30 Words In 30 Days: GOD

This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 Days


Where do we begin when it comes to God? The story tells us that he was before time began. The story tells us that in the beginning there was nothing but God and formlessness and the deep, dark abyss. The word for formless found in Genesis 1v2 can also be translated unreality. In other words, God was there before reality as we know it came into being. And so, where do we begin? We can only begin at some point held within the confines of reality, of our reality. This means that when we begin to talk about, write about, or speculate about God, we are firmly entrenched in the world of conjecture. What we have is our best guess. God is the grandest of the great mysteries.

Where do they end, our thoughts and musings about God? What are the limits of our theology? In Revelation 1v8, John has a vision of God’s self proclamation, I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty. He is. Present and alive and active, moving and making and breathing life into people and places and things. He was. We’ve already established that. He always was, he’s always been, since before time began ticking. He is to come. And again, the mystery welcomes us in with open arms. There is more coming. God has always been, God is right now, and there’s still more of him to come. We know to the very cores of our beings that things are not as they should be and so this is very good news. God is to come. He’ll make things right, heal the brokenness, and mend the torn up pieces of our tattered world.

Where do we begin and end? How are we to engage the idea of God, much less God himself? Within the bounds of our frail understanding, what are we to do with the limitless expanse of God’s reality? How will we know that we’re not constantly falling short? We won’t. We’ll never know. But thank God, his love is not predicated on our knowing or understanding or the exactitude of our hypothesizing. In the film Calvary, Brendan Gleeson’s character Father James reminds us that, God is great and the limits of his mercy have not been set. And so again, I ask, where do we begin and end? We begin and end at a place held safely within the limits of God’s mercy, which have not yet been set. There’s room for us here. There’s room for all of our questions and curiosity. There’s room for you and everyone you know. 


Trying to fix Larry

An 88-year old man walked into my office the other day and wanted to talk about the morality of God.  His name was Larry and he wore women’s designer sunglasses, a Chuck Norris-beard, and U.S.A. hat.  The conversation went something like this:

Larry:  OK pastor, I’m going to ask you some questions and you’re going to answer YES or NO.

Me:  Sounds fine Larry.  But you don’t have to call me pastor.  Just Jay will do.

Larry:  OK no problem pastor.  Just remember, only YES or NO.  I’m not here to debate with you.  And I think a simple YES or NO to each question will move us along better.  Will that be alright?

Me:  I’ll try but…

Larry:  YES or NO?

Me:  OK, yes?

Larry:  Great.  First question.  I see a lot of terrible things in the world.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, people killing each other.  Does God know everything?

Me:  Wait, I’m not sure what your question is.  Does God know everything about…

Larry:  YES or NO??

Me:  Uhh…yes?

Larry:  OK, so God knows everything.  Did he know everything when he made the Garden of Eden?

Me:  Yes.

Larry:  So he knew Adam and Eve would bring sin and destruction to the world?

Me:  Larry, I think I see where you’re going…

Larry:  YES or NO???

Me:  OK yes.

Larry:  Well, I can’t believe that a God who is supposed be love would knowingly create the world, only to see it crumble under the destruction of its own sin and wickedness!

Me:  That’s not a question, right?

Larry:  Do you believe in hell?

Me:  Yes.

Larry:  Do you believe in Satan?

Me:  Yes but I think the ideas of hell and Satan are much more complicated than…

Larry:  Next question.  Have you read the…uhh…what’s that story about the guy…he’s got it all, then Satan tells God he’s going to tempt him and God allows it and, ehh…what’s the, uh…

Me:  Job?

Larry:  Yes, have you read it?

Me:  Yes.

Larry:  So the story goes like this.  Satan tells God he’s going to mess Job up.  God allows it.  He says, “Yeah you can mess him up but you can’t kill him.”  What the hell is that!?!  That’s like me telling some schmuck, yeah go ahead and rape my wife, just don’t kill her!  That’s not a very loving God, now is it?

