society’s catalogue offers the Bible in several languages other than English; how is a “Superheroes Bible” any different than that?

At this point, I should say that, far from being funny books that portray characters in a way that makes us laugh, many comic books today have serious themes: love of all types, forgiveness, revenge, tolerance and acceptance, good vs. evil, and so on. In other words, all of the themes that are addressed in the Bible.

But, no matter what version or type of Bible one reads, the difference in what the Bible has to teach us is the difference between the person who passively says, “Teach me something!” and the person who actively goes seeking the wisdom the Bible contains and applies it to God, the Inner Spirit, and life in these modern times.

[+ CHAPTER 6+]

[+ Sin, Guilt and Forgiveness+]

 

Heaven’s Just a Sin Away”-A song by The Kendalls

Around churches and among religious people, there is a lot of talk about sin.

Most people I know treat sin like a demerit system at one of our country’s service academies. I have never attended one of our service academies, but the way I understand it, if you accumulate enough demerits while you are a cadet, you will be ordered to leave the academy, cast into the lake of fire, so to speak, and you will no longer be considered a student there.

Just so, people seem to believe that if they commit enough sins, or a particularly terrible sin during their lifetimes, they will wash out of the chance to make it to heaven.

I am not so sure about that.

One of the derivations of the word “sin” is an old word used often in archery contests. The word sin meant “to miss the mark,” or to hit the outer yellow ring; “off the mark.”

In this not-so-new, but different, way of thinking about all things God, I see sin as the “dimming of the divine spark in each human being. Earlier, I talked about the “Crust of Enculturation,” that my professor/friend taught in seminary. Sin, in that frame of reference, is dimming of the light of the inner presence of God—by the accumulation of the Crust of Enculturation/sin.” It has nothing to do with “breaking the rules,” as most people seem to think.

This Crust of Enculturation, or sin, is comprised of all the things that promote selfishness, greed, disrespect of others, lack of compassion, lack of respect for life, all the “isms,” (racism, sexism, age-ism, homophobia, etc.), self-righteousness, cruelty to people and animals, intolerance, all the phobias that apply to other humans, the perpetuation of injustice, as well as acquisitiveness with which we are tempted as we go through our days. It is my firm belief that American society is devolving, becoming more encrusted with enculturation as time goes on. Some might say our society, or even the whole world, is becoming more sinful. I think of a T-shirt I saw years ago which said, “He who dies with the most toys wins!” It made me sad. I think of another T-shirt I saw just a few years ago, which said, “The best things in life aren’t things!” The second T-shirt is the one more appealing to me, one I would be more inclined to buy.

It seems to me that the oldest and most widespread sin all over the world is racism. Often, this sin is passed down from generation to generation. We find examples of it in the Bible, and we find it in modern history. In Biblical times, and to this day. Samaritans are marginalized by Jews, because, according to the Bible, Ishmael was the “illegitimate” son of Abraham; Jews’ hatred of Palestinians also goes back a long way. In modern history, many of those alive today can remember instances of “ethnic cleansing” in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world, and Jim Crow laws in the American South. That sin has been handed down through the ages by our forebears, and we practice it without thinking, despite our attempt to rid ourselves and our society of racism.

The roots of racism seem to be growing, in part, in the ground of xenophobia, the fear of something different. From the beginning of time, people tried to overcome or marginalize other people who looked, thought, acted or spoke differently. I believe it also comes from a need to feel superior to others, for whatever reason—skin color, nationality, bank account versus no bank account, bigger bnk account than your bank account, etc.

In this country, racism stays dormant, simmering underneath the national body, until it erupts with ugly consequences. It reminds me of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a condition about which I learned through my work with AIDS patients and their families back in the 90’s. For the patient, the immune deficiency virus might be present in the body for months, with the patient being none the wiser, if not in outright denial. Finally, the first sign of the AIDS presence often starts with the appearance of bruise-like lesions over the patient’s body. Back in the years I worked with AIDS-affected people and families, there was no more denial once the Kaposi’s sarcoma appeared. When that happened, the certain eventual outcome was death.

“Sin” is bad, “No sin” is good. According to Wikipedia, “Original sin, also called ancestral sin, is the Christian doctrine of humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of man, stemming from Adam’s rebellion in Eden. This condition has been characterized in many ways, ranging from something as insignificant as a slight deficiency, or a tendency toward sin yet without collective guilt, referred to as a “sin nature”, to something as drastic as total depravity or automatic guilt of all humans through collective guilt.

“The concept of original sin was first alluded to in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in his controversy with certain dualist Gnostics. Other church fathers such as Augustine also developed the doctrine, seeing it as based on the New Testament teaching of Paul the Apostle(Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22) and the Old Testament verse of Psalm 51:5”

Traditionally, according to the doctrine of original sin, only God can forgive sin, in some traditions mediated through ministers and priests. You may have heard the old proverb, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” Many people still use that proverb today. And, by the way, the original sin consisted of eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, so humanity could be as knowledgeable as God, as well as disobedience of God’s instruction by eating the fruit to begin with.. I remember as a kid reading an old primer entry, written for children to help them learn to read: “Through Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” The Bible did not call it that. The lesson of eating the Fruit lies in presuming to be equal to God, and disobeying God who is “somewhere out there,” to borrow a line from a song from the Disney movie, “An American Tale.” But with the paradigm of God as an inner presence, only we, ourselves, can remove the “stain of sin” by getting rid of the Crust of Enculturation in ourselves. Only we, ourselves, are responsible for the lightness or severity—the degree—of our own sinfulness. That takes effort, and that is the where the word “Repentance” comes into play regarding our spiritual condition. One must consciously work to shed the crust of enculturation, i.e. “sin”, by changing life patterns and habits, thought patterns and attitudes, to allow the spirit of God to shine brightly through us. It’s sort of llike scraping the barnacles away from the ships we sail through life. And while we’re at it, to work to remove the sources of the crust of enculturation from the world we live in, i.e. injustice, racism, violence and all the other things I mentioned above.

