God Can't: God Feels OUr Pain

Before we jump further into Thomas Oord’s book, God Can’t, let’s review just a bit from last week. The principle he put forth last week was that God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.  This is in part because God is Spirit – God doesn’t have literal hands to intervene.  In addition to that, we are not created as robots, and God does not temporarily roboticize us – we are truly beings with free will.  This does not mean God is inactive or indifferent, which leads us to the next chapter’s principle.

This week’s thesis: God feels our pain.

Does God empathize with us?  Does God show compassion – to suffer with us?  God’s love is assumed in a lot of churches – what do you think?  Psychologist Carl Rogers defines empathy as entering the “perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it, [which] involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings that flow in the other person.”  Compassion means to suffer with someone.  Have you ever pictured God like that?  Why or why not?

As Jesus followers, we look to Jesus for a clue on this.  He was connected to God in a way I don’t think has been replicated before or after.  So much so that others referred to him as the Son of God.  While there is ongoing debate as to what that means exactly, suffice it to say we believe that when we see Jesus walking around, we are seeing the face of God.  Jesus was one who was born into poverty and knew what it was like to live on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  Yet he became the embodiment of love and grace, being empathic with those who struggled, and offering compassionate help where he could.

One of his greatest parables gives us an example of what compassion looks like.  The Good Samaritan had every reason to pass by a beaten up, half-dead Jewish guy on the side of the road heading down to Jericho.  But he didn’t.  He stopped (unlike the lip-service religious folks who reasoned their way out of helping).  The thrust of the story is about generously loving and caring for another – even if that “another” is a loathed enemy.  This brilliant parable was a real stretch for Jewish audience, and continues to be for us as we are given a model for generosity expressed, and also a glimpse of how, when we are beaten down by life, are loved by God.  The good, loving, generous servant in the story chose to enter the beaten man’s pain and suffering and take it on himself.  Empathy led to compassionate service: “An empathetic God not only feels our suffering but also prompts others to love in specific ways.” (Oord, God Can’t, 41)

Oord recommends we consider what he calls the Crimson Rule.  We are familiar with the Golden Rule that calls for people to do unto others as they would want for themselves.  The Crimson Rule invites us to suffer with our neighbor as an act of empathetic compassion.  One the greatest examples from Jesus’ life was his horrific execution:

“In his painful death on a splintered cross, Jesus points to a God who suffers with us. In Jesus, God identifies with those gashed and feeling godforsaken, the homeless and the hurting, the depressed and destroyed. In Jesus’ crucifixion, God shares in the suffering of the world and thereby shows solidarity with victims. Jesus reveals a God who empathizes.” (Oord, God Can’t, 43)

 

 

He goes on to note that God, who is the source of such love and empathy, is witnessed by others as being fully capable to be with us, to hear our hearts cry, and will never grow weary or run out of love:

 “God’s heart breaks by what breaks us. But this heartbrokenness does not lead God to despair. The God of perfect empathy never gets depressed to the point of immobility. The God of all consolation never suffers empathy fatigue. God’s sensitivity and emotion never lead to evil, because God’s nature is love…  God responds to all that is negative, frustrating, and painful with resilient hope. Pain, suffering, and agony never alter God’s everlasting love... God feels our pain… and can handle it.” (Oord, God Can’t, 39)

If God truly feels our pain and joins us in it, is this something we can experience?  How can we feel God feeling with us?  Before Oord offers half a dozen tips that might make feeling God feeling with us an experiential reality, he calls to our attention a handful of theological perspectives that may get in our way of such a dynamic.  Some have adopted a God-is-a-Brick-Wall orientation whereby God is around but completely impersonal.  Others have an Eye-in-the-Sky view, which is actually a functional Deism that keeps God in heaven without much involvement on earth.  The CEO-of-the-Universe paradigm has God only caring about the biggest picture possible, without concern for how related large-scale decisions might impact those on the ground.  The opposite of that would be the Micro-Manager view of God that portrays God as one primarily interested in the minutia of our lives.  This can lead into the Clean-Freak view that makes God so holy and pure that God doesn’t want anything to do with our dirty selves.  Finally, Oord noted that some can hold a Mob-Boss view, where it’s really good to be faithful family and friends of God, but woe to you if you are not!  Which views have you held?  How have they helped as well as limited your relationship with God?

God’s loving empathy can be experienced.  There are some time-honored practices and perspectives that seem to foster such experiences, as Oord notes.