Me:  Well, Larry, I think the book of Job was written to teach us something about the sovereignty of God and how he interacts with…

Larry:  You probably think hell’s just some place people go when they die right?  Well I’ll tell you what pastor, you know what I see?  I see hell all over the place!  I see hell right here on God’s green earth!  Now that don’t make sense, now does it!?!

Me:  I agree with you Larry.

Larry:  What?

Me:  I agree with you on that point.  I think in some ways, people choose to live into hell instead of living into the kingdom of God all the time.  It can be heartbreaking when you think about it long enough.

Larry:  You said you’re a pastor here?  You look pretty young.  How old are you?

Me:  That isn’t a YES or NO question, Larry.

Larry:  What are you?  25, 26?

Me:  I’m 31.

Larry:  What’d you say your name was?

Me:  Jay.

Larry:  Well alright Jay.  Thank you for your time.  God bless you.

Me:  You too Larry.  Have a good one.

Truth be told, my time with Larry left me feeling a little deflated.  I’m certain that something spiritual went awry somewhere in his history.  But I didn’t sense that our conversation brought him any closer to where his soul really wanted to be.  I find myself often frustrated when I can’t seemingly help people with any sort of immediacy.  But I am reminded of something G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.”  We humans, more often than not, construct; we construct enterprise, empires, ideologies, and social norms.  But God creates, and as creatures designed in the divine image, I think we too are called to create rather than construct.  According to Chesterton, creating requires us to put aside the temptation to simply fix and replace it with the foremost priority, which is to love.  I hope Larry gets that.  I hope he can see that his calling isn’t to fix the world but to love the people living in it.  His calling isn’t to fix God but to love him.  This is my calling too.  And yours.

Divine presence in stories

I was in a room earlier today with fifty or so people from all over the country.  We were sharing stories about our experiences of God’s presence.  Our conversation was centered on this passage from the beginning of Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble…

As I listened to strangers tell their stories, I began to sense something subtle but significant happening.  I listened to a woman talk about how she’d been in east Africa just a week earlier, working closely with Muslims there.  She told us about how overwhelmed she felt when almost 200 of them came to a sudden understanding of Jesus, how she’d baptized them all at once, and how deeply she felt the presence of God in that moment, and how she was still, a week later, processing what happened there.  I listened to a man talk about his wife’s pregnancy a decade ago.  He told us about the day, very early in the pregnancy, when the doctor told them the good news: they were pregnant with twin girls, and the bad news: the girls were not going to make it to delivery.  I watched as he fought back tears, recalling the party they threw at 28 weeks because they didn’t know if their girls would make it much longer than that.  I fought back tears of my own when he told us about how his girls did make it, are doing well today, and how he’d experienced God’s presence throughout.  It dawned on me that the subtle, significant thing I was experiencing was this same presence.  I began to sense God’s presence in a way I hadn’t in a long while as I was listening to the stories of men and women I’d never met.  It was a peculiar, unfamiliar feeling.  I’ve been processing this throughout the day and I’m realizing two major truths about the way stories affect me.

Stories remedy my cynicism.  Truth be told, I am a cynic.  Tell me something and my most common, immediate response is to question it, challenge it, and figure out what might be wrong with it.  I’ve been a cynic about God’s presence…his real, undeniable, tangible presence…for a while now.  Sadly, the more I’ve grown in my knowledge of God’s presence, the more cynical I’ve grown about my experience of it.  But stories change this for me.  Stories, both those of others and my own, affirm that God is truly ever-present.  Stories tell me, usually in hindsight, that God’s presence is not weaving in and out of my reality but rather, saturating it.  One of my favorite books of all time is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  You probably know it.  The beauty of the story is that while the boy comes and goes, the tree, and her love for the boy, is always present.  The tree is on every page.  Stories affirm this truth of God’s presence in my life.