It requires constant self-examination, vigilance and effort. The effects of enculturation/sin, are insidious and build up slowly but inexorably while we are largely unaware of the accumulation in ourselves. It doesn’t have to be constant, but the Lenten season, the 40 days before Easter is a good time to take an annual assessment of our priorities and attitudes. Lent is the time, I think of as Spring Cleaning for the spirit. It is a time, not necessarily to give up meat, or smoking, or sweets, or swearing, etc. but rather to give up things that are a deeper part of us like greed, racism, homophobia or anything else that dims the light of the Inner Presence of God. Lent is a time to take stock of ourselves and replace those enculturating things with attitudes and behaviors more in line with what Jesus taught and lived.

As we go through Lent, it is not necessary to make a list, and then resolve to change everything on the list of the crust of enculturation/sin in our lives at once. Make a list, then resolve to change two or three things on that list. The next time Lent rolls around, resolve to change two or three more, or keep working on the items that you didn’t accomplish this year. Life is a process, and it doesn’t happen all at once. The goal of life is to live in the image of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Whoever. Not the exterior image, but rather the goodness that each figure reflects from within. That, to me, is what it means to be “born again.” Like the process of birthing babies, some births come so quickly the babies are born in the taxicab on the way to the hospital; other births take so long, the prospective parents are sent home to await the emergence of the new baby for another day (or middle of the night).

Like everything else, repentance takes time. It is a process. A day-by-day process. It does us well to remember that even the magic beans that Jack traded the cow for in the fairy tale took all night to grow up to where the giant and the goose with the golden eggs lived. It takes time to make a good cup of coffee. You can’t expect a clean spiritual slate instantly. There is no use for wallowing in guilt and self-hatred and give up because the spiritual growth doesn’t happen immediately. And you have to be actively involved in the process.

That’s where forgiveness comes in. When you forgive someone, it is not as if you are saying to them, “It is okay, what you did.” Some things are never okay to do. Murder, Rape, Domestic Violence, Child abuse, things that destroy another person’s self-esteem, things that cause another person to lose their Life, things that destroy families, things that perpetuate injustice on other groups. Like that. Forgiveness of someone who wronged you, or sinned against you is saying, “What you did is over. Let’s move on.” That scene in the film of your life has already passed through the projector and is gone on to the take-up reel. That is what happens when you forgive someone else. I know a lady who still hasn’t forgiven the neighbor who kicked at her dog some 50 years ago. That’s the way she lives her life, and she is miserable most of the time, even when she is happy. I have seen the neighbor many times in recent years, and have found him to be a nice guy, easy to get along with, and regarded highly in the community. He probably doesn’t even remember kicking at the dog.

When people stand in need of forgiveness, they are the ones who must do the forgiving. When you forgive someone, you unburden yourself from anger, resentment, anxiety and ill-will. The one who is the object of your forgiveness goes his or her way, on with life, not necessarily feeling or needing your forgiveness. Chances are, they have forgiving of their own to do.

As I was writing this book, many were shocked beyond words, as was I, by the massacre of nine people who were attending a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlotte, South Carolina. I wondered about the families of the victims. Will they be able to find it in their hearts to forgive the shooter, who, according to news reports, confessed to the killing and spoke of wanting to start a “race war?” As it turned out, according to updated news reports and a live video feed of the shooter, Dylann Roof’s, first court appearance, several family members spoke to Roof and told the young man that, although their hearts were broken by the loss of their loved ones, a majority of the family members said they forgave him this horrendous act. All over the country, people gathered in churches the night after the incident to pray for the victims and their families. Did any of those prayers include a prayer for the shooter and his family? I wonder about the parents of that young man. Can they forgive themselves for raising a son in an environment so toxic as to produce a racist killer of other people? I wonder about that young man, who was apprehended just hours after the killings. Chances are, from what I understand, he will get the death penalty upon his conviction in court. Will he be able to forgive himself—genuinely forgive himself—before that penalty is carried out, and his earthly life is ended?

This afternoon. I watched the televised bail hearing of Dylann Roof, the shooter, as members of the victims’ families spoke personally to him before the judge set his bond. I was surprised that, less than 48 hours after losing their loved ones in the least place one would expect to lose a loved one, the majority of the family members who spoke offered their statements of forgiveness to him. I don’t know what they meant personally when they said “I forgive you,” but I am pretty sure they did not mean shooting down their family members was okay, and they condoned what he did. I am also pretty sure that none of the family members are likely to forget the events that cast them into mourning their losses. The phrase “forgive and forget” just doesn’t work for me.

It is a genuinely difficult thing to do, to even think about forgiving the shooter. Even though his actions did not have a direct impact on us, the media, such as CNN, has already divided the players of this real drama into two camps. The shooter=BAD; all the rest of us=GOOD. For myself, it was difficult to remember that even that young man, Dylann Roof, had the divine spark of God within him, covered up as it may have been with the crust of enculturation. Part of me wants the shooter to be executed nine times, once for every victim of that mass shooting in a church. I actually have to remind myself consciously that he, too, is a child of God and has the divine inner presence in his being, covered in the crust of enculturation as it apparently was. And I had to remind myself that I am against capital punishment. That is not to say that for us to withhold forgiveness of this man will do him any harm; it is to say that forgiveness will release us from the heavy weights of grudges and judgment, which is not our job to begin with.

Please remember: Forgiveness is not about saying “What you did is all right.” Forgiveness is about saying “What you did is over and past; let’s move on.” Thinking about forgiveness in that context, the phrase “I forgive you” is more a declaration of independence for oneself than it is something a person gives to another. The declaration of independence you make for yourself says that you will no longer be shackled by grudges, anger, resentment or any other force that threatens to dim the inner light of God inside you. Instead, you can go ahead and be all God, the inner divine spark, enables you to be.

 

[+ Chapter 7+]

[+ THE BIBLE II+]

(“How do I know? The Bible tells me so!” An old song by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans)

I wish I could remember the name of the man who first said the words that struck me with an almost physical force: “The Bible is the Word of God, but not the words of God. That is to say, the Bible is a valid guide to faith, but not necessarily if one reads every word on every page as the literal truth.