·       Ministry of Human Presence: Counselor.  Sometimes it is a professional counselor or pastor whose role it is to listen deeply and reflectively and speak back into your life. I have had paradigms shift radically because I sense a word or phrase from a “pro” that seems to be coming directly from the heart of God.

·       Community of Care: Church at its best.  In this space we come together as people who want to seek and be sensitive to the Spirit’s guidance in our lives.  Odds are better this kind of community will conduit the presence of God than many other types of communities. “We all need community. Unswerving solitude stunts growth; those who persist alone perish alone. We need relational arks that promote health and healing. We need places and people who express God’s empathetic love (Oord, God Can’t, 48).

·       Mindfulness/Meditation/Prayer: “Prayer unmasks our false selves, and we encounter God as we really are. We are people loved by God, in need of transforming grace. We can engage others who face the same internal challenges” (Oord, God Can’t, 49).

·       Experiences in Nature. John Muir in Yosemite: “The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God.  So after dark, when camp was at rest, I groped my way back to that altar boulder and passed the night on it – above the water, beneath the leaves and stars – everything still more impressive than by day, the falls seem dimly white, singing Nature’s old love song with solemn enthusiasm, while the stars peering through the leaf roof seemed to join in the whit water’s song… Thanks be to God for this immortal gift.” – My First Summer in the Sierra in The Wilderness World of John Muir, Edwin Way Teale, ed. (Mariner Books, 2001 [1911]).  Many people experience the presence of our Ground of Being when in the heart of nature.  This makes sense – why wouldn’t we expect to more likely experience the Creator when we immerse ourselves in creation?

·       Visual Arts, Music, and Movies.  Art in general is one human’s expression of their experience offered to the world.  In my experience, the arts need not to be overtly “Christian” or “religious” to be used of God to communicate empathy and compassion.  Sometimes instrumental music (no lyrics) is able to convey and draw such great emotion that it seems as if the music is itself a form of prayer to God, an act of sighing and groaning that Paul referenced in his letter to the Roman church.

·       Love of a Child.  Jesus gave us the right to think of God as a loving daddy that is engaged with his kids.  Children can serve as meaning-makers for parents.  Understanding God’s love for us both in the inherent love one’s children have for their parents, and the immediate, unconditional love parents often feel for their kids grounds our faith in loving trust.  I would include furry kids as well (as well as other types of pets that show devotion to their owners).  In my experience, dogs seem to love their “people” unconditionally, giving us love as well as providing an object for our affection.  Cats, on the other hand, serve to remind us of our selfish propensities…

Last week, we engaged the idea that there are simply some things God cannot do – driven from internal dynamics (not external).  Now we add to that a character trait of God – that this Higher Power truly feels our pain and joins us in it. 

How does this resonate with you?  What new way of engaging God might you adopt to help you move forward in faith and life?

Questions to Consider

1.       Why do you think some people believe God is unaffected and unemotional?

2.       How have bad views of God led you away from affirming God’s loving empathy?

3.       What’s the problem with saying a loving God who could prevent evil singlehandedly would choose instead to suffer with us?

4.       How does thinking of Jesus’ love help us believe God is loving?

5.       When have you felt God’s love, and what sparked that feeling?

6.       What obstacles hinder us from feeling God’s love?

7.       Which of the six practices mentioned near the chapter’s end do you want or need?

God Can't Singlehandedly Prevent Evil

It’s Just Chocolate Chip Cookies.  My parents are good people who did what they thought best in raising their four children.  We were solidly Middle Class, living in a suburban home in Overland Park, Kansas in the 1970’s.  Our basement floor was covered in carpet samples my dad got super cheap.  The orange shag was my favorite – an allusion to my future love of the San Francisco Giants, perhaps?  We grew up with good boundaries and were taught by example, mostly, what being a good person looked like.  We all turned out to be pretty decent people trying to do some good in the world.  And we all love food.  Especially sweets. Probably because we didn’t get sweets very often in the Overland Park years. 

Usually we got to have ice cream on special occasions like birthdays or if grandpa and grandma were in town and we got some vanilla to make our apple pie a la mode – a double treat.  On July 4th we would make home-made ice cream.  What better way to celebrate our nation’s independence than make the creamy stuff of the gods independent of Zarda’s Dairy.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day also brought with it some delicious tooth-decaying creations.  Beyond special occasions, we didn’t eat sweets.  My parents didn’t have us eating sweets often for a handful of reasons which included cost, health, tooth decay, weight, and that my mom had a tendency to hide the sweets and forget where she hid them, or eat the sweets before they made it to the table!  We did have a cookie jar which was rarely filled.  When it was, we knew it was essentially off limits.  Mom patrolled the jar and also performed quality control as needed – somebody had to!