Stories remind me that there’s magic.  When I was in first grade, an older kid at my school showed me the detachable thumb trick.  It’s mind boggling when you’re six (in case you grew up in a cave and was never exposed to this classic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detachable_thumb).  But the moment I found out how it was done, I didn’t care.  It was boring, old, stale, and useless to me.  This is how magic works.  When you don’t know the secret, it captivates.  Once you’ve figured it out, it’s no longer magic; it’s just a trick.  But no magician, no sociologist, no psychologist could adequately explain what it was exactly that compelled almost 200 Muslims to suddenly encounter and commit their lives to Jesus Christ in east Africa a week ago.  No scientist or doctor, or the whole of modern medicine could sufficiently explain how those twin girls made it to delivery and are leading healthy lives today.  Stories remind me there’s magic in the world.  In his classic The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis wrote this:

Though the Witch knew the deep magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.  Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time.  But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.  She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the table would crack and death itself would start working backwards.

Beautiful.  There is indeed still magic in this world.  Stories of baptized Muslims, twins declared dead in the womb being born alive, and a Son who died for the whole of humanity…stories such as these remind me that there is magic deeper than human comprehension.

And this is the great gift stories offer us.  They remind us that explanation and understanding are not central in the human narrative; it is rather mystery and a childlike spirit that moves us forward.  We will never be able to rationalize our way to a complete understanding of God.  It is only when we allow our cynicism to be overrun by a deeper magic that we will experience his presence in and all around us.

Gandhi and Bin Laden

Mahatma Gandhi once said this: All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for the misdeeds of all the others. I cannot detach myself from the wickedest soul.

Last night my wife and I caught the news late.  We were watching a DVD and finished a little after 10pm.  I turned the TV to ESPN, wanting to catch some scores.  That’s when I saw the ticker at the bottom of screen: U.S. officials are reporting that Osama Bin Laden was killed in a firefight in PakistanThe NBA playoffs didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as this.  We were glued to CNN.  Celebrations in the streets of Washington D.C. and New York City.  Chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! at the Phillies game in Philadelphia.  It was all so mesmerizing and surreal.

I am relieved that the threat Osama Bin Laden posed to the world has been eradicated.  He was undoubtedly an evil man who committed terrible atrocities and his death was executed with justice in mind.  I am proud of the way the men and women of our armed forces put themselves at risk to bring about this justice.  I am moved by the fact that such great measures were taken to ensure that no civilians were harmed during the firefight, which took place in a heavily civilian-populated neighborhood.   I think our world is a much safer place because the threat of Bin Laden is gone and I believe that in many ways, working toward this sort of justice is a part of living into the kingdom of God here on earth.

I also believe that moments like this in human history should give us pause to examine ourselves and the world we’ve all helped to create.  Passages like the story of Jesus rescuing the promiscuous woman in John 8:2-11 and what Paul says about the human condition in Romans 3:22-24 come to mind.  One of my favorite writers & theologians, N.T. Wright once said this: The line between good and evil is not a line that runs between ‘us’ and ‘them'; rather, it is a jagged line that runs down the center of every human society and every human being.  All human beings are dualistic in nature, both intrinsically good and intrinsically evil.  These two natures war with each other constantly.  Paul illustrates this point effectively in Romans 7:15-20:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

And because of where we exist in the large, sweeping story of God &  humanity, this war between the two natures is a part of the human experience.  We all have within us the potential to create good in this world and share love; we also all have within us the potential to destroy and harm.  Some choose love, while others choose destruction.  And the temptation is to completely and unwaveringly separate ourselves from those who choose destruction.  But I believe it is most important to recognize that we are more connected than we might like to think.  Grace and love shine brightest when we recognize both our personal and the larger, macro human need for them.  And to disconnect or disassociate ourselves any time someone chooses destruction over love creates the false notion that we are better in some ways.  We are not.  The desire to be better is a mechanism driven by a mixture of the human need for significance and our fear of anything or anyone who differs from us.

Please understand, this is not a statement about salvation.  I only hope that we would pause and consider the larger scope of things when tragedy strikes.  And all death is tragic.  Those still hurting from the loss of loved ones on 9/11 can attest to this.  My heart breaks for them.  My heart breaks for anyone who has experienced the pain of loss.  I believe in a God who conquers hearts with love.  And as such, I believe that in end, love is the only thing that matters.  Justice, compassion, vengeance, mercy…whatever it may be, if at its core there is not love, then there is nothing.