Time was, and still is for many people, when the Bible would tell people what and how to believe, just by opening the book to chapter and verse, reading it, and following the instruction as if it were a mandate from God. Or a memo from the Front Office. Just today, I was looking at Facebook and came across an app for free download that promised to give chapter and verse citation to any verse in the Bible. Sounds to me like an on-line concordance. I even know people who told me that when faced with a decision as to what to do in their lives, they close their eyes, open the Bible and put their finger down somewhere on the opened pages. They read the verses and then interpret it to fit their own situations.

However, modern biblical scholarship by people who are in the faith traditions of both Christians and Jews, have given us an understanding that stands the literal interpretation of the Bible on its ear, so to speak.

I stopped believing the Bible in the “words of God” sense in high school. Even before high school, when I believed the bible literally, I was plagued by questions in my mind that began, “How did…” or “Why did…” I remember the first big question I had in my mind was, “If God created everything, then who created God?” When I got to college, I started learning so much more about how the Bible came to be written beyond the “Just by Christians and Jews” paradigm. In seminary, I learned even more. I learned why it is rather dangerous to say, “The Bible clearly says…” especially when you can find a contradiction within the same Bible, for the same verse or passage the Bible “clearly” asserts. I learned about the different literary forms used in the Bible, and how the Bible was put together, as it were, and why some books were included and some books were not. I learned what the meanings of many of the original words were. I learned how to read beneath the words on the page to get at the meaning and intention of what was being said, and to get a deeper understanding (no pun intended) of God’s word, in both testaments, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and the New Testament. I learned that it is always more reliable to trust the language in which the books of the Bible were originally written to discern the meaning of the passage. I learned that because of what I had learned to that point, I had a physical and mental reaction to people with plaques on their walls which said “The Bible Says It; I Believe It; That Settles It,” as well as people who simplistically differentiated the two testaments by saying things like “The Old Testament is about an angry, violent God, and the New Testament God is a God of love.” I learned to find, in the parts of the Bible that many people don’t bother to read, that “angry violent God/God of love” dichotomy is simplistic and plain wrong.

I told you earlier the story of how, in the first congregation I served after graduating from seminary, one of the first home visits I made was to a couple who had that “The Bible Says It; I Believe It; That Settles It.” plaque by their back door, the door in which I entered. I had a sneaking suspicion from the moment I saw the plaque that I should tread lightly over the ground of our conversation.

In another earlier chapter, I talked about making a visit at the University Of Kentucky Medical Center to a patient and his wife. The patient was dying of lung cancer. I asked him if he would like me to read some scripture to him, and from what version. He told me that he wanted the King James Version, (authorized in the 1600’s), because that is the version used by Jesus and his disciples (CE/AD 30ff).

In the church I now attend, a friend and I have been teaching a class on “hot topics” such as abortion, same-sex marriage, war and peace, rich versus poor, free speech versus responsible speech, as well as other modern-day topics and how the Bibles we use as our guides impact our opinions on such topics. For many of these topics, we have to search out the meanings below the words on the page to get a sense of what a responsible Christian viewpoint might be.

While I was getting ready for church last Sunday morning, the thought struck me: There was a time when the method of fighting disease was to apply leeches to the patient’s body to suck out the disease. Since then, treatments and new drugs, surgeries and other procedures have all but done away with leech therapy. With modern medical practice and procedures, the cure rate for all patients has increased exponentially. And yet, many read the Bible by the “leech therapy” method, passing over all the gateways to new treatments and drugs, or in the case of Bible study, new methods for applying those new methods that have developed since the Bible was written to situations in contemporary of modern life, thereby missing much of the richness the Bible has to offer. Often this is accompanied with the attitude expressed by a sign I saw for sale in a gift shop once: “My mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.”

But how do we get these facts? If you have read this book to this point, maybe you have a pastor who can answer your sincere questions. ASK her or him! Nothing makes a pastor happier than to be able to pass along information he or she learned in seminary and discovered in their own Bible reading. Join Bible study groups when they are offered at your churches. Read the Bible, instead of passing along to others’ information about what the books of the Bible “say.” In a study conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary many years ago, about the time I entered Lexington Theological Seminary, incoming students were asked to identify which testament, Old, New, or Neither,” contained sayings like, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” “A fool and his money are soon parted,” “Waste not, want not,” and other sayings taken from Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” An astonishing 17% of the incoming students got a failing grade on the test. These were people, mostly men at that time, who wanted to be ministers, for God’s sake (no pun intended)! From the results, it appears that Princeton Theological Seminary had its work cut out for it that year.

In the denomination to which I belong, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), one of the slogans that has arisen in its history is that “We are people of the Book.” The question that has been in my mind for many years is, how can we be people of the Book when we don’t even read the book, or misread the Book? Come to think of it, I have not heard that slogan quoted in any of our churches in several years. Has the Book become irrelevant in our spiritual formation? Have we been turned away from it by hearing others misuse the words of the Bible, sometimes egregiously?

In advance of the class on Hot Topics my friend and I taught this spring, we asked prospective members to bring their Bibles to class. Know how many Bibles showed up along with their owners? Two. Mine and another class member’s. I guess the other class members figured they could scare up a Bible once they got to church, but, alas, I did not see that happen.

In addition to asking your minister about questions you may have or going to a Bible class, you can get a better understanding by reading the Bible in an authoritative, understandable translation. I have found the best Bible for my own personal use in preaching, teaching and studying is the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. According to Wikipedia, the online contributor-written encyclopedia, “The Revised Standard Version (RSV) is an English-language translation of the Bible published in several parts during the mid-20th century. The RSV is a revision of the American Standard Version (ASV) authorized by the copyright holder, the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA.

“The RSV posed the first serious challenge to the popularity of the Authorized (King James) Version (KJV). It was intended to be a readable and literally accurate modern English translation, not only to create a clearer version of the Bible for the English-speaking church but also to “preserve all that is best in the English Bible as it has been known and used through the centuries” and “to put the message of the Bible in simple, enduring words that are worthy to stand in the great Tyndale-King James tradition.”

“The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Christian Bible is an English translation released in 1989. It is an updated revision of the Revised Standard Version, which was itself an update of the American Standard Version.

“The NRSV was intended as a translation to serve devotional, liturgical and scholarly needs of the broadest possible range of religious adherents. The full translation includes the books of the standard Protestant canon as well as the books traditionally included in the canons of Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity (the so-called “Apocryphal” or “Deuterocanonical” books).