I was taught from an early age to respect sweets.  To cherish them. To not over-indulge.  To not take other people’s sweets.  To even share sweets with others.  Good, wholesome Kansas sensibilities, all born out of my parents’ love for their children, wanting them to become healthy, wise, responsible adults.  When we were young, mom was there to determine how many sweets were appropriate.  She put the cookies or pie on our plate, scooped the ice cream, and also took things off if we took too much.  If we got sick on sweets as young kids, she would share the blame since she was right there to do something about it.  Mom could not be everywhere, of course, so there were times when things went awry.  One day not long after Halloween, I was left alone in our basement for a period of time.  Alone with my thoughts, my Halloween candy haul, and my brother’s bag of future dental bills as well. I always knew my brother to be generous, so I knew he wouldn’t mind sharing his candy with me.  Boy, was he generous!  He gave be two pieces of candy for every one of his!  Very Jesus like.  Except that he wasn’t around, which made it a clear case of theft.  I literally got caught holding the bag and had to give him back all the candy that I did not Trick-or-Treat for, plus some sort of punishment that I do not recall.  Had my mom been there, she would have prevented me from stealing in the first place and would have used physical action to wrest the bag from my death grip.  Even more, if she were present and I took candy from my brother’s bag, she would then be an accomplice, and in some way responsible for my brother’s candy deficit.  But she wasn’t there physically, so she wasn’t complicit in any way – this was all on me.  She reportedly loves my brother just as much as me (somehow), and wasn’t there to protect him, either.  He was hemorrhaging calories unawares.

I am now a grown man, and my mother is no longer in close enough proximity to monitor my sugar intake.  She still loves me and is in the Top Five list of people who care about my health the most.  She can only hope that I will remember the good lessons I learned growing up, and that I will grow in wisdom as I reflect on who I am and who I want to be as I face the choices that come my way.  The wisdom she gave resides in me, and she loves to hear from me.  And, I might add, she knows that now and then it is right and good to eat sweets in abundance for the simple pleasure of eating sweets!  Anyone who knows her knows she’s no cookie Nazi…

In his book, God Can’t, Tom Oord makes the case that God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.  He notes that the word “can’t” is not the same as “won’t”, which assumes that God could if God wanted to thwart evil.  “Won’t” means God would then choose to allow evil to take place that God could keep from happening.  Our small human brains have collectively determined that such behavior makes a person an accomplice on some level to the evil performed.  “Can’t”, however, means that God is not able to prevent evil for some reason.  This is much more than semantics.  This is a very substantive difference he is noting. Oord notes, “Because God’s love self-gives and others-empowers, and because God loves all creatures from the most complex to the least, God cannot control. God loves everyone and everything, so God cannot control anyone or anything. This means a God of uncontrolling love cannot control evildoers to prevent their dastardly deeds” (God Can’t, 24).   “Can’t” means God’s hands are tied in some way. 

One way in which God’s hands are tied is the fact that God doesn’t have hands to tie!  God cannot physically constrain anyone to do anything because God is Spirit, as Jesus himself noted (John 4:24). “A bodiless, universal spirit cannot do what embodied creatures sometimes can. Despite having no body, God is present and active in all situations. Divine power is direct but persuasive, widespread but wooing, causal but uncontrolling. God’s loving activity makes a difference without imposing control or using a divine body” (Oord, God Can’t, 27).  Another reason God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly has to do with God’s character of love.  The constraints on God’s capacity are not external, but internally derived.  Love does note demand its own way (1 Cor. 13:5), as seen in Jesus throughout his ministry – he honored people’s freedom to choose as an act of love.   And another reason God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly is because God created everyone and everything with true freedom in mind: free will for us and a version of it for every aspect of creation.  Like my mom not being in the basement when I was ravaging my brother’s Trick-or-Treat bag, she could not prevent what was happening, and we all became aware (soon enough) that I had the capacity to freely act according to my own sweet-tooth-driven, greedy, self-centered will.