“The translation appears in three main formats: an edition including only the books of the Protestant canon, a Roman Catholic Edition with all the books of that canon in their customary order, and The Common Bible, which includes all books that appear in Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox canons. Special editions of the NRSV employ British spelling and grammar. “

The NRSV has the same careful scholarship applied to its text as the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, but it is much more readable by people regardless of the professions they might have chosen. Be aware that, over time, language has changed! What may mean something now, may have meant something when your personal Bible, or the Bible your church uses in worship, may mean the complete opposite today.

Another version of the Bible I have found useful and very readable for personal study is the Bible in Today’s English Version (TEV), or also called the Good News Bible.

Again, from Wikipedia: “The Good News Bible (GNB), also called the Good News Translation (GNT) in the United States, is an English translation of the Bible by the American Bible Society. It was first published as the New Testament under the name Good News for Modern Man in 1966. It was anglicized into British English by the British and Foreign Bible Society with the use of metric measurements for the Commonwealth market. It was formerly known as Today’s English Version (TEV), but in 2001 was renamed the Good News Translation in the U.S., because the American Bible Society wished to improve the GNB’s image as a “translation” where it had a public perception as a “paraphrase.” Despite the official terminology, it is still often referred to as the Good News Bible in the United States. It is published by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of News Corp.”

A word to the wise: Beware of paraphrases! Paraphrases like the popular Living Bible are immensely readable, but they are that at the expense of faithful translation from the original texts, and forego modern biblical scholarship.

My general rule of thumb is, before you say, “The Bible says…” please be sure that, in fact, it says whatever you are going to say. You can’t always tell by just reading the words on the page. Also, please be sure that you quote the Bible as close to the original intention of the text as you can. My favorite example of this is a lady in my own church, older than I am, who asked me one Sunday if the story of the casting of Hagar, Abraham’s first lover (as far as we know), and her son, Ishmael, traditionally the founder of the group known in Jesus’ day as the Samaritans, was a valid justification for racism, as she had been told when she was young (both Hagar and Ishmael were people of color, that is, different color than the people who wrote the books of the Bible). I tried to keep a straight face since I had never heard that question before. I explained to her that the lesson of Hagar and Ishmael was to trust the promises of God, and to believe that God will accomplish God’s promises in God’s own time.

Also, beware of quoting a single verse or two while leaving out the context in which the verse was set. I am now re-reading a book called What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality. The writers of that book say that placed in the context of the scripture passage in which the verses are set, the meaning of those verses, so often used to self-righteously condemn people just like you and me, except for their sexual orientation, refer to other cultural practices in place at that time. Here is a brief test for you readers of this book: What all does Jesus say about homosexuality? Go ahead, look it up. For those of you with a “Don’t tell me what to do” mindset, here is the answer: NOTHING.

And keep studying the Bible! I have been studying scripture in one form or another nearly all my life. As I have grown older, the lessons I learned from scripture have changed like the light wheels that used to shine on aluminum Christmas trees, one color gradually morphing into another, with maturity and accumulated learnings, products of your study of God’s Word. And the learnings I have received are deeper and more significant with each stage of learning. AND, there is no need to be afraid of the changes and new understandings. At the ripe old age of where I am now, I am finally starting to feel settled and fulfilled by my understanding of Scripture, so far. Am I done learning? I doubt it. How do I feel about what I learned in Sunday school as a kid? I now honor that stuff as a foundation for the learnings I have accumulated as I got older. However, I do not cling to it, as the be-all and end-all of Bible knowledge and learning. I keep open to new insights and learnings, helped by my experience and education.

At this point in my life, I have found that there are “Letter of the Law” people and “Spirit of the Law” people in any religious discussion, and respectful, meaningful dialogue between the two groups is difficult, if not downright impossible.

Personally, I consider myself a “Spirit of the Law” person, and my life has become much more religiously comfortable.

[+ CHAPTER 8+]

[+ Prayer+]

(“I prayed, ‘Lord, please give me a new car…and He did it!”—a woman I once heard on the radio)

Over my years spent around religious types, I have heard many people speak as if they regarded God as a divine Santa Claus, or a cosmic gumball machine: Just put the prayer in the slot, move the lever to the side and out pops the sweet treat. Or, spend a little while in “face time” with God, like a child sitting on Santa’s lap at the department store or the shopping mall, give him a list of the things you honestly believe you can’t live without, and a few days later, go out and reap the bounty.

Or, a divine magician. Praying and expecting God to perform miracles as a last-ditch attempt to reverse a dire situation. On the day my father died, I got the call that he had passed just as I was just getting ready to go into the sanctuary and lead the Sunday worship service. I had just seen him the night before at my parents home, about 100 miles away. When I got the news, I remember thinking that, although we all knew the eventual outcome of his lung cancer, I still harbored the secret hope/conviction that God would pull a rabbit out of a top hat, as it were, and Dad would eventually be okay, healed, well and whole.

I learned the “pattern of prayer” from my Dad, who learned it in seminary. It is easy to remember: A.C.T.S.—Adoration, in which the pray-er tells God how great and wonderful God is; Confession, in which the pray-er tells God the pray-er’s shortcomings (but not all of the pray-er’s shortcomings….some short-comings are best kept close to the vest! God will never find out, right?); Thanksgiving, in which the pray-er gives thanks for just about anything he/she can think of, (the good stuff, that is). I would guess that the least followed instruction in the Bible is found I Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything (italics mine) in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:20 NRSV), and Supplication, in which the pray-er asks God for more stuff, for him or herself, or for others. In many churches, one of the elements of the worship service is a prayer, led by the officiant of the service, or the pastor, often in a “stained-glass voice” on behalf of the people attending the service. Here, I must confess that, as a young, green minister, I was a product of my tradition, my father’s example, and my training in Seminary, I was one of those stained-glass voice, ACTS-types.

But, I always had an inner problem with the Pastoral Prayer element of the worship service. It was as if many in the congregation expected me to do the praying for everyone since I was on the payroll. That way, they could go through the rest of the week, without having to “bother” about prayer; they could come back to church and get another shot of prayer the following week. Many people conveniently ignored the biblical injunction, “Pray without ceasing.”

Since that time, I have thought about Re-thinking God, which has impacted every area of my life. Rather than a cosmic gumball machine or a divine Santa Claus, I now see prayer as an active process on the part of every person, to clear away the crust of enculturation and let the inner Divine Spark shine as brightly as it can. I once read a book by some guy who said that he prayed for a friend to get a broken leg, in order that the guy might develop a greater dependence on God. Whaaaaat? Even back then, I was speechless. It was as if the guy was trying to cast a voo-doo spell on his poor acquaintance. I quit reading the book right after I read that passage about the “friend” and the broken leg, so I am not sure how it ended.

Now, I see that the discipline of regular prayer, taught by many churches, is a good discipline to practice. However, rather than praying to the God out there, like a ham radio operator who sends out a “CQ” signal (“Anybody there?”), I would recommend a prayer discipline that happens at least once daily, if not more often, to clear away any bits of crust of enculturation that have accumulated in the soul since the last time one has prayed. I am not talking about the acts of missing the mark themselves; I am talking about the attitudes, some deeply ingrained by culture and one’s family and friends—greed, hatred of other people, racism, any other –ism, disrespect for creation, an attitude of loving things and using God instead of the other way around, the 10 commandments (Exodus 20) are pretty good¸ stuff like that.

I guess I see this kind of prayer as being akin the running one’s vehicle through the car wash every day. The more one does it, the less dust and grime comes off after each wash.

A word about those 10 commandments: If you study them carefully, they all boil down to what is useful for us today…Love and respect God, and love and respect each other. The Ten Commandments are a guide for modern readers to hear clearly…respect all creation!

Last spring, while on a church men’s retreat, we all watched the movie “42,” the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first player of color in major league baseball. The movie recounted how several of Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodger teammates ostracized him, refused to play on a team that contained a “Negro,” and many other instances of disrespect. It struck me as I watched the movie that by denying Robinson the basic dignity and respect that one person deserves from another, the players and others in the movie were denying the existence of God within Robinson. Then it struck me, that is what at we do whenever we lump all individuals into a single group and judge all individuals in that group by the worst individuals in that group.

The term, “those people…” makes my head explode.

Years ago, I preached a sermon in church called, “Looking for God in All the Wrong Places.” This sermon may have been the seed which grew into this book, even though as I recall the sermon, I was on the right track but failed to follow the track to its terminus. The sermon was based on the account of the prophet Elijah, and tells how Elijah went looking for God in the Wind, the Earthquake, and the Fire and failed to find God in any of those big spectacular events. Instead, Elijah found God in the “still small voice” from within.

It seems to me that the first part of any prayer we offer God should be a sincere apology for not recognizing God’s presence in every person, the whole world around. This is my ongoing challenge: As I erite this book, many candidates have already declared their candidacy for the office of President of the United States. One of those candidates is Donald Trump. I do not know Trump personally, and frankly, I don’t want to know Donald Trump personally, because his public statements seem to reflect his beief in, and espousal of, everything that I am against. I must constantly remind myself that God dwells in Trump, as well as he dwells in me.

The second part should be a petition to God to help us get rid of the thoughts and attitudes that comprise the crust of enculturation. The Psalmist seems to have had it right even back then when he wrote, “Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10). Another good prayer is one written by Saint Richard of Chichester back in the 13th century, adapted and set to music and featured in the play and movie, “Godspell.” He said, “Day by day, Dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.” That seems like a pretty good prayer for every one of us today, that is, if we really mean it as we pray it.

With the disclaimer that my Out There to In Here understanding is still in process, this is now the prayer I would pray myself, as well as leading congregants from a pulpit:

God, the divine spirit that lives in each of us, and gives us life;

Thank you for bringing us through our lives to this moment together.

In the words of the hymn writer,

Through many dangers, toils and snares,

I have already come,

Tis grace that brought me safe thus far

And grace will lead me home.”

As the psalmist wrote, “Create in us clean hearts, O God, and put new and right spirits within us.

Enable us to recognize you in every other person as well, no matter their nationality, their station in life, the way they believe in you or worship you.

Teach us that respecting them is the same as giving you respect. And to disrespect them is to disrespect and deny you.

Forgive us for denying you in other ways. For letting the world around us threaten to swallow us up with materialism, racism, a spirit of war rather than peace, our greed to get more at the expense of those who need, but cannot afford, our need to be Number One in all things, our subscription to the doctrine of competition not cooperation, our willingness to go along and get along, even as we witness the disrespect of others and even participate in that disrespect as a part of our culture, our nationalism, and worship of America which takes the place of the worship of you so often. Send us from this time and place with your forgiveness which tells us that the past is over and what is done is done. Today is a new day. Give us the grace to forgive ourselves. Let us make amends when we can and to let go of those things with which we beat ourselves up. Help us understand that those things are over, and we are part of all things new.

[_ As we clear away the crust of enculturation, make us realize that we are your hands and voice in our lives today. We pray for __________ and ask that you lead us to do for them and their families in ways we could not have imagined before. Let us show them your inner spirit through our outward actions. Enable us to be visible agents of your love. _]

Let us live our lives with an understanding and modelling of Jesus, who showed the world what it means when we have your presence manifest in our lives.

We pray in the spirit and presence of Jesus, Amen.

(A little wordy, but what do you expect? I am a preacher!)

[+ CHAPTER 9+]

[+ THE CHURCH+]

(“I am the Church, you are the church, we are the church together…” Richard Avery and Donald Marsh)

How do you think of the church? Years ago, I met with a couple to help them plan their wedding. They were not members of my congregation. In an effort to get acquainted with them, I asked them if they were active, or at least attended, any other church.

“No,” said the young man. “The church is full of hypocrites.” Upon my asking them why they would want to get married in a church, then, the young man replied, “We are getting married in the church just for our parents.” The irony of his statement struck me. I wanted to say to him, “Come on in, then….there is always room for one more!” But I didn’t.

Another time, I met with an adult couple who wanted to get married in “my” church, where I was the pastor, and who wanted me as the officiant. In the first meeting with the couple, I asked them, among other things, if they had a church home. “Oh, yes,” they replied. “We go to another church here in town.” I asked them why they chose not to get married in that church. Their answer? They wanted to get married in their own church, but, because the prospective bride was divorced, “church rules” prohibited them from having their wedding there.