Are we without help in a world where evil seems to run rampant?  Not at all.  God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly, which implies that cooperating with others might make a difference.  Like my mother who did her best to influence me, in effect, to become like her, so God desires that we grow into God’s image – our True Self and greatest potential.  I am sure my mother at times hopes that I remember the good things she taught me.  Paul noted that the law of God is written on all people’s hearts – the goodness of God is part of us whether or not we know it.  And, anytime I want to connect with my mom – for help on something or to simply stay connected, my mom is more than happy to be available.  This is true of God as well.  When we call out to God, I believe God woos us toward love at its depths.  God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly, but that does not mean that God is uncaring or inactive.  Quite the contrary.  God is the very source of love and care, and God’s activity as Spirit can influence us and others greatly if we’ll have it.  Oord puts it beautifully here: “When complex creatures cooperate with God, good things happen. Love flourishes. Peace blossoms. Astonishing miracles can occur. When complex creatures fail to cooperate with God, evil happens. Unnecessary pain and pointless suffering occur.  The demons dance. Because a loving God did not make us and others robots, good and bad are possible” (God Can’t, 28).

What is your relationship with sweets?  How do you determine how many sweets you might enjoy?  You are free to choose, of course, and you are free to steal others’ cookies (although there will be consequences). You can also choose to drill deeper into your being and wonder what is aligned with your True Self as God’s reflected image.  You can go further and ask God to give you insight and strength regarding your cookies.  All of these behaviors apply if you eat too many cookies that you bought or made honorably or even if you steal them – seeking your True Self and God’s Spirit to guide you makes a difference.  And if someone steals your cookies, God is with you to pick up your crumbs, remind you of who you are, helping you become your True Self and giving you strength and direction as Spirit. 

There is great freedom in this way of thinking.  Freedom to stop blaming God for what God can’t do.  Freedom to take responsibility for our actions.  Freedom to understand others’ actions as their own.  Freedom to draw near to God for insight, support, and strength to move forward in our becoming.  The Spirit of God is active and present with us all: “God acts like a loving suitor.  Nothing can stop God from inviting us, moment-by-moment, to a loving relationship. God’s uncontrolling love is uncontrollable! But we can choose not to cooperate. We can fail to say, “Yes!” When we do not respond appropriately, the mutual relationship of love God desired is thwarted. God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. But “Yes!” leads to abundant life” (God Can’t, 33).

The invitation toward love and life is constant.  How are you hearing it?  What does “Yes!” mean to you beyond simple emotional assent? What does “Yes!” look like played out in your life?  What are you going to do with this now?

God Can't: Introduction

Before I talk about some of the areas we will delve into in the God Can’t series based on the book by Thomas Jay Oord of the same name, I need you to do some preparatory work.  I will explain why after you take the following two assessments. *

What are your thoughts about free will? 

Circle your answer for each statement.

Strongly Agree <-> Strongly Disagree

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

1.       My exercise of free will is limited by my upbringing.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

2.       Because of my background influences, I have no real free will.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

3.       I will have free will all of my life.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

4.       I have free will in life, regardless of group expectations or pressures.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

5.       My behaviors are determined by conditioning and life experiences.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

6.       My choices are limited by God’s plan for my life.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

7.       My wealth, class, race, and gender determine my decisions and behavior.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

8.       My choices are constrained by God.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

9.       I am free to make choices in my life regardless of social conditions.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

10.    I have total free will.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

11.    My free will is limited by such social conditions as wealth, career, and class.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

12.    My decisions fit into and thus are limited by a larger plan.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

13.    My present behavior is totally a result of my childhood experiences.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

14.    God’s will determines the choices I make.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

15.    God has my life planned out.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

16.    My behaviors are limited by my background.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

17.    When things are going well for me, I consider it die to a run of good luck.

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9

 

What words describe God?

 

Rate each word using the following valuations:

1: The word does not describe God.

2: The word describes God.

3: The word describes God particularly well.