I asked them both if their church accepted their money in the offering plates. If they were in leadership positions in their church. If they accepted pie and cakes from her at the church bake sales. They answered each question in the affirmative.

Later that week, I arranged to have lunch with the pastor of that congregation. I brought up the name of the prospective wedding couple and told the other pastor they had come to me and asked me to marry them, and I had accepted the invitation. The other pastor nodded his head, as if he had expected this and was not surprised by my disclosure. Then I brought up my concerns about his refusal to marry the couple in the church they (regularly) attended and in which they actively participated. He passed it off as, “Oh, you know, church rules.” He walked out of the lunch shortly after that. He didn’t need to on my account; I was going to pay for his lunch anyway.

I think of another story I heard as I worked with the Muscatine (Iowa) Area AIDS Coalition, a group that a social worker friend and I started in the early ‘90’s. Word came to us that a member of another church in the area, a well-loved woman who was considered the “church grandma” and minded the nursery during morning worship services, and who taught Sunday school faithfully for years, lost her positions in the church, and her membership in the church itself because word got out to the congregation that her real grandson, who lived in another part of the country, contracted AIDS through a dirty hypodermic needle. Just at the time she needed the support of her church family the most, the church family and its leaders let her down—big time!

[* Somewhere along the line, I learned the “20-80 Rule” about church life. The rule is simple: 20% of the church people do 80% of the work…20% of the people give 80% of the tithes and offerings needed to sustain the church and expand its witness throughout the community and the world…20% of the people in a church make 80% of the trouble. All of these examples are exaggerations…except maybe the last one. *]

I think there may be a couple of reasons for this: One, many churches tend to choose people who feel powerless in every other area of their lives to take leadership positions. Once they get the position of leadership to which they are elected or appointed, the dogs are let loose, so to speak, and powerless people wield their new-gained power to excess. Often in my denomination, committee chairs are automatically placed on the church board. Those who are chosen and elected as Elders are also members of the board. Just a committee chairmanship of term of service as an Elder is enough to grant access to membership of the Board which makes many decisions about the way the church operates.

[* The other reason for “20% of the people making 80% of the trouble” is that the other people in the congregation are perfectly willing to let these 20 per-centers go ahead and let them take all the leadership positions, so that the rest-the 80- percenters don’t have to. Please understand that not all Board members are part of the 20% of the troublemakers. Just 20% or so. *]

A third reason just occurred to me…Many people are elected or appointed to leadership positions because “they have always done it,” and thus provide stability and continuity to many people who live lives full of change, and scary unknowns. Not only that, but their willingness to serve on the Board in perpetuity means no one else has to fill their spots come election time.

As a congregational Pastor, I learned that it takes three years, or thereabout, to put a new activity or program as part of the church’s life. The first year, said program is given a dubious go-ahead: “We’ve never done this before, but let’s go ahead and try it.” The second year, the general reaction is, “Last year, we did it like this…” and the third year, those in charge of giving the program a green light typically say, “We’ve always done it like this!”

As Area Minister for the West Area for our regional church in Kentucky, I once visited a church congregation, part of my own denomination, who regularly included the patriotic song, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as a part of every worship service. On asking about it, the pastor told me the congregation had been doing it for years, and it was now entrenched in that congregation’s order of worship. Who insisted on it? I asked. Turns out the one who insisted on it was the guy in the congregation with the deepest pockets, and who was a major supporter of the church. His tactic was to insist on the inclusion of the song, or else he would withdraw all support of that congregation; he would, in other words, “vote with his pocket book.” The thing is, that gentleman had died almost 20 years before I visited the church.

“Why don’t you do something about getting it out of the order of worship?” I asked the pastor of the church.

“Well, the people seem to like it; I have to pick my battles,” came the reply. Based on what I observed, even after a lengthy tenure as pastor, he was still waiting for a battle to pick. Ministry is a sort of servanthood to the people who call the minister as their pastor. Paradoxically, the most dynamic servants of the church are those who exhibit the gift of leadership, rather than those who lead the church from behind. I wondered if that pastor would have been surprised if his congregation would have voted to remove the song, and then uttered a vast collective, if silent, “Whew, it’s about time!”

My dad used to quote George Butterick, whose son, David, I was privileged to know when he was a professor of preaching at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. George once said, “The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” George Butterick came from a time when Christians were deeply into “the God out there” but his quote still holds true as we think about the God In Here. Church is where people come to rid themselves of the Crust of Enculturation. It is the place where we can consider Jesus carefully as the embodiment of all the qualities of God. The place where, through preaching, we can receive guidance as to how to live a more Christ-like life. A place where we can be in community with others, to help them with scraping away their own Crusts of Enculturation, not in judgment, but in love. And they can help us do the same. The church is a place where we can recognize the Inner Presence of God in each person, and celebrate our connectedness with each other and with other people, wherever they might be. The church is a place where we can learn to read the Bible responsibly, and be surprised at what the Bible contains. The church is the place where we can reach out to others outside our communities, to others of different faith, or no faith, not necessarily to grow church membership, but to show our genuine concern for them in their times of trouble.

The day after the racist massacre in Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charlotte, South Carolina, I called the head of the Week of Compassion, our general church’s disaster relief program, and asked him if there was anything we could do to show, in a tangible way, our concern for and standing with the victims and the families of the victims in that church (even though it was a different “flavored” church than ours, i.e. a different denomination.) He assured me that his office had already sent a “Solidarity Grant” for Emanuel, through the South Carolina regional office of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They, in turn, would see that the grant got to the church. He also said that whatever money came in from that time forward would reach the congregation of Emanuel. It put me in mind of the hymn I have sung ever since I was a kid, one of my favorites…”Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Written in 1782, the song seems more relevant as we worship God as an inner presence, the God In Here. It goes, in part:

“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love/the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

“We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens share/and often for each other flows a sympathizing tear.”

To be a Church In Here, seems to be a place where people can come to discover the presence of God in themselves or each other, and to discover and act on opportunities to help other people understand the God in themselves. Having discovered that, people can better understand the notion that we are all connected, all around the world. In the words of poet John Donne, “No man is an island, entire to itself.”