1.       ___ Absolute

2.       ___ Active

3.       ___ All-wise

4.       ___ Avenging

5.       ___ Blessed

6.       ___ Blunt

7.       ___ Charitable

8.       ___ Comforting

9.       ___ Considerate

10.    ___ Controlling

11.    ___ Creative

12.    ___ Critical

13.    ___ Cruel

14.    ___ Damning

15.    ___ Dangerous

16.    ___ Demanding

17.    ___ Democratic

18.    ___ Distant

19.    ___ Divine

20.    ___ Eternal

21.    ___ Everlasting

22.    ___ Fair

23.    ___ Faithful

24.    ___ False

25.    ___ Fast

26.    ___ Fatherly

27.    ___ Fearful

28.    ___ Feeble

29.    ___ Firm

30.    ___ Forgiving

31.    ___ Formal

32.    ___ Gentle

33.    ___ Glorious

34.    ___ Gracious

35.    ___ Guiding

36.    ___ Hard

37.    ___ Helpful

38.    ___ Holy

39.    ___ Impersonal

40.    ___ Important

41.    ___ Inaccessible

42.    ___ Infinite

43.    ___ Jealous

44.    ___ Just

45.    ___ Kind

46.    ___ Kingly

47.    ___ Lenient

48.    ___ Loving

49.    ___ Majestic

50.    ___ Matchless

51.    ___ Meaningful

52.    ___ Meek

53.    ___ Merciful

54.    ___ Moving

55.    ___ Mythical

56.    ___ Omnipotent

57.    ___ Omnipresent

58.    ___ Omniscient

59.    ___ Patient

60.    ___ Passive

61.    ___ Permissive

62.    ___ Powerful

63.    ___ Protective

64.    ___ Punishing

65.    ___ Real

66.    ___ Redeeming

67.    ___ Restrictive

68.    ___ Righteous

69.    ___ Safe

70.    ___ Severe

71.    ___ Sharp

72.    ___ Slow

73.    ___ Soft

74.    ___ Sovereign

75.    ___ Steadfast

76.    ___ Stern

77.    ___ Still

78.    ___ Strong

79.    ___ Supporting

80.    ___ Timely

81.    ___ Tough

82.    ___ True

83.    ___ Unchanging

84.    ___ Unyielding

85.    ___ Valuable

86.    ___ Vigorous

87.    ___ Weak

88.    ___ Warm

89.    ___ Worthless

90.    ___ Wrathful

91.    ___ Yielding

 

Reviewing these two assessments – even without knowing quite how to score them – will give you a rough idea where you land on two areas of interest: your take on free will versus determinism and what adjectives you use to describe the nature of God.  Knowing these before we launch into thoughtful consideration of some deep theological weeds is critical if you want to be helped by this series.  If you don’t do this preliminary step, this series over time will be largely forgettable.  I mean that quite literally.  Because until we know what we believe, we really can’t believe otherwise.

From the moment we are born we take in loads of information and organize it into complex construct.  Since we are raised by human beings, we are naturally influenced by them – our eyes are radically shaped by their perspective, and so, therefore, are our constructs.  When we entertain new information that doesn’t fit into our constructs, we first engage it with curiosity.  However, if the new information cannot fit within our existing conceptual framework, we will reject the new information as absurd, and may even forget we ever heard about it.  When we first identify our construct so that we can compare and contrast the new construct with our existing one, we have the opportunity to truly compare them to one another and allow the new construct the capacity to transform or even replace our existing one (especially if that new concept is affirmed by supportive community over time).  Until we know what we believe, it is highly unlikely that we will believe otherwise, even to our detriment.

The new bus terminal in San Francisco provides a good example of this phenomenon in action.  The beautiful, new $2.2 billion terminal that was supposed to be a model for the future for other large cities trying to encourage mass transportation usage opened with great fanfare about a year ago, and then closed six weeks later after a maintenance worker noticed a massive crack running through a girder that was holding up a ceiling/parking garage as well as a deck for buses.  Luckily, the problem was caught before any large structural failure took place.  After expert evaluation, all involved recognized that the problem had to do with what the construction workers (or their supervisors) believed about the welding and cutting holes in steel.  They believed it didn’t make any difference which came first.  It turns out, however, that it made the difference between success and failure.  The information was likely available, and the engineers likely made a notation about how important it was that the welding preceded the hole cutting.  But if you have in your mind that it doesn’t make any difference, will you believe it does?  In this case, nope.  You can read the article here.

Until you are aware of what you believe, you will not likely believe anything else.  There is just not any room for it.

Most of us only acknowledge a problem when we can no longer ignore it.  Our drinking has caused too many problems.  Our anger is destroying relationships.  Or the realization is so profound that we cannot see the world the same again. This was the case for Jesus.  We’re not sure about all that went into the transformation, but his message was profoundly different from that which was being peddled around him.  So different that the system he was challenging killed him.  For a taste of his new ideas, read his famous Sermon on the Mount, where nearly everything he said challenged the status quo.  Jesus was a radical with radically different thoughts about God and life.  So was Paul.  As was the disciple, Peter.  Each of whom had their worlds turned upside down after they saw something they couldn’t unsee.  Unfortunately, it is often only when we are brought to our knees that we are humble enough to finally see, finally listen, finally change. 

Taking the above assessments is a proactive way to get into a mental space where you can think through what you believe so that when you hear something different, you can truly engage it and consider new constructs that will be helpful in your life and faith.  If you don’t bother with such a waste of time and energy, don’t worry: the human experience brings crises in abundance that will strain your construct like a parking deck and bus platform on a transportation hub in San Francisco.  Hopefully you will recognize the crack and fix it before the whole thing collapses…

 *The first test is the Free Will-Determinism Scale (Stroessner & Green, 1990), and the second is Adjective Ratings of God (Gorsuch, 1968).

2019 Ask Anything

The Process Behind the Answers

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is our role model for understanding what it means to live a faithful life that is full of meaning, purpose, fruitfulness, and of course, God.  He was referred to as a Rabbi, and based on his teachings, we can clearly identify that he employed a process espoused by the rabbinical tradition of his day.  In short, this would mean that he placed value in the scripture as a time-tested-and-honored remembrance of how the Jewish people were experiencing God.  The writers were surely humble and prayerful in their recording, and God surely was moving through them in the writing.  The text is about God – God is the story – and therefore it is sacred text.  And yet all of the fingerprints were left on the pages – all of the context was left there for all to see, which is a very good thing.  The ancient rabbis believed there was as much Spirit flowing in the writers of the text as in the readers and interpreters of the text.  God gives the interpreter insight as to understanding the meaning and how to apply the text as we carefully appreciate the original fingerprints/context and our own paradigms that filter everything we see and think about.  The text was not to be worshiped, but rather worked over and worked into our lives.  This is why Jesus felt free to offer new interpretations of scripture and its application – much to the chagrin of the leaders who had been teaching otherwise!  It’s partly why he got killed.

My approach to the Bible is in line with Jesus.  I treat it as incredibly informative and authoritative, but only when understood with context in mind, which sometimes makes an enormous difference.  The rabbis felt free to disagree with each other, to completely ignore passages they couldn’t make out, and to value multiple conclusions and applications regarding specific texts.  When I think about the issues of life and faith, I factor in what the Bible says in context, the character and nature of God (as best as I can), what I am sensing the Spirit saying to me in my context, and what other voices are saying in their context (scholars and colleagues).  Sometimes that leads me to very unorthodox conclusions, which I think is warranted at times, since orthodoxy itself originated hundreds of years after Jesus’ ministry, within a context that surely influenced the outcome (as is the case for every “amendment” to orthodoxy ever since).  My answers, therefore, are not proof-texted, but rather a reflection of what I believe to be responsible Christian praxis – and application of what I sense to be the Way of Jesus.

 

 

Ask Anything Answers

 

1.       Angels appeared in scripture. Do you believe angels intercede in healing or situations to help people?

a.       I believe God is actively engaged in the world toward redemptive ends which include bringing healing in many forms to a wide range of personal, community, and global concerns.  Some people may experience that activity as the presence of an angel(s) for whatever reasons.  Belief in angels or not does not, in my opinion, matter a whole lot because the end is the same: God is active.

2.       Is it the devil/Satan working in people that creates evil deeds, or people who propitiate evil ideas themselves? Some evil deeds are explained by mental illness, but what about people who plan and propitiate evil?

a.       There is no doubt that evil exists in the world.  Those who were living in Jesus’ era had developed a way of explaining evil by personifying it with the Satan figure (whose character and role evolved throughout scripture).  I don’t resonate with such personification, mainly because I believe it severely limits our understanding of the roots of evil and therefore may hinder our ability to address them.  There are lots of reasons people carry out evil in small and large ways.  Selfishness seems to be a common theme, which makes sense because the Spirit of God invites us to always be mindful of others as much as ourselves.

3.       What is the definition of heaven?  If there is no hell but separation from God, what is heaven?

a.       There are a range of images for what heaven may be like.  All metaphors describing what it might be like to be in the full presence of God.  The idea of a literal hell needs to be revisited in light of biblical research chronicling the motivation and development of the concept beginning a few centuries before Jesus was born.

4.       Some people believe in being reunited with loved ones or others from their lifetime in heaven. If that is so, what about those of us who don’t want to be reunited with family or other people who harmed us, such as pedophiles?  Are pedophiles ever forgiven?  Does Matthew 18:6 apply to any harm to children? What assurance do we have of peaceful eternal life without those people?

a.       The Apostle Paul uses a metaphor of a refiner’s fire to describe what happens at the end of our lives which reveals what we’ve made of our lives.  I like it.  There is room for the most broken person who is left with only their soul, yet for those who build their lives with the Spirit’s lead, there is great beauty revealed.  Our “family reunion” views are metaphor depicting a happy, hopeful future, but it remains a metaphor.  For those longing for the reunion, there is good news – it will be better than that.  For those who cannot fathom heaven like that, there is good news – it will be better than that.  In the Christian tradition, we trust the teaching and modeling of Jesus.  We place ourselves and our hope in his care.  What more graceful hope could we possibly have?