But, how does a church that has become used to thinking of the God Out There make the transition to thinking and carrying on its collective life by thinking of the God In Here? It isn’t easy! There are, however, some steps a congregation can take:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The Pastor’s emphasizing that God is in every person, children and adults alike, in lessons and sermons.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. An IDENTITY STATEMENT to be used, not as a test of membership, but rather as a means of letting others know who the congregation is, and why it may be different than other congregations with the same denominational affiliation.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A VISION STATEMENT which describes the way the congregation sees the congregation once the

Identity Statement comes to fruition in the life of the church.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A MISSION STATEMENT which is 25 words or less (easier to remember) describes how the congregation intends to show others the identity and vision of the congregation. This is the “action statement” for the congregation to use as the various committees, task groups and the church itself allocates resources and plans for the church’s life together.

A few other things that occur to me as far as the daily life and work of the church are concerned are:

Emphasis in seminaries on the God in Here, with all its ramifications, as they prepare clergy to serve congregations as well as in other areas of life.

A class on “Servant Leadership” for every incoming and returning layperson in a church leadership position. Some church leaders may need more than one session of this class!

Term limits on lay leadership positions….committee chairs, Elders, diaconate, etc.

Emphasis in Christian Education programs for all ages (especially adults!) on the God in Here and what that means for every person.

The congregation’s emphasis on outreach programs and relief projects to others in the community and the world as much as within the congregation itself.

As I look over this short list of suggestions, it occurs to me that collectively, it calls on every person in the congregation to live out the presence of God in each person, personally. Merely showing up weekly and sitting comfortably in a padded pew isn’t enough. “I’m too old, and I have done it for years; let the young people do the work of the church now” doesn’t cut it either. There is work to do to show God’s love through every person, no matter what age, and to recognize God in every person, regardless of race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or any other thing that keeps people apart.

There is work to do…let’s get to it!

h1<>{color:#2e74b5;}.

[+ CHAPTER 10+]

[+ So What+]?

(So what??)

In the time I spent in churches. I have heard a lot of sermons. Some have been good, a few have been very good, and many, many, not so much. I have preached several stinkers, myself! After all this time, as I have thought about sermons and practiced preaching, for which I was trained, it occurred to me that most sermons don’t seem to answer the question, “So What??” In other words, how does this sermon call me to make changes in my thinking and living, from the way I am presently doing it? Once I added a “So What?” to my sermons, my preaching improved immensely, and I went home from church each Sunday much more satisfied from having done a good week’s work. Every one of the best sermons I have heard or preached contains a “So What?”

It seems fitting that this book on re-thinking God should have a “So What?” as well. That is, to answer the question, “How will my new way of thinking about God change the way I treat people and live out my life here on earth?”

Good question.

If you have read this far, chances are good that you have resonated with some or all of what I have said, or at least been made curious to see where I am going with my idea, and what else I have to say. The resonance is made complete by changing one’s life in such a way as to show the nature and love of God inside ourselves.

That short answer to how we do that is found in the Hebrew Bible book of Micah, one of my favorite Bible passages: From chapter 6, verses 6-8:

^6 ^With what shall I come before the Lord
p.    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
p.    with calves a year old?
^7 ^Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
p.    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
p.    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
^8 ^He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
p.    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
p.    and to walk humbly with your God.

(NIV)

Let’s put it in language we can better understand:

With what shall I come before the Lord
p.    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I attend church every Sunday, and special days as well?

Shall I bring a hot dish to every church potluck?

Shall I give an extra $10.00 to the church building fund?

Shall I display a colorful sticker announcing my church of choice on the bumper of my car?

^ ^He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

   And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy[
__][_    and to walk humbly_] with your God. (Italics mine)

I am not making this up. I had a guy in one of my congregations tell me, “I love the church so much; it’s the people I can’t stand.” He didn’t seem to realize that people are what really make up a church. Years ago, I spent some time teaching in a seminary in Mexico. On the weekends, several of us would travel to churches in villages away from the seminary to worship with the people in the villages we visited. One church held their worship services in a car repair garage with motor parts and oil stains all over the floor. We who worshipped sat in metal folding chairs. There was no musical accompaniment when we sang. But I can tell you, the spirit of God was very much in evidence throughout the service, and in the hospitality and warmth of the people when the service was over.

According to that bible passage, what does God require of us?

#
p<>{color:#000;}. To ACT justly.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. To LOVE mercy.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. To WALK HUMBLY with our God.

Jesus took the 10 Commandments and summarized them in the following way:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

This may be harder to do at first. We must start by being intentional about ridding ourselves of the Crust of Enculturation that has accumulated over the courses of our lives. Sort of like scraping the barnacles off the bottom of the ship after years of neglect.

There are many ways to do this. One way is to repudiate all of the things that have demanded our attention with such persistence and force: greed, things, power, status, social class, and whatever else with which we have filled our lives. I have not become perfect at this, but it was a joyous moment in my life when I realized that I have in my life all that I need and most of what I want. I’m not kidding, a feeling of lightness came over me, and for once I felt that it was okay to live my life in a state of satisfaction, instead of a state of striving, striving, striving for more, more, more.

Another way to do this is to use the brains that God gave us, and make decisions for ourselves, congruent with the values we adopt for the way we live our lives. Don’t take peoples’ words at face value, but investigate their statements and claims to see if their statements and claims are true, false, or somewhere in between. This especially applies to the way we get our news. Ideally, a newscast should be devoid of espousing partisan politics. Today, that isn’t so.

Yet another way to scrape away the crust of enculturation in our lives is to recognize that God lives within each person, regardless of where he or she lives, whether that person is a Wall Street banker, or a homeless guy who lives on the street, whether she or he lives in the “good ol’ USA,” or in the midst of the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world. It is to look beyond races and religious labels, recognizing that God lives in all people, and racism is a sin as old as the Bible itself. To dismiss another person out of hand because of one or more difference from us they may exhibit is to deny the presence of God in that person, or group of people. To look at or treat other people with disrespect because of their race or nationality or political preference or economic status or whatever other reason is to disrespect the presence of God with them. It is the same as saying, “God is Dead,” or at least, severely wounded.