5.       How am I to understand other religion’s “God” when our God loves us all. Is their God real?

a.       Every religion is trying to make sense of the world, life, faith, the future, etc.  When we get stuck on the details of the specific doctrines, we see great separation.  When we listen to the mystics from those same traditions, we get unity: God is love, peace, joy, life – we are tapping into the same Ground of Being.  When we worship religion, we’re in trouble.  When we worship what religions are trying to help us seek, we worship the same Greater Other. Aside: When you’re hearing hatred, you are not likely hearing God.

6.       Pastor Pete, you’ve said in a YouTube video that Jesus can be viewed as a demigod, rather than THE GOD incarnate. How is that reconciled with John 1:1? And would you say the same thing about other gods throughout history – that they were “with God in the beginning?”

a.       What I was highlighting was something we very easily overlook as Christians 2,000 years removed from Jesus’ birth.  As Matthew and Luke tell the Jesus story, God in some fashion got Mary pregnant, making it a divine-human baby.  This was welcome news to a non-Jewish audience who were accustomed to such beliefs from their Roman and Greek mythology.  It added to Jesus’ credibility in their eyes.  BUT! The idea of a Jewish-demigod-Messiah was appalling – they would never believe such a thing.  I mentioned it to encourage a bit more roominess in our thinking about the mystery surrounding what was going on in Jesus.  As for John 1:1, scholars understand that the Word refers more to the anointing Spirit rather than Jesus’ physical person.  The Word is that agency of God that comes. Inhabits, and speaks to the world.

7.       Is there any sin that is unforgivable? If so, what are the unforgivable sins? Whose sin was worse, Peter’s denial or Judas’ betrayal?

a.       The Bible speaks of denying the Spirit as an unforgivable sin.  I think forgiveness is a bigger deal for us than God.  We can’t really “own” forgiveness until we are on the other side of sin where we recognize what we’ve been up to and seek to turn it around (the meaning of repent). It’s not that God is unwilling to forgive – it’s that we are still messing things up willfully and therefore unable to see what we’re doing and be open to reconciliation.  In that sense, God’s hands are tied – God is waiting with grace once we come to our senses.  Hard to know which sin was worse – both suck.  Both are reminders of what well-meaning, Jesus-loving people are capable of.

8.       Why does the Church focus so much on original sin from Genesis?

a.       Because Paul created the idea to provide a biblical/theological rational for Gentile inclusion.  Original Sin is a Christian concept, not Jewish.  We shouldn’t be focusing so much on it, frankly – it was derived for a purpose that we have coopted for our own theology.  I think Paul is rolling in his grave about this.

9.       Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? What if he didn’t?

a.       The classic answer rooted in orthodoxy is that he had to die so that a final sacrifice could be made on our behalf – he became the substitutionary atonement that satisfied God’s need for justice to keep heaven holy, pure, sin-free, etc.  This idea did not come readily to the disciples.  It took years for them to figure out what to do with Jesus’ crucifixion.  Substitutionary atone and paying the ransom was the answer that made sense to them.  However, the Bible is ultra clear that God in no way shape or form desired or ever dictated human sacrifice to be made to atone for sin.  Soooooooo, that makes the idea of Jesus’ death-as-God’s-means-of-atonement troubling, at best. Jesus’ whole life and teaching was about the grace of God in its beautiful depths.  If he would have died at a very old age after a long life of ministry, and then appeared in resurrected form to his disciples, my guess is that we would be talking about the beauty and depth of God’s grace just like we are now, but without the need for substitutionary atonement.  Shocker: God was gracious and forgiving before the cross.  The cross became a new symbol for grace – but it did not change God’s level of graciousness. 

10.    What’s CrossWalk’s position on divorce?

a.       Divorce is an extremely excruciating experience that nobody signs up for on their wedding day.  It signals the brokenness of covenant, trust, shared dreams, and much more – which is why God hates it.  We should be compassionate with those who are involved in divorce at all levels instead of legalistic.  People need love here, not a spanking.

11.    Does God laugh?

a.       Of course!  What other explanation could there be for thunder?

12.    What is the good history of the Baptist Church?

a.       We started out as people who read their bibles freely and interpreted it as they saw fit, which led them to believer’s baptism.  Baptists have also at times been instrumental in the work toward freedom from slavery and for civil rights.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist preacher.  Recently, however, as conservative dogmatism has increased, Baptists are more associated with being judgmental jerks that only care about abortion and gay marriage, and who is going to hell.

13.    What is the point of life given its brevity, followed by a never-ending eternity?

a.       The point of life is to experience the gift of life to its fullest potential with the hope that when this life gives out (we die), we will return to the very source of life (God).  The Good News is that no matter what cards we are dealt, God is with us, loving and leading us toward that greatest experience of life that ultimately has absolutely nothing to do with how much money we make or how we look or how much we weigh or how many Facebook friends we have or…  In the Christian tradition, we believe that way of life was modeled by Jesus, who was all about stretching, kneeling, gracing, incarnating, connecting with God, choosing God over self, all for the purpose of new life, restoration, resurrection here and now for everybody, always.  Pretty compelling.

14.    What are your views on the death penalty?

a.       I think it’s a bad idea for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, dehumanizing one person allows us to dehumanize many, many more, which is an afront to the core idea that we are all created in the image of God.  Second, there is no evidence that the death penalty reduces violent crime.  Third, there have been cases when the wrong person was put to death. Fourth, it is an unbelievable waste of money.  Nobody sentenced to death in our country dies next week – maybe next decade after appeal after appeal is attempted.  Life in prison without parole is a much more fitting sentence that saves a lot of money.

15.    How does this church guard against “giving/serving burnout”?

a.       Some ministries are more prone to this than others.  Children’s ministry, in particular, is very prone to burnout.  So, we try to limit how often our volunteers and staff serve, and try to keep tabs on their health.  We also try hard not to impose guilt or shame on anybody who needs to step away. As a pastor in a field where burnout is really high, I try to build balance into my life with regular days off and vacation.  If I am modeling balance, there is a better chance we will not overly celebrate workaholism in the church.  There are no bonus points for ruining our lives and families in the name of the Lord…

16.    What’s the best approach to reading the Bible?

a.       Slowly, thoughtfully, and methodically.  There is value in reading the whole thing so that you have a clue what’s in there.  But, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s a pretty big book – a collection of 66 books.  I would start with one of the Gospels and simply read it through slowly – stopping often to reflect on what is being said.  Journal about it.  Getting a good commentary can be very helpful in uncovering the context and nuances that would otherwise be missed.  I think The New Interpreters One Volume Bible Commentary and the Harper Collins Commentary are great additions to anyone’s library.  Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton is a book we sell here – it’s a very good guide.  Pete Enns also has a book on the Bible that we will sell in 2020 when the paperback comes out.  Read it as if you are reading someone else’s mail.

17.    What role does the Eucharist play here at CrossWalk?

a.       An infrequent one, unfortunately…  If you are coming from a Catholic or Episcopal background, the infrequency of communion may be startling.  I’d like to change that, but need some help to make that happen.  The Baptist tradition generally offers communion once a month.  The reason for the difference has much to do with where emphasis is placed on worship elements.  In the aforementioned traditions, communion is really central, where in most Protestant traditions, the teaching of the Bible is most central.  If you love communion, let me know so I can recruit you to a team to make it happen!

18.    How can CrossWalk embrace mysticism and the Divine Feminine?

a.       We’re certainly open to it and working on it.  The upcoming class on meditation will certainly help.  I’m a mystic myself, and love Richard Rohr – so there is plenty of motivation coming from my office. 

19.    Best way to deal with difficult people?

a.       Really good boundaries and a lot of prayer.  Get the book, Boundaries, by Townsend and Cloud.

20.    What’s a good ten minutes to start my day?

a.       I think it is very wise to incorporate into the beginning of the day solitude/silence/stillness, sacred input (devotional, scripture, listening to spiritual’ish music), reflection, and resolve to be your healthiest self.  This centers us, grounds us in God, and reminds us of who we are capable of becoming.

 

Everybody Always: Love Even the Difficult People

We come up with all sorts of reasons to limit the love we give to others. There is wisdom in caution, and yet we are simultaneously invited to go deep with love in our pursuit of becoming love. Bob Goff shares just how far he went in his belief in the power of love and how it worked out.

This video includes some meditative thoughts at the front in that was used for a communion service before the Bob Goff portion, and concludes with some final thoughts from Pete.

Everybody Always: Immigrants

Today we welcomed Karla Marquez for an interview with Pete. She has done extensive work with undocumented immigrants in Napa, and shared some of what they are going through. Her experience helps us better understand what this segment of our population faces as our US immigration policies have shifted over the years.