Another sin, that is a place where we miss the mark, is in the area of our food consumption. In the early Christian tradition, gluttony was numbered among the seven deadly sins. As the notion of deadly sins developed over time, they came to include lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Just a few years ago, it struck me that gluttony was a justice issue—when one person eats more, another person has to eat less. I find myself guilty of this “sin” more than any other. Today, modern farming methods enable farmers to produce more food per acre, with a higher rate of nutrition than ever before. Plagues of locusts and other insects which destroy crops are rarer in this country than ever before. But at what price? As we apply herbicides and other chemicals to our crops to increase their yields, much of those chemicals run off the fields into the streams and rivers, polluting them and making them unsafe for drinking and bathing.

As a congregational pastor, I worked for many, many years with Church World Service, organizing hunger walks in the communities in which I lived. These walks were held annually to raise money which was used to purchase food for people in other nations who were starving—literally starving—to death. It was a disappointment to me to learn that much of the food for which we raised money through our walks was left “rotting on the docks” of the countries whose people our donations were sent to help because of corrupt leaders of those countries. Or, that the food we had provided with our donations was coopted and used by the leaders of those countries. Did that stop us? No. All of us on the hunger walk planning committees held onto the hope and prayer that someday, those corrupt leaders would see the light and allow their people to be fed with the donations our funds provided. I also learned that Americans consume way more food than we need. Statistics regarding both childhood and adult obesity have borne this out (I confess…I got all mad when my last medical report listed obesity among my other problems. But then, after thinking about it, and complaining to my physician, I faced the truth).

God supplies whatever needs we may have through other people. God supplies others’ needs through us. It is as simple as that. Once we recognize that God is in each person, we begin to look for common ground, and celebrate our similarities rather than fight each other over our differences.

And then, there is the matter of God’s creation. Science can help us understand just how God made the earth and other spacely bodies, but we find ourselves as stewards, care-givers of God’s creation on this earth. In the biblical book of Genesis, God created humankind and gave humans the responsibility and mandate to have “dominion” over God’s creation. Many people have confused the word dominion, by thinking that God was commanding us to “conquer” or “subdue” creation. Rather, the word means, “to care for and nurture it,” so that all creation is “Tov”—good. Just how are we doing on that mandate, would you say??

Addictions to chemicals like heroin and crystal meth are sins, not because they might be against the law, but because they have the power to desiccate or kill the body in which God lives. Same thing with alcohol, if it is used to great excess. Tobacco products, too.

As a whole, the human population of the world seems to hold itself in much lower regard than it should. WE are where God lives, for God’s sake (pun intended!). If enough of us took this notion seriously, we could change the world. I am not so naïve as to believe that if change happens, it will happen overnight, or immediately. But life, for most of us, as many say about lots of stuff, is not a dash; it is a marathon. It’s a matter of “keeping on keeping on,” as we used to say in the hippy-dippy days. I was struck by a book I saw when I was in Junior High School, called “The Family of Man.” It was a photojournalistic book which showed people in different cultures all over the world laughing, loving their children, working, worshipping, doing the same kinds of things we do in this country. From the pictures in that book, I learned that wherever we may live in the world, in whatever culture, there are things we all may do the same. And, as my concept of God evolved from “Out There” to “In Here,” I have become convinced that the pictures in that book are further evidence that, regardless of location or culture, regardless of what we call God, however we might worship God, we are essentially the same…God is in each of us.

That is all I have to say at this time. Thank you for your kind attention.

[+ ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS+]

When I started writing books, it didn’t take me long to discover that no one writes a book alone, even if there is only one name on the cover. Here is a list of those who helped me write Re-thinking God: From Out There to In Here:

To my wife, Evie May Caskey Miller, for our discussions and her input, most of which you will find in the section on hymnody.

To my friend Gary Gesaman for our wonderful discussions which spurred me on with new ideas and concepts.

To my first reader, and friend, Darci Edgington, for her continuing encouragement and keen insights, as well as some great stories she passed along to me. Some of them wound up in this book.

To my friend Dan Clark who provided copy editing for this book…a bigger job than he or I anticipated.

To all of my clergy friends who gave me their encouragement as the book was being written, especially Rev. Robert Pickerell whose sermons provided much food for thought.

To my seminary professors, especially Loren Broadus, for giving me the background training and the permission to think for myself.

To the great folks at Norwalk Christian Church, as well as our wonderful pastors, Travis and Marti Stanley for their encouragement, and theirmexcitement about the project, which heped to refuel my own.

To my niece-in-law Linda Turner for her photography of the cover photo, and to my great-niece Lauren Turner who adds life to the cover photograph.

And, finally, to you, the readers of this book for being open and curious enough to read what I had to say. May the God in me bless the God in you all (or, as many say in Kentucky, “ALL you all!”).

Roger F. Miller, M. Div.

January 2016

[* ABOUT THE AUTHOR*]

Roger F. Miller is a retired minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Following his graduation from Lexington (Kentucky) Theological Seminary, he served churches in Falls City, Nebraska, Jefferson, Iowa and Muscatine, Iowa. In addition, he served as the West Area Minister for the Christian Church in Kentucky (Disciples of Christ).https://d.docs.live.net/542f3a35e623af93/Documents/RTG%20book—2.1.docx

Miller lives with his wife Evie in Des Moines, Iowa.

This is a living book, subject to change in the future. “Rethinking God” is a statement of what I believe now. If you have comments, questions,or additional insights, please contact me at [email protected]. Who knows, maybe your input will be included in a future addition!

1 J.B. Phillips Your God is Too Small (New York,NY: Simon & Schuster, 1952, eBook)

2 Ibid

2

 


RETHINKING GOD: From Out There to In Here

The world is crazy enough! People today will fight over anything, including religion vs. science. "Rethinking God" shows how that particular fight is useless. Though the concept is not new in history, the people who think about God "Out There" seem to outnumber those who think about God as an inner presence in all persons, regardless of the labels they bear. The book promotes understanding, toleration and a nullification of the science/religion fight.

  • Author: Roger F. Miller
  • Published: 2016-01-07 18:05:15
  • Words: 31149
RETHINKING GOD: From Out There to In Here RETHINKING GOD: From Out There to In